The vote for Brexit was a watershed moment in European politics. This column investigates the causal drivers of differences in support for the Leave campaign across UK regions. Globalisation in the form of the ‘Chinese import shock’ is found to be a key driver of regional support for Brexit. The results suggest that policies are needed that help to redistribute the benefits of globalisation across society.
The success of the ‘Leave’ campaign in the Brexit referendum of June 2016 was probably the single most important event in European politics in the past two decades. A good deal of debate and analysis has followed the referendum, mostly in the form of blog posts and articles in the press. A number of empirical regularities have been established, both with respect to individual-level determinants of Leave votes, and in terms of social and economic conditions that correlate with support for Brexit across geographic areas. In particular, there is evidence that UK regions characterised by declining shares of manufacturing employment, lower real wage growth, and increasing income inequality voted systematically more to leave the EU (e.g. Becker et al. 2016, Bell and Machin 2016, Colantone and Stanig 2016a, Clarke and Whittaker 2016, Darvas 2016, Langella and Manning 2016, Menon and Salter 2016).
In a recent paper, we show that the Chinese import shock is a key causal driver of differences in support for Leave across regions (Colantone and Stanig 2016b). In particular, regions that have been more exposed to the recent surge of manufacturing imports from China, due to their historical industry specialisation, show systematically higher Leave vote shares.