Research Political Sciences

Brexit: Data Shows that Globalization Malaise, and not Immigration, Determined the Vote

, by Fabio Todesco
Disaggregating the referendum outcome in regional areas of the UK, Colantone and Stanig find that there is no relationship with any immigration issue, while the exposure of the areas to Chinese imports is decisive

Not immigration, but the economic disruption due to long-run exposure to Chinese imports is to blame for the Brexit vote, according to an instant study by Italo Colantone and Piero Stanig, an economist and a political scientist at Bocconi University.

The scholars analyze the British referendum outcome in 39 regional areas and, for each of them, observe two measures of immigration (residents born outside the UK and new inflow in year 2014). They don't find any relation between immigration and support for the Leave vote. If anything, a negative relationship - driven by London - is observed: areas with more immigrants supported the Remain. When London is excluded, immigration turns out to be completely irrelevant.

Colantone and Stanig, then, construct an import shock indicator for each regional area measuring the exposure to Chinese imports. The general idea is that the more an area is specialized in industries competing with the Chinese (such as textiles and electronic goods), the higher is the exposure. "And we find a strong and statistically significant relationship between the strength of the import shock and the Leave share in the referendum", they say.

"Voters shot the wrong target", the authors say. "The reason of their angst is not immigration but a form of globalization that, in absence of adequate redistributive policies, creates winners and losers".

The analysis follows a scholarly paper by the same authors (The Trade Origins of Nationalist Protectionism: Import Competition and Voting Behavior in Western Europe), that singles out exposure to Chinese competition as the reason for the electoral surge of nationalist and protectionist parties throughout Europe.