Ninety-five percent of PPE graduates in the House of Commons supported Remain, research for LSE’s Brexit Blog found, while three-quarters of former Classics students in the lower house backed Leave.
The relationship between politicians’ world views and the degree they studied at university – and if they attended one – has become a mainstay of British political discussion in recent years. During the premiership of David Cameron, the idea of a PPE-educated ‘establishment class’ became increasingly popular, and its contribution to a careerist “bullshit culture” in Westminster all but certain.
Amid the ongoing chaos surrounding Brexit, however, a new study from two Oxbridge academics has thrown a spanner into the works. Research from Yuan Yi Zhu and Noah Carl found that, though three-quarters of all MPs supported Remain, PPE graduates were overwhelmingly likely to do so, with 38 of 40 campaigning for Britain’s continued EU status. Six out of the Commons’ eight Classics graduates, on the other hand, opted for the Leave campaign.
Yuan Yi Zhu told the Beaver in a phone conversation that the authors were “very careful not to make a causal link, and to make sure the study was only associational. What we’re saying is, the degree could reflect certain aspects of your thinking. But we couldn’t claim that for definite.”
Zhu said the study was conducted in response to the popular narrative tying MPs’ political views to their academic backgrounds, but found that there was little hard research on the subject. “PPE was much closer to Remain than people could have expected, and History went against the causal relationship we expected,” with graduates in the subject proving slightly less likely to support Leave than the Commons average.
Gathering data from Wikipedia, the BBC and Guido Fawkes, the authors also found unsurprisingly that MPs without a degree were more likely to support the Leave campaign than those who graduated from university. But the precise level of education had no discernible impact on elected representatives’ Brexit stance: Master’s and PhD-holders were no more likely to support Remain than MPs with undergraduate degrees. In fact, MPs with higher academic qualifications were marginally more likely to be Brexit advocates than opponents.
Zhu and Carl also took into account the potential effects of an Oxbridge education. Graduates from Britain’s most prestigious universities were no more likely to back Remain, in large part because many in the Commons’ Oxbridge caucus sit on the government benches, and were therefore more likely to support the Leave campaign than those in opposition parties.
What the authors didn’t measure were levels of support for Brexit among the 791 parliamentarians who sit on the red benches. Though members of the House of Lords are more likely to be older, and from the Leave-supporting southern regions of England, those in ‘the other place’ are also more highly educated than their colleagues in the Commons, and are also more likely to have attended Oxbridge. Britain’s upper house, moreover, includes several giants of the Remain campaign, including Lord Sugar, Baroness Williams and Lord Heseltine.
But Zhu believes the most important lesson we should take from the research is that Brexit deserves more academic attention, not less.
“Brexit is the biggest populist event the UK [has] faced in some time, and it goes against what a lot of the literature says about class, voting behaviours and populism. There’s obviously something interesting to be said there. Political science thrives on these kind of events!”