The Imagined and Actual Geography of Brexit: Topologies of Social Anxiety

What sort of precedent did the Brexit vote sent for the validity of the demonization of immigration, and the growth of a firmly anti-globalist impulse?  The combination of a growing state security apparatus and economic insecurity on European boarders has created a fear of hordes and the arrival of migrants moving on foot that has created the now-dismantled migrant camp known as the “Jungle” near the port of Calais, not far from the Ferry Terminal for ships leaving for England.  This settlement became a site emblematic of the proximity of migrants to Britain in the summer of 2016, and helped to embody the fears of immigration close to the shores of England, giving a concreteness to the fears of immigration that deeply divided Britain on the need to protect its borders, and the dangers of doing so.  It was a debate about what being British meant, and where we draw our borders, which the Calais encampment, as the posters of refugees from Eastern Europe and Syria, illustrated with increased proximity.

Crossing to Calais on the Eurostar this summer, I looked out intently out of the rapidly moving train window for migrant camps who had been so central to the “Brexit” referendum by which  England recently left the European Union, that has held up to 6-8,000 refugees hoping to move to England–and some suggest the number reached as high as 10,000.  Indeed, as “Leave” seemed so successfully cast as an imperative, and “Remain” as the honest commitment to “Remain” seemed to have decidedly less media presence and staying power, the haunting residents of the camps, filled with refugees and migrants from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan, if often left out of most maps of the election, provided a compelling if faceless specter for many.





The haphazard and improvised constellation of lean-tos, make-shift huts, and tents were ordered in streets beside orderly rows of fenced-off white metal shipping containers relocated to Calais to provide temporary forms of housing after their arrival.  Although there were not any migrant camps in evidence from my position in the train, the camps were in the past few weeks increasingly in the news, as the UKIP party that predicted an England inundated by refugee influx that social services and health could not accommodate, all because of England’s membership in the European Union, on the eve of Britain’s vote on the European Union Referendum–as “Leave” parties conjured fears of what belonging in the European Union would mean for the everyday Englishman in an age of increasing global displacement of refugees and cross-border traffic of men and women seeking work, education, and safety.  When the rapid train suddenly paused for unforeseen difficulties due to people on the tracks, one couldn’t but wonder how the halt related to those risking lives to enter the tunnel running beneath the Channel, whom local police quarantined in semi-permanent “homes” of converted shipping containers.

While the Eurostar connected two railway stations, and half of London and Paris was glued to the European Cup, the “Brexit” vote revealed a hiving off of about a third of Britain similarly eager to separate itself from the European Union–as voters voted, probably unaware of the consequences, in a plebiscite that trumped parliamentary politics in anti-democratic ways.  For Brexit became a performative mapping of a severance from Europe, in ways to manufacture an imaginary boundary between England and a refugee crisis.  The precarity of living in shipping containers now seems to be about as great as that of the European Union.  What was Jungle is largely destroyed, rendered uninhabitable save for the 1,200 unaccompanied minors who reside in the complex of huts, tents, and containers, as 4,403 migrants bussed to refugee centers across the country, to seek asylum, the settlement provided an effective threat of migration and effective specter of fear in the EU Referendum.  Indeed, it helped to ensure the surprising and unexpected success of a referendum designed to keep refugees at bay and finally withdraw the country –at significant national monetary cost–from the European Union for the foreseeable future.  As multiple fires began to burn in the Jungle after workers moved in to begin dismantling the camp, while some pointed the finger to refugees seeking to dismantle and erase the structures where they lived others pointed to British anarchists, even with the clearance began, so strong was the fear of migrants that the fate of 1,000 children seeking entrance to the UK is unknown, suspended by the post-BREXIT government of Theresa May.

English voters on the Referendum were presented with almost dizzying fears of immigration and declining social services that were impossible to visualize adequately.  In an onslaught that dominated the news and challenged voters’ attention spans and moral compass, “Leave” flyers used fear to mobilize against remaining in the European Union.  In a canny onslaught and bid for attention, reminiscent of right-wing politicians, flyers of  “Leave” raised the specter of fears of immigration policies out of control  and wrested away by a European Union whose member states stood only to escalate.  The eventuality of remaining in the EU was seen as an abdication of responsibilities, and a misplaced trust in Brussels to control the entry of refugees and Eastern Europeans seeking jobs into the UK:  if migration to the UK had grown to above a quarter of a million–“the equivalent of a city the size of Newcastle“–the arrival of two million over the coming decade mandated by “free movement of people”  conjured a suitably dystopian future.  Voting to Remain in the European Union was to accept this lack of control, and the subordination of British law to an over-reaching European Court; expanding the myth of foreign oversight of Britain, Leave claimed to offer the opportunity to check the flow of migrants to restore control to British hands.  The argument of empowerment may have been deluded.  But the powerful promise to return £350 million in taxes flowing to Brussels, and the prospect of immigration growth once such “candidate countries” as Turkey, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro joined Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia, to the tune of a cost of nearly £1.8 billion, provided a compelling rationale to vote “Leave” and to identify interests with the possibility of controlling the fair of the expanded borders of globalization alone, and rather than in the European Union.  As a movement of “faux populism,” carefully orchestrated to be effective at the ballot, the Brexit supporters stirred up fear into a central role in the election that attracted a growing range of supporters to the ballot.

The dizzying expansion of a region without frontiers was joined by a cry “to take back control” of England’s future.  The Referendum was presented as “our last chance to take back control,” a virtual mantra of the Leave campaign, and control “our borders” and international “influence” lest the nation be filled with immigrants against who one can draw no clear border.  With the Turkey, Serbia, and Macedonia joining the EU, ran the implicit message, Syrian refugees were bound to be waiting at the gates as well, without a compelling way to turn them back.


EU-523932.jpgDaily Express


Such a compelling framing of the debate about the nation’s compromised future in a landscape of expanding “rights” fostered fears of an end of public futures, “without handing our permanent control to people we cannot vote out”–as if the vote presented the last attempt at independence, ignoring the special relation of the UK had long insisted to the EU.  To be sure, the Leave campaign also increased regulations that the EU introduced, without suggesting other financial benefits.

The mapping of the response to the Referendum released a new plethora of maps in hopes better to explain the final vote of the plebiscite that precipitated the break from the EU.  Can these maps–and the mapping of social divides in England’s complicated tapestry of islands which integrate immigrants and regions where they still remain unknown, provide any insight in the difficulty to create consensus about the growing population flows that globalization has produced?  The question is important, because it suggests a new problem of political consensus not only in Britain and the European Union, but also in the United States.  For the unprecedented misinformed plebiscite gave voice to a deep unease with parliamentary deals that brokered the terms of England’s membership in the European Union, and with globalization, that dangerously undermined the responsibilities that the EU has gained to respond to the global threats of refugee crises–a role that has been foisted upon it by the economic promise Europe continues to offer as a zone without apparent national frontiers.  While we’ve been told by informed voices that the EU “had it coming,” whatever that means, or that the current European Union compromised British demands, or warned that the creation of social and political affinities could ever follow from enforced economic union, or give rise to public confidence, rejection by plebiscite of membership in the European Union subverted democracy, by a campaign bred from xenophobic fears and assertions the EU “has failed Britain” as a whole.

The recourse to demographic polling, hex bin maps sought to go beyond easy dichotomies, and unpack what seem deep-running fault lines within the country, and the difficulty of reconciling the nation given the increased political fault-lines attempted to process and reconcile divides in political parties that plagued the land.  But rather than suggest the complex lines of fracturing between the political mosaic of Conservatives, Liberals, Labourites, UKIP and Greens in England’s new political landscape, the Leave/Stay dichotomy revealed new divides in the body politic.




Despite the many tired dichotomies that have been extracted ad nauseam from data visualizations of the EU Referendum–from old v. young, north v. south, working class v. metropolitan elites; educated v. non-graduates; identifying as “English” v. cosmopolites–the complexion that has redefined the country reflects a growing retrograde tendency of rejecting the status quo and belief in the benefits of hiving off that was undemocratic and displayed  a perverse nostalgia of deeply conservative roots.


Queen Backs Brexit!.png


The referendum that former Prime Minister David Cameron presented as a panacea or safety valve to staunch opposition to the EU in Great Britain encouraged one of the most badly informed electorates in memory to protest the entrance of eastern Europeans into the country, and the perception of economic malaise and overburdened public services, and erase the benefit of free trade accords and that led to considerable economic growth.  The economic amnesia Brexit provoked led to a massive rejection of the national government and indeed political elites, even when undermining their economic interests, producing the increasing likelihood that many wish to leave Britain even among working class groups in England and Wales, and many voters more angry about the EU government than aware of the actual impact on trade relations to Europe or manufacturing and health standards.  Although turnout was in general quite high, with 30 million expressing their opinion at the ballot box, or some 72%, the vote was predicted to be determined by turn-out, and the distribution of votes varied.  If most in Scotland turned out, many in London and in northern Ireland voting less, and many of the regions who voted to “Leave” turned out to vote intensely–and turnout markedly lower in areas with greater numbers of younger voters–who tended to vote to Remain in reflection of their economic futures, especially in areas with greater student populations in relative to their size.  But the appeal to the nation and national independence deeply obscured the issues on the table.





What was Cameron thinking in opening up this question to a plebiscite that gave greater voice to those with stronger opinions, and indeed in opening up a question of particular complexity to a public yea or nay vote that hinged on turn-out?  Democratic “consent” to membership in the EU was long been “wafer thin” in much of Britain, and low turnout among the young gave a greater share of the vote to Brexit.  But the opportunity that the vote offered many the chance to decamp from the EU in ways few intended.  For during a refugee crisis, the cards were steeply stacked the party reduced to take “Remain” as its slogan, although the very passivity of whose construction suggested an absence of cogent arguments to respond to false promises of helping England’s shaky economy, persistent low wages, growing waiting times at National Health Service, and rising rents–all of which were represented as stretched thin by serving migrant workers and their families, and rising rents.

Partisans of “Leave” tapped such concerns so effectively that despite the value of data visualizations in anatomizing and describing the broad distribution of adherents mobilized behind a “Leave” mandate, the vote seems little understood or analyzed for its appeal as in its ramifications, and has created an ongoing puzzle about what place of England will now occupy in relation to the EU–or how the EU will look.




How to map the vote’s distribution has received increasing attention from the experts of data visualization.  But limits of understanding what motivated the vote, or underlay the popularity of Leave in many regions of England, is evidenced by the surprising credibility among both journalists as well as economists of a fake data vis comparison that used a black and white version of the distribution of the vote to suggest that the Referendum reflected fatal cases of actual brain degeneration, even by using an identical black and white image of the vote breakdown to project it in the past as if it offered a precedent–and although the ridiculousness of explaining the divides of voters around the Referendum in terms of the outbreak of a deadly disease are preposterous, the clear “hiving off” of the blue-hued regions where Leave was victorious suggest a volitional subtraction of oneself from the nation’s interests–as if a metaphor for the self-inflicted social illness orchestrated by the Leave campaign.



–which might explain the still not clearly understood break-down of a vote that many long assumed would result in staying in the EU.  The popularity of its appeal may have suggested desperation of explaining of the Referendum’s actual results:  social media repostings of the comparison disguised the fraudulence with which it converted the EU Referendum to black and white half-tones in its alleged precursor, as if to manufacture a precedent from the very same map.  The ease with which the data vis fooled viewers eager to give credence to such data visualizations’ explanatory power despite the thin-ness of its credibility, creation of interactive maps took the joke still farther, but removed attention from how the plebiscite preyed on increased fears of England being dragged down by taking on economic obligations to EU countries and obligations to mobility of refugees across national borders, and indeed to an apparent global situation that had spun out of England’s control.

Those encamped in Calais have little to do with this struggle, but stood for the migrant workers Britain has long eagerly accepted, but is loathe to offer benefits, and see as diminishing jobs and the future of work.  The encampment of refugees and prospective immigrants in Calais has everything to do with the imagined geography of Brexit.  But if it has little to do with the actual geography of Brexit–despite threats of Calais’ mayor to cease patrolling the French frontier as refugees risk their lives to cross the territorial frontier at the tunnel’s mouth–the distribution of voters who so hastily decided to steer the country away from the European Union–even if the electorate was poorly educated about the consequences of the referendum of a record-breaking 72% turn-out.  If turn-out was long argued to central to the vote, the broad variations on an issue of such considerable national relevance–if not necessitating compulsory voting–deserves as broad a vote as possible given its broad ramifications.  Despite the readiness to let England go its own way of some EU countries, different levels of voter turnout nation-wide suggest a distinct set of regions spoke more loudly–of those regions which were more homogeneous in character, where support for the Referendum grew, analogously to how an older demographic group of voters, more resistant to globalization, most readily accepted the Referendum to leave Europe, even if they were unclear on its consequences–a disparity in turn-out in an election where London’s fate was central, but other regions held the nation hostage in an election long suspected to hinge on voter turn-out.


TUrnout EU.pngDaniel J Dunford


Indeed, the dominant place British voters gave immigration in defining the reasons for their vote in the EU referendum–far above the economy–suggest how distorted the campaign has become, and how tortured its engagement of a geographical imaginaries.  The “Brexit” vote to divorce England from the EU was cast as helping the sluggish English economy by securing its borders in response to the threat of the arrival of further refugees and migrants.  Both are imagined to have continued to lower wages across the UK, and stretched thin the safety net of work-benefits the government provides:  most migrants entering the UK are from Eastern Europe, rather than Syria, but the encamped refugees living in Calais were central to the rhetoric of the debate in an imagined geography.  For the presence of migrants at Calais provided a specter that haunted the vote as it continues to haunt Europe, even as Britain’s Prime Minister has focussed on protectionist safeguards for England rather than humanitarian policies of migration.  England readily accepted eastern European migrant works at first, but the expansion of the fear of migration hard to adequately represent on any map:   it remained a potent selling point of Brexit, about whose fate David Cameron and others have sought to triangulate the relation of England to the EU for a generation, after Cameron wrangled a deal to restrict rights of newly arriving eastern European migrants to claim in-work benefits in the UK, or send child-support overseas, in ways long painted as draining the economy.  What sort of agreement a Tory-led government now seeks to negotiate with the EU is mystifying to all, but over the past months, the unholy alliance of UKIP and Leave.EU have painted Brussels as entrapping the UK in tentacular regulations destined to paralyze its struggling economy.

So much is illustrated by the xenophobic billboard widely circulated by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose quite misleading campaign advertisement in the recent Referendum on remaining in the European Union showed endless hordes of migrants, advancing overwhelmingly as if to England, “abandoned” by the EU.   The xenophobic image triggered a 57% rise in reported incidents of anti-immigrant hate crimes after the Brexit vote–hate crimes directed most often to Eastern Europeans, rather than Syrians, gypsies, or others–but helped win the vote.  The racialized stereotyping of immigrants as dark-skinned, if not so dark-skinned as that tanned person of color, UKIP leader Nigel Farage, has been noted–but while the poster was disowned by Leave.EU, it wasn’t by their largest donor, who also funds UKIP, and licensed Jeff Mitchell’s image showing some of  47,000 refugees said to have entered Slovenia being led to the Brezice refugee camp as an icon of England’s inability to defend its own borders.  The image offers a taste of the “false populism” of the Leave campaign, which boasted of its ability to express British interests, in inviting people to “take back control,” but providing no long-term plan for raising wages or improving public health policies.


migrnts EU has failed.pngUKIP’s Nigel Farage before Brexit poster, with protestor’s arm entering from left


Indeed, the prospect of “independence” or separation from the EU obscured just how much European companies pour money into England and the UK, and what withdrawal would mean.  For ties to the EU opens an incredibly nearby market for British companies to produce products in large numbers that are shipped outside the UK at low cost, creating jobs, or how much EU money arrives in England’s economy; European corporations not only invest money in England, but allow expanded scientific collaborations–visualized worldwide, Britain is one of the most intense site of scientific collaboration.





However, reduced to the format of a balance sheet, paring away any economic sophistication, debate was dominated by the insistence that the UK gave more than it got in an unfair way, evident in that the UK payed far more than it got to the EU–conveniently ignoring the dependence and indeed the inextricability of British industries, markets, jobs, housing markets, and interests on ties to the EU–in addition to £4 billion of payments to farmers and poorer regions.


UK payments to EU budget since 1973.png


But by disdaining the judgements of experts as selling British interests short, the populist appeal held tremendous sway.  And hence, as Tesco insisted that it engaged in patriotism by providing exclusively British meat to its valued customers–


100% British.png


–the image of country over-run by the specter of refugees inexorably arriving across open borders was prominently displayed to boost support for cutting ties to the EU and its politicians and policies, as if those were only preparing for collective disaster.

The refugees shown the image were leaving Croatia for Slovenia, far from Britain’s bounds, and few refugees from Sudan or Syria have entered the United Kingdom, but the much-diffused photograph taken by Getty Images’ Jeff Mitchell helped prompt Slovenia to erect fences to stop the influx of migrants, but was licensed to exploit an image associated with the multitude of refugees unable to be controlled in the European Union’s open border policy, and an icon of the inability to prevent their flow–if the photograph was cropped to conceal the police at its front.  Its display on twenty vans that fanned across London hoped to drive up fear of non-white immigrants, as Farage sought to impress on audiences the need  to “take back control” of the nation’s borders, by fears of attacks by terrorists posing as refugees:  “Every one of these can get to Calais,” the UKIP leader claimed. “We know how bad our government is at defending our borders, and within a few years all of these people will have EU passports.”  Rarely was an open election so clearly waged or won on such misinformation. Even now, current Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted that England’s government have control over immigration, although Britain barely faces the immigration crises of other EU or Schengen nations.



Migration of Refugees to Europe, 2105

Although a million refugees have fled to Europe, most sought asylum in Germany or Scandinavia among Schengen countries.  Yet England remains almost the only country without a wall or planned boundary barrier surrounding its national frontiers–and the notion that the EU would be the guardian of Britain’s boundaries was.


europe-borders-and-fences-map_02.png.jpegBusiness Insider (March, 2016)


The fear of arriving immigrants that Farage summoned for British voters was less tied to the actual arrival of migrants, but while the actual image showed an orderly entrance, it exploited the fear and anxiety of immigration that it provoked for openly ideological ends.




To be sure, the arrival of refugees was not the only way that the Leave.EU campaign presented its demands–which ranged from the drag on Health Services to education for English subjects–but enfolded these arguments, and put a bit of background radiation, suggesting a subliminal concern of the UKIP-inspired “Leave” voters, repeatedly warned of or threatened with a fall in public services should Britain remain in the EU.  The subliminal message was scarcely below panicked imprecations to “stop” schools from being oversubscribed and “over-run,” social services deluged, and a social situation bound to deteriorate further with “net migration currently over 330,000 a year . . . driving our fastest population growth in nearly one hundred years”; the crossing guard holding the crossing sign in bumper to bumper traffic provided an objective correlative of over-crowding, at the same time as “chronic levels of immigration have put our GP surgeries, hospitals and health services on the critical list” with health services “already stretched.”


Schools Over-RunOver Sretched Health Services


1.  Although the referendum may not be binding, the rhetoric of its presentation was of bizarrely psychological to much of England, where despite the relative rarity of immigration from refugees, the EU had long been demonized by the UKIP party of Nigel Farage as a compromise of British sovereignty that must be rejected–and indeed south to commemorate the surprise victory of Brexit in the Referendum as if the vote of June 23 actually deserved to be considered of “Independence Day” for the UK.  For Farage argued that refugees had been not only abandoned by the EU, but stand to be either arriving in England and only slightly more subliminally that EU policies will abandon England.  The absence of borders that the refugees have come to symbolize provided the basis to redraw England’s borders in eager ways, and indeed bring Scotland with it.  But the notion that the EU, and not the English government, stands to fail the English, provided a particularly deceptive talking point, echoed in the injunction “BeLeave in Briton!

The reduction of “debate” to such sound byte-sized slogans hardly took into account economic questions of remaining in the common market, or indeed of defining a common policy for keeping refugees from entering England from Calais.  “Leave” presented itself as a call to take charge of migrant workers in Britain, a call that made little actual sense, which only gained sense only when framed as an individual rather than collective choice.




The energized injunction to “take control” rejected a neoliberal elite, and dismissed the metropolitan, liberal, university-educated politicians for good measure at the same time.  While the “Stay” seemed less considered, in an odd way, until it hit on “Remain” as a more decorous activity–“Stay” sounded a bit like what one would say to a dog–“Remain” never summoned logic as a campaign, while the ad for Leave borrowed, perhaps unsurprisingly, stills of post-war refugees “who flooded Europe’s cities” in the popular 2005 BBC documentary, aired on Netflix, Auschwitz: The Nazis and The Final Solution.


tv hitler ad.pngBBC


–as the notion of “parasites, undermining their host countries” were so close to the sentiments of many “Leave” voters to make one wonder about the pitch.)  The vote to break from the European Union had been exacerbated by the flow of refugees, an issue that seems destined to reshape global politics for this new century, and indeed by the ongoing participation of England in the ongoing unending war against terror that has continued in the Middle East.  And if the vote slightly echoed the 1975 Referendum to join the Common Market, in its strong support from Scotland and Northern Ireland, as London and Liverpool, so much of the Midlands swung Leave to shock the country and world.


Common Market 1975:EU 2016.pngBBC


For the Brexit victory in England was pronouncedly anti-urban in its distribution, if the  rural/urban divide was not only sole division it revealed in the country by any means–much as the towns with highest levels of unemployment went most solidly for “Leave.”  Yet rather than trust a simple vectorization of “Yes” and “No” votes, the complicated geography demands more deep drilling into datasets and indeed cultural geography than the reification of blocks of “Yea” and “Nay” can hope to resolve.  Indeed, the use of hexagonal mapping of votes pioneered to explain the distribution of the 2015 election, and a  cartogrammic rendering of vote divisions by hex maps that allow us easily to envision population distributions in relation to the vote provides an extremely powerful model for understanding the national division, and for rendering the density of local sentiments.

The Referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was almost not called, and is probably the Sort of Decision Best Left to Elected Officials, let alone when the turn-out for the vote was uneven, with many areas where younger voters didn’t turn out.  Yet David Cameron has promised the possibility of such a Referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union in his Conservative campaign.  However, when what Cameron saw as an easy vote was reframed as a “revolt” against the acceptance of immigrants by the United Kingdom Independence Party’s Nigel Farage, “Leave” won support from those most unable to tolerate their presence–while remaining understood by Scotland and Ireland in toto as Something We Just Don’t Want.  The distribution of votes should be explored to reveal the demographics of the appeal of xenophobic rhetoric and knee-jerk patriotism at the Guardian’s interactive map of the local distribution of ridings that suggests just how local much of the reaction to the Referendum:


Detailed Brexit BreakdownGuardian’s interactive map


Anti-London anger was so strong across the UK to be a large mobilizer of votes.  Indeed, with yellow-journalist-turned-politician Boris Johnson using weekly columns in the Telegraph to generate rancor at the EU, the possibility London might secede from the UK was suggested by Avinash Tharoor as a possibility before the shock vote, and has provoked considerable debate as an actual possibility in recent days–after all, if London’s population is greater than Scotland, why can’t it secede as well?

The argument runs in clear economic ways as well:  with the local costs of leaving the EU not widely considered or discussed during the election, the loss of property value in London is high–as well the loss to Britain of access to the entire European market, the benefit of foreign access to those markets by Anglophones wishing a base located in the UK have led London to be a desired city for many corporations seeking access to the EU.  The presence of many immigrants in the international city have led to recent calls for the city to do just that.  The elegant split across the islands is broken down with effect if a bit less subtly when one maps the vote onto a terrestrial projection attending less to its complexion.  The split remains as clear, although the sheer scale and strength of the London vote is less clear:


Andrew X Hill


But what lead the country to seem to break in half?  The deeply psychological appeal of the so-called United Kingdom Independence Party’s call hope to “take back control” and “breaking free” offered a welcome if temporary sense of long denied political agency, and widely presented as such to the electorate.  And the constituents to whom this call to action appealed demand to be examined and unpacked.  Former newspaperman Boris Johnson invited English voters to be brave enough “to take back control from a EU that has become too opaque and not accountable enough to the people,” as if to summon their inner strength, and later commended them for their bravery.  The Referendum was presented with urgency as “our last chance to take back control” of ties to the EU that cost £350 million each week in contributed fees–as if there was no return in trade advantages of such membership fees.  Other demands were listed at choice–and include staving off the threatened arrival of migrants destined to destroy the nation’s social services without control over borders.  These are often migrants from EU countries in Europe, as much as Syrians from Calais.

Yet the notion of a “victory for the real people” that the “Leave” boasted is, of course, an evanescent one, even if, as UKIP’s Nigel Farage gloated, what was Fringe has gone centerstage and “The Eurosceptic genie is out of the bottle and it will not be put back.”  If Brexit is in some sense the creation of Farage’s skill as a hectoring orator and wordsmith to win voters’  attention, he may succeed in redrawing the map.  While the collective vote was presented as a rallying cry for England–“BeLeave in Briton!”–the desire for breaking with collective treaties, financial arrangements and responsibilities.  As much as a “victory for decent people” carried insinuations of the corrupt nature of the European Union and Brussels always dear to Britain, the geographic imaginary of a severance from Europe was not particularly full-hearted and hard to balance with the longstanding image of England as European–rather than reflect a geographic imaginary, it reflected a degree of desperation with a Belgium long painted as bureaucratic and out-of-touch, if not a surrogate for London and globalism itself.  Indeed, the insinuation that government had refused to “listen” to concerns on immigration led Johnson and friends to transform the Referendum on EU membership into a populist cause despite its lack of good sense.

The false populism of the campaign was not, incredibly, readily detected by many, so drenched was it in patriotism and old calls for English independence in the face of an imagined onslaught of foreign immigrants:  for a vote to “remain” would allow the EU to control migration, trade, counter-terrorism, at taxes, and to have an ability to overrule our laws, and boost our own international influence.  Slogans like It’s safer to take back control than to keep giving away power and money every year to the EU were more potent than the assertion of being better off–and the addition of  £91 billion to the English economy.  The risks of leaving the European Union seemed to be far less than the worries, stoked by Johnson and allies, of the drowning of England in the open debts and offers of openness to immigrants.  Even former Prime Minister David Cameron could only promise to negotiate “a better deal for England” in the European Union–as if to offer to renegotiate England’s relation to the EU, and secure the better deal that it actually deserved–the image that the Union Jack was being diminished by the laws made in Brussels reclaimed a national imaginary with little relation to actual geography, let alone economics, by summoning an old symbolic map of patriotism to do its dirty work.


Ukip RUNS billboard


The assertion that Britain had the “right” to demand such a better deal from Europe, which has larger issues on its plate, of course runs against the notion of the Union.  The fear that the EU would take control over Britain, and constitute an attack on its future integrity, was presented by politicians supporting “Leave” as a frightening eventuality that voters could prevent, and in so doing change the course of history:  the notion of breaking from Europe and from the EU policy on refugees was not coherent–as it abandoned the notion of a common policy on refugees already in Europe, by going alone–but the vote to separate from Europe offered a sensation of agency in an increasingly globalized world.  If Banksy cast EU pigeons setting themselves off in a flock from a colorful African bird, bearing signage “Keep off our Worms“–in an image attacked for racism and destroyed–English voters seem to have set themselves apart from hopes of a coherent plan on refugees, throwing up their hands in disgust out of deep-set fears, thinking themselves a breed apart.


scrubbed banksy!.pngBanksy, from Scrubbed Out Banksy


The claims provided logic to a campaign that had no actual logic by granting voters agency–to rediscover control, without any future narrative assessing the effects on England of exiting the EU.  If “Leave” freely lied in linking the EU to failed immigration policies without any actual data–about the issue of controlling national borders, and predicting the strain this inability could create, as if this were a factual representation of the world–and appeal both to emotions, and a sense of the potential disempowerment of being overwhelmed by a world lying beyond their control.  No longer is the globe as clearly made up of Europe and others, with the longstanding integrity of England to Europe communicated on globes dating from Jean de Dinteville in Holbein’s The Ambassadors, where it is an icon of worldliness rather than isolation:


Holbein glboe.png

Holb globe.JPG

holbein_europe.jpgNational Gallery


The tortured logic that the arrival of an uncontrollable inflow of refugees to Britain would change the nation to such an extent that people would be ultimately stripped of any agency to change it–the logic of “Leave,” for what it is worth–to return the country to austerity because of the inefficiency of the EU is not only an anti-government.  The summoning of an anti-bureaucrat argument of false populism is about the search for an illusory prosperity and a sense that the data on trade and economic balance sheets revealed Britain was being taken advantage of.  The fear that was amplified by the inability of the EU to come to the financial rescue of Greece and southern Europe, and the sense that English interests might also not be protected, or that the EU was linked to the British economy–hinting none too subtly England’s interests were forgotten by the EU.


UKIP take control billboard


Couldn’t the money not be better spent on the National Health Services?, Leave asked, as if it were a simple matter of reallocating funds that disappeared down a black hole, as if to shore up the NHS that the extension of benefits to migrant workers has stretched so thin.


VOTE leave NHS.png


The dismissal of any economic forecasts of the difficulties of leaving the EU disdained as “bad data” massaged by interests and not an actual eventuality–was attacked as interested opinion, rather than with credible objectivity.  The lack of attention speaks to being overwhelmed by an abundance of data and prognostications, hiding interests and removed from fact.  England was as failed by the EU as the streams of refugees arriving from Syria and the Middle East, UKIP messaged, and in taking back charge of our borders we can reclaim our destiny.




The inadequacy of actual facts lead to the logic-free imperative of “breaking free” and “taking back,” as if self-determination had been confiscated by bureaucrats in the EU.  Even as rehearsed arguments were repeated that “Britain is stronger in EU” or the “benefits of being in the EU outweigh the costs”–though it didn’t help this was mis-spoken–rested on broad promises of being better for jobs that weren’t self-evident compared to the biblical rhetoric of throwing off the shackles that bound the nation.  Yet with the apparent discounting of facts, and “Remain” appealing to “forecasts, warnings and predictions, in the hope that eventually people would be dissuaded from ‘risking it’,” “Leave” carried the day by a slim margin, as little with comparable traction was presented in a distanced language of data that was the very sort of messaging Leave sought to reject.

The iconography of advertisements for Remain proved somewhat wanting in their appeal to British authority, and the image of Churchill was poorly received appeal to nationalism, and even inspired defacing Sir Winston’s face:


Dont QUite !.jpg

Brits Don't Quit


2.  There seems to be, if only in retrospect, far better data about the demographic to whom “Leave” appealed and its geography, however, that seems now to stare us in the face.  The ‘Party of Leave’ became a self-appointed party of Right Thinkers, mostly on the older side, largely rural, in short the ones you’d be least likely to trust the nation’s future in a globalized world.  Where they live was clear:  in the West Midlands, East Midlands, East England, York, Humber, and North East England, “Leave” won the locally lopsided victories that pushed it over the top.  These regions of Little England initiating divorce proceedings eagerly and a bit blindly to the consequences, located far from the elites or far from the cosmopolitan centers of an integrated diverse England, but reared the head of an older .  (But it must be said that Northern Ireland didn’t really pull its weight, as well as some of the regions–Swansea and Lancaster and Nottingham–where the vote split even.

A territorial OSM mappingmapping of Remain/Leave on a projection by Andrew X. Hill reveals the split, but obscures differences in the distribution and concentration of votes.


Andrew X Hill


Looking at a finer grain distribution than provided by the monocolor language of electoral maps, we can examine with profit the vote’s distribution around London.  For the distribution reveals a bit of a secession from one part of the nation, as much as a secession from the EU, and a secession from the nation tied to globalization:  and if all politics is truly increasingly local, the divides in London show the car-driving commuters of suburbia who see themselves as hived off from the greater city, far from Muslim communities, shown below in cobalt blue rather than red, or indeed more heterogeneous populations.  “Leave” voters live in what are generally older buildings, many of pre-WWII vintage, and are more likely to see themselves as communities cut off from time–they map onto populations less mindful or reliant on shared services of public transportation, more likely to drive to work, and living in more spread out areas, perhaps fearful of mediated images of urban density and diversity.  The correlation between voting Leave and age and race is not only evident, but the divide increasingly clear between geographical enclaves of lower diversity that can be clearly tied to different notions of space, community, and social habitus.  (Much more on mapping urban distributions to come.)  UKIP leader Nigel Farage vaingloriously boasted “that the dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom” to cheering crowds, but the Kingdom seems increasingly disunited, and its divisions seem set into stark relief by the Brexit vote.


London Divides



London-No Religion

Muslim London, blue 100%


In a nation where most immigrants and indeed non-Anglican faiths are lopsidedly concentrated in metro areas as London, fears of assimilation and accommodation of refugees and those Middle Eastern or Eastern European migrants seeking work are more filled with dread and more intense in the suburban areas of the extra-urban, as well as in the country-side.  They are far more exaggerated there, and more apt to be wrapped in patriotism:  for while cities as London had adequately absorbed or accommodated immigrants who arrived for work, and held jobs, the specter or illusion of immigration and refugees was just so much stronger in the Midlands, the concentration of votes reveals–


Detailed Brexit Breakdown.pngGuardian interactive map


Hovering over regions just outside urban areas, one can see where “Leave” won and by how much it did outside London, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and those narrow slices where Remain victories concentrated in Manchester, Brighton, Bristol, Liverpool, Reading, Yok and Cambridge.


Brexit Breakdown



One might try to accept the splitting off of the Scots as a cultural artifact, as if an imagined line existed by which Scotland was cut off, as Matthew of Paris mapped “Scocia ultra marina [Scotland-beyond-the-Sea]” as an autarkic island set off not only by Hadrian’s Wall but at a geographical remove linked by but the sole bridge to cross an expanded River Forth:




or, in a modern remapping, where “Alba Republica” is cut off by the Channel of Sanity, as much as the Firth of Hope or River Forth, in the newly Dis-United Kingdom, whose landscape is marked with isolated islands of “free lands” of Brexit-free cities of Liverpool, Newcastle, York, Leeds and Tunbridge Wells and Euro-lands of London, Bristol, Cambridge, and Oxford, in leaving Little (or Lesser) Brexitia:




The bounded islands of Brexit-free cities are shown as so many confessional refuges among greater regions of xenophobia.

Yet the divide over the EU is indeed deeply demographic, if not strictly self-made by a Lesser Brexitia seeking to enlarge the Channel of Separation.


3.  The self-selection of neighborhoods–and this is the subject of this post–be seen in the data on the city of London itself, evident in the patterns of urban growth and housing that define urban areas, as mapped by Oliver O’Brien for the Consumer Data Research Centre using databases of the Valuation Office Agency.  Indeed, if one might parse the division on the EU vote, as did Politico, in a clever infographic, by clearcut lines of age–




–what seems a generational divide might be as easily parsed around ties to globalization rather as age cohorts or generational gaps.  To do so, one must scratch deeper under the surface of population maps, and do so with a clear-minded attention to what possible ties between the vote and questions of social insularity, public transit use, and the dramatically different degrees of exposure to social diversity exposes how the vote divided on other sharply drawn lines.  For the hatred of globalization that spurred Brexit’s popularity in the midlands, in the northeast as well as for much of England’s older generations lay in a hiving off from the diversity of metropolitan areas.

The demographic divide in greater metropolitan areas are all too evident in London alone.  When we read such a regular map of urban settlement, we might a map, we usually want to find buildings’ orientation and adjacency–rather than, say, the dates of their construction.  For all its architectural riches and classy neighborhoods.  Yet the possibilities of a web map of urban settlement and expansion, as is far more evident on the CDRC website.   London still stands out as a study in contrasts of architectural styles.  But a recent mapping of the organization of residences of different dates presents a clear-cut sort of color-coded x-ray of its urban growth–although the absence of commercial buildings from the tally may skew its patterning in a neatly nested progression–reveals a clear ring of growth during the 1930s and 1940s around the metropolis, where the suburbs that voted “Leave” live largely in older buildings, removed from the dynamic heterogeneity of the city center, if many work in new buildings that crowd the Thames:


London Growth.png

CDRC/Oliver O’Brien
modal building age legend


O’Brien’s interactive layered visualization for the CDRC’s used data from the Valuation Office Association on the age of residential house clusterings to reveal the palimpsest of post-war urban growth that redefined London as a metropole by 1964.   The visualization offers a fascinating sort of the construction of cities that one might imagine as the next frontier of GoogleMaps–why not?–if there was any monetization of such information.  For it allows one to scan neighborhoods for the construction dates of all residences in urban neighborhoods, as if to realize their construction in a period of explosive growth.  It also reveals the clear constraint on the city’s urban space in the expansion of its so-called Green Belt in the 1940s, when a rash of building residences (light blue) around the darker blue residences built after the turn of the century created a belt on its urban expansion.

And the consequences that CDRC has revealed for the transportation choices that reveal patterns of urban mobility in London–and reveal how many are increasingly apparent in the reliance of most who live in a slightly different ring of light blue, far broader, whose inhabitants rely largely on individual car transport, rather than public transit networks.  While due to the absence of Underground stations in several boroughs, no doubt, where the reliance on cars or vans for most work in the ring of light blue is a primary register of their sense of space–and also a question of a calculus of distance and above-ground traffic congestion.  The color scheme deserves to be examined in detail in interactive form.




The “Top Method of Travel to Work” map shows a wide use of rail from some outlying areas, but a clear limitation on the public transit lines, although those areas within the M25 for which there is no data is significant, and an unfortunately still very spotty reach of public transit to urban peripheries.


van:no data.png


The other side of the story is the concentration of new buildings–since 1945; post-war–along the crowded downtown region and River Thames that have so changed the local profile of the city to make it the perfect soundstage for the most recent James Bond film, Spectre, but to totally change its skyline in ways destined to be a  shock to tourists, who sense the desire to be modern making the mismatch of most buildings.  The tour from Charing Cross to Westminster could have been previously imagined, as well as GCHQ.  One can imagine a cool time-sensitive slider bar!)


London post-1945 buildings.png


The concentration of recently built buildings suggest the rates of central London in a burgeoning real estate market, probably nourished by advertisements that businesses could once enjoy bases in London in easy communication with the European Union’s market, and which has so far resisted a downturn from fear of Brexit:


along Thames


While buildings are able to be seen in an aggregate of dates of construction, the inhabitants are less easily abstracted open data.  But the constitution of neighborhoods are obliquely revealed in data and in surprising ways, and it would be interesting to see how they intersect–and how the buildings of clusters of residences are reflected in other topographies of urban residents.

Religious conviction remains the ultimate private matter–and one of the earliest forms of data tied to individual privacy.  The aggregate maps of religious affiliations now available on Datashine from the 2011 census however provide particular maps of the distribution of religious faith in contemporary England that also illuminate the Brexit divides.  If such maps once might have been treated as sites to target religious self-identification by dictators, inquisitors or governments, the location of the faith to which folks affiliate is a surprisingly available case of open data that, while not violating questions of individual privacy, are the sort of distributions over which historians of the early modern period would either painstakingly work to reconstruct in approximate forms, or dream to be able to visualize.  Of course, this reflects an era when religious affiliation is not a personally held matter, or matter of conscious, so much as a public self-identification–something which qualitatively changes the data’s texture and flavor–as well as its depth of meaning.

Of course, confession is less–for now–of a topic of civil dispute in western societies, although recent events have suggested this might not always be the case and such information would be far more privileged in, say, Syria or Iraq.  But we can easily access the block-by-block distribution of how the faithful or agnostics declare their affiliation in Britain, zooming into specific regions that seem potentially terrifying when viewed through the eyes of potential antagonists, even despite the lack of identifying individuals who declared their attitudes to religious belonging.  To take a randomized example, for example and for points of comparison, one can look at a smaller city in England, as Cardiff, in Whales, to map relative concentrations of those reporting their religious affiliation as belonging to the Christian faith, albeit without a quantification of degrees of conviction or of the spatial spread of practices of church-going:


Cardiff's Christianity



If few Christians concentrate in downtown Cardiff, seem to congregate in central Cardiff, filled with atheists, muslims, or Jews, Christians concentrate in the outlying suburban neighborhoods.

To be sure, it’s to be expected that there be some particularly dense concentrations of Muslims, for example, around London and surrounding areas, where denser regions of concentration are noted by cobalt blue, often above the Thames:


Muslim London, blue 100%


Similarly, there are established neighborhoods, if the data of the census is to be believed, peopled by Jews, and many areas where they are absent:


Jewish in London--Blue high %


In sharp contrast, the mosaic of faiths in London, for example, where “Christians” seem settled in pocked of central London, mostly South of the Thames, if concentrated in specific neighborhoods–Newham, Kensington, Richmond upon Thames, Southmark–but absent from Tower Hamlets.


christianity and pockets of atheists in London


Christian religiosity surely seems to run the Thames river from Richmond to Bexley in an improbable way:


Religion runs the Thames-  Ealing to Bexley


The prouder concentration of religious Christians in central London is high, but particularly concentrated by neighborhood or enclave.


London--Data Shine %22No Religion%22 25.4% average



As is the concentration–and this is more predictable to a degree–of those residents not self-identifying as Catholics.  Of more interest, perhaps, is how those Londoners claiming, which averages 25.4% in the city as a whole, are particularly concentrated in pockets as well.


London-No Religion


Can one say that neighborhoods of clearer Christianity tend to cling to the banks of the Thames due to high real estate and perhaps considerable disposable funds?


Christianity clings to the Thames


What this means is harder to say, but the idea that the like-minded congregate is tempting–and it would be neat, if more invasive, to map against a topography of houses of worship, if one zooms in at a finer grain to scrutinize the distribution in a block-by-block resolution, finding the density of what one assumes are church-going neighborhoods in Bexley, Chelsea or Wandsworth.


Religion fits neighborhods--Kensignton to Bexley


There seems something oddly echoing the notion of Reformers’ hopes for a close pastoral community in these centers of urban Christianity.  But it can’t help but feeling as if one is snooping as one zooms in from the broader view of the city to such a clear resolution.


London and Religion-  Christianity



The view from afar is, as usual, less helpful.  In the aggregate, London seems to be a den of iniquity where “no religion” dominates the scene.  But this hardly lines up with the way the city divided into sectors with the Brexit vote, reflecting the intensity of the Stay movement for many who could imagine no other alternative.  The urban geography of London voters is a bad omen for the future, but a good sign of the resilience of urban communities, especially globalized ones–and of the power of data visualizations to help show the dispositions of trends on the ground.


London-Red No Religion


June 28, 2016 · 11:26 pm

4 responses to “The Imagined and Actual Geography of Brexit: Topologies of Social Anxiety

  1. Evelyn Lincoln

    Wow, thank you Dan–that was fascinating, especially about the clumping of religious populations–I will go look at the interactive map now!

  2. Rachel Brownstein

    Great comments, great images.

  3. Pingback: Mapping the New Authoritarianism? Trumpism, Tampons, and the Nation | Musings on Maps

  4. Pingback: Where Is Ukraine? What is Ukraine? | Musings on Maps

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.