Correlation, Causation and Brexit

We all know what caused the vote for Brexit in Britain in 2016, right? The folks in London and Scotland who voted to remain in the EU had, well, more metropolitan values. Those English regions that voted to leave were backward places that were perhaps influenced by racism and xenophobia.

I’m not so sure about this. My own view is that you vote to blow up the system if you think it is not benefiting you. One issue that I have documented before on this blog is the democratic deficit in England. Briefly, English laws are made by the United Kingdom parliament that consists of members from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In contrast, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own parliaments where they make most of their own laws (London also has a regional assembly with fewer powers).

People like to paint this as arcane and of little practical consequence, but the practical consequences are clear. I was once an enthusiastic member of the British Labour Party under the then leadership of Tony Blair when I remember a vote taking place that caused me to grow disillusioned. The Blair government decided to impose university tuition ‘top-up’ fees on English university students. However, they were only able to do this with the votes of Scottish members of parliament whose own constituents would not be affected. The Scottish politicians essentially voted for other people to have to pay more for their education.

I doubt many Brexit voters are consciously aware of the democratic disparity between England and the rest of the UK, but I wondered whether it could be a latent factor in Brexit voting patterns. I’m sure this has been done before, but I decided to plot the percentage of Leave voters in each of the English regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland against the 2015-16 mean public spending per person living in each of the regions and countries. These areas are not all of equal size, but England is so much larger in population than the other countries that this makes a kind of sense. After all, this is how the UK government reports these figures.

Obviously, correlation is not causation, as an article in Quillette reminds us today. Nevertheless, I was surprised at just how strong the relationship was. Maths and statistics teachers may find it useful as a graph to discuss in the context of correlation versus causation.

One thought on “Correlation, Causation and Brexit

  1. In Wales the majority vote was for Leave, a similar proportion to England. This tends to be airbrushed out by Remainders who want to suggest the fringes all voted remain. The reasons for Leave voters in Scotland and NI have different causes, NI is less likely to be economic but more on perception of chances of unification which is easier while both the UK and the RoI are in the EU. As you say correlation isn’t causation.

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