Public and Power-Broker Brexit Tribes and the Mirror of Erised

In Harry Potter the Mirror of Erised shows the viewer what he/she most wants to see, be it  a sui generis bucolic “country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers” (John Major), “Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist” (George Orwell), a vibrant industrial powerhouse full of shipbuilding, engineering and coal mines (anonymous Sunderland Brexiteer), a low-tax/free-trade/low-regulation cross between Singapore and the Bahamas (Legatum?) or  “eternally 1900 when Britain was at the height if its power and did not have to make messy compromises with foreigners” (Fintan O’Toole). In many ways the Leave side of the Brexit referendum framed their campaign on the Anna Karenena principle “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

To encompass as broad a coalition as possible the Leave campaign was deliberately vague about the actual Brexit on offer. Prof Simon Wren-Lewis likened it to an abstract painting. Leave voters could imagine the canvas as they pleased. On reflection (if you excuse the pun) it is like the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter where you could imagine a Utopia of your choice.

Who are these various Brexit tribes? There have been dozens post Brexit analyses, academic studies, some heavyweight books for example The Road to Somewhere (David Goodhart) and The Lure of Greatness (Anthony Barnett).

The Public Tribes

On the night of the referendum the narrative of the “left behind” disenchanted Northerners and people from the Welsh Valleys  seemed to carry the day, but more recent studies indicate that the bigger picture was  that there was a collation of different groups whom the FT described as its “six tribes of Brexit” (three Leave and three Remain). The Three Leave groups as described by the FT (October 18 2017) were “‘British Value Leavers”, “Working Class Leavers” and “Moderate Leavers” but I prefer the term “Little Englanders” and “Left Behinders” for the first two of these groups. The percentages below are those quoted in the FT article.

Little Englanders (10%)

I have the good fortune to live in the parish of Whalton in Northumberland. The village has a 13th century parish church, a Manor house with a garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll, a Junior School (which was attended by my son when he was younger c 30 pupils) and a Pub. It is a bastion of common sense and Remain Voters. There is no shop and for groceries I have to venture a little further afield to Waitrose in Ponteland. Ponteland is one of the most affluent areas in the NE of England and a preferred location for premier league footballers and well heeled retirees. The Daily Mail is by far the most commonly bought paper with the Telegraph also very popular. Overwhelmingly Tory voting, fueled by a  fear of immigration, nostalgia for the past and a suspicion of foreigners. They have a pathological dislike of the EU fuelled by a decades long relentless diet of fake news stories and vitriol in the right wing press. There are pockets of these in the NE but they overwhelmingly live in the south of England. The Lure of Greatness focuses on this Tribe. These are stirred by English Nationalism, patriotism, and a feeling of exceptionalism. Sovereignty is a major issue and it seems 90% would sacrifice the Union with Scotland and 82% peace in Northern Ireland to get the Brexit they crave. Economics is not a key issue, they are wealthy enough to weather a substantial downturn in the economy.

Left Behinders (15%)

Northumberland consists of a few distinct areas but there is one “industrial” area around Ashington, Bedlington and Blyth that consists of former prosperous coal mining towns and villages now with a low wage  high-unemployment economy full of run down charity chops and faded hopes. This group has been well covered for example in ‘The Road to Somewhere’ and has been badly hit by the austerity agenda of the past decade. This was a prosperous area before the neoliberal Thatcher revolution. What they crave is a good job and a return to the industralised past. These are the casualties of globalisation.  Fear that immigrants are driving down wages and taking jobs is present but the primary dream is economic revival and the need for hope. A little further south is the City of Sunderland which has become an icon for these attitudes. These are people who have felt voiceless for years and saw the Referendum as a way of giving the establishment a bloody nose. The EU was a proxy for government in general, they crave decent jobs and self esteem. The Road to Somewhere is very good at giving voice to this tribe, for this tribe the economy is key, but not in an abstract GDP sense. The thought that leaving the EU could affect car manufacturing such as Nissan is dismissed as ‘project fear’.

Moderate Leavers (18%)

I make a habit of talking to people and Northumberland has a very White-British population. The Moderate Leavers I come across tend to be tradespeople, plumbers, gardeners, cleaners etc. These are nearly all English but with a fair smattering of Scots, and a remarkable number of people having Irish blood. “One of my grandmothers was Irish!” is something people tell me with surprising regularity (I’m Irish myself and warm to this as a sign of welcome). There is a mild distaste for immigration and a feeling the country is getting too crowded (given that Northumberland is by far the least densely populated county in England and there are only 2% immigrants this is a bit strange). The feeling is that the EU is remote and has little effect on their lives, costs millions and they get little or nothing in return is very strong. The infamous “We Sent the EU £350 million a week. Lets Fund the NHS Instead” battle bus slogan struck a chord. There is a belief that Brexit doesn’t matter, “nothing really changes whatever way you vote”.

Some analysis

If the FT percentages are correct then the Leavers are only 43% of the population. This seems a bit low; most of the recent polls put leavers at about 48% of the population. What is possibly more remarkable is that the hard core “Little Englanders” only comprise about 10% of the population and yet it seems that they are driving the agenda. If the percentages are correct, if Brexit has to happen, a super-majority of the public would be content with a softer Brexit such as the Norway option (a slim majority indeed would prefer no Brexit at all). The Government still insists on the feasibility of a “cake and eat it” deal. It seems very likely that a very hard Brexit will be the outcome egged on by the right wing press and the story spun to blame the EU for not giving in to the UKs ridiculous demands. The British negotiations have been described by the Observer as being shambolic and as a dead end approach by our own Ivan Horrocks. Chris Kendall, a trade negotiator for over 20 years is equally scathing. The Financial Times argued a few days ago “Brexit Britain is at Europe’s Mercy“. Things are not looking good with the possibility of a train crash Brexit seeming ever more likely with talks breaking down completely. It seems that rather than “Taking Back Control” there seems to have been a bloodless coup with shadowy right-wing power brokers running the country. Power is at its most effective when it is least observable. But who are these Power brokers? As they hide in the shadows there is some speculation here.


The Power Broker Tribes

Of course the power-brokers behind the referendum are manifested most publicly by the right-wing media spearheaded by Murdoch, Dacre and the Barclay Brothers. However there was also a major social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter. I use Facebook a bit and just before the referendum I was surprised to get obscene  ads regarding the accession of countries such as Turkey to the EU being imminent, playing on the worst paranoid fears of the gullible public. I reported these as “offensive” which seemed the best option at the time (June 2006) but now there are more options including “It’s misleading or a scam” or “It’s a false news story” which are a more accurate description. There are concerns that physiological tools normally reserved for military intelligence were used by Leave and also that there has been considerable Russian interference.There is also the shadowy group who poured unknown (and possibly vast) quantities into the Leave campaign most visibly through the DUP.

I have identified five tribes which are:  The Right-Wing Media Barons, The European Research Group (ERG),  Right Wing Think Tanks such as Legatum, The Atlantic-Bridge and  The Pragmatists.

The Right-Wing Media Barons

These are the most visible of the power broker tribes headed by Murdoch, Dacre and the Barclay Brothers, who are the owners (editor in Dacre’s case) of the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. The rot seemed to set in in the late 1980s when Boris Johnson became the Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph. The headline Johnson peddled absurd EU myths – and our disgraceful press followed his lead is a good summary. Of course the right wing press has detested the EU for years and during the referendum campaign the Mail and the Sun seemed to vie with each other to play on the worst fears of the electorate; relentless anti-immigrant headlines took their toll.

Since the referendum they have been relentless in the pursuit of a hard Brexit. The Mail famously called the high court judges ruling that parliament was sovereign Enemies of the People but more generally there is a relentless stream of anti EU propaganda and sycophantic support for the hard Brexit line taken by May. Even the Telegraph which used to be a decent broadsheet (though always right-wing) has become a propaganda rag attracting headlines Why has the once-great Daily Telegraph become Pravda for Boris Johnson? There is no attempt whatsoever to keep a balanced view. Dacre in particular seems to be a favorite of May, inviting him for a private dinner at No 10 and recently taking time out of her busy schedule to attend his 25th anniversary party. He has been a major champion of May as PM and holds a set of views much cherished by the Little Englander tribe.

I fear that if talks break down as seems inevitable they will go on full scale attack mode blaming the EU and poisoning relationships for years.

The European Research Group

The ironically named  ERG has been described as a party within the Tory party and is the foremost Brexit pressure group in parliament consisting of about 100 MPs.  Their stated aim is a hard, uncompromised exit from the European Union. For a few years they were in the shadows but have now become semi public and there are calls to open investigations for an expenses scandal. They seem to have enormous influence within the Tory party and particularly with Theresa May. Their leader is Suella Fernandes and she has recently been interviewed at conservative home. In Fernandes’ view, the positive effects of Brexit include cheaper prices for food and clothing and the chance to move to a New Zealand system of agriculture along with some platitudes on Tax Evasion which need to be taken with a large pinch of salt. They seem to be heavily influenced and bankrolled by Legatum.

New Zealand’s agricultural policy so admired by the ERG seems to be based on WTO tariffs and succeeded because of a dramatic devaluation of the NZ dollar, equivalent to the £ UK trading at about 55c (Euro). Whether this would work for the UK is a good question.


The Legatum Institute is extremely well funded and the web site is very professional and glossy. It seems to have an extraordinary hold on Government. It is a subsidiary of  Legatum Limited  and was founded by New Zealand billionaire Christopher Chandler, who made his fortune by “disaster capitalism” – exploiting trading opportunities created by extreme political disruption. It is considered to be central to the Conservative Party’s case for Hard Brexit. It seems to have very little understanding of the EU and how it works but on the face of it seems to be promoting a New Zealand, Australian, Singapore and a UK Anglo-sphere ideally incorporating Canada. The worry is that the backers may have zero interest in the long term future of the UK but want Brexit to be as disastrous as possible a they see the opportunity for profits on a massive scale. On the surface they appear to favour something like a Greater-Singapore model with a low wage, low regulation on environment and worker protection and a low tax economy. Very good for the top 1% and bad for the rest of us.

The Atlantic Bridge

Liam Fox or to give him his full title the disgraced former defence secretary, is the most prominent member of the Atlantic Bridge in the cabinet which very much wants a trade deal with the US. Indeed Fox was brought back into the fold because of his very strong links with this shadowy group. This group again wants a hard Brexit but prioritises a trade deal with the US. A train crash Brexit is preferred as they will argue there is little alternative. Any trade deal with the US is likely to be done by terms dictated by the US. They see a future as the UK being not far from a vassal state of the US.

The Pragmatists

A group whose most prominent member is Philip Hammond who seem to think leaving the EU is nonsense, however if it has to be done should be done as slowly as possible with minimal disruption and a long transition period, with something like the Norway option as a holding place.


We are in an extraordinary position in the UK where a narrow referendum victory based on very dubious and incomplete information and probably considerable external meddling has been hijacked by right wing pressure groups as if in a bloodless coup. If the Ipsos Mori results as presented in the “Six Tribes” analysis is correct at best only 10% of people want the ultra hard Brexit pressed for by nearly all the power players behind the scenes. The public is being fed a diet of propaganda: the Newt Gingritch approach of the Leave campaign “And that what people feel about an issue is more important than what the actual facts behind the issue are.” It is saddening how one of the worlds oldest democracies has been shown to be totally inadequate in handling the threat. Unless public opinion changes dramatically before March 2019 there seems no way out. Of course Prof Simon Wren-Lewis has a much simpler explanation, the  100,000 or so Tory Party members are overwhelmingly Little Britainers and are driving the entire process. Once the vision seen in the Mirror of Erised crystallizes into harsh reality there will be many very disappointed people.





  1. Peter May -

    Disappointed people and poorer people. Which is why I cannot understand how so many people still think that leaving is a good idea.
    Have some Cornish friends who “on balance” thought Leave was the best option, without really thinking too hard about it. They started to think again when I pointed out that the EU is by far Cornwall’s single largest source of income, but they’re still worried that the EU has mucked up fishing. There is little doubt it has, but leaving won’t unmuck it up any time soon. Agreements will still have to be reached with our maritime neighbours, who just happen to be in the EU.
    Who said turkeys don’t vote for Christmas?

    2 minutes of Ken Clarke worth listening to here.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Indeed the tribe whom I have least time for are the “little Englanders” and the greatest sympathy with are the “Left Behinders”. What is deeply sad is that the very people who need help most will in all likelihood be most adversely affected.

      Thanks for the Ken Clarke clip, he was the person I most feared would become leader of the Tory party many years ago as he is truly formidable. How times change but he seems to be on our side now!

  2. Ian Stevenson -

    When I was doing my degree, we touched on the question as to why the Germans, a civilised and educated nation should have fallen for the simplistic propaganda of the Nazis. I have often thought about it. One of my students mentioned the impact of the cinema. In the early 30s the talking movies were only a few years old and the impact of sitting in a darkened cinema watching a figure literally larger than life on the screen-and hearing him-was much greater than sitting in a public hall and watching someone on a stage.
    The internet is newer but it is only the past decade that the majority of the population is on-line. The de-contextualised, false antithesis messages prompting people to simplistic conclusions may well have more impact than even than the newspapers, which have declined in circulation.
    Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex. Today it might be that we have the financial/media complex. The media being bought by corporate interests and even if hey don’t lie, can mislead by omission. Thus we never or rarely had politicians explaining how the EU worked or the rationale for their decisions. We had people like Gordon Brown saying how ‘he was standing up for Britain’ as though he was beating off damaging attacks on our independence and prosperity.
    As in Weimar Germany, we have a country which is not the power it was and which is a lot poorer. It is using the psychological defence of ‘splitting’ the world into goodies (us) and baddies (them) and attacking the ‘other’ hoping that will boost their self regard and wider reputation. That is what bullies do to cover their fears of inferiority and it doesn’t work.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      I’v mentioned this before but my father Kevin (well known in Ireland and had an obituary in the Guardian) was awarded a prestigious Humboldt scholarship in 1937 to do his PhD in the University of Berlin. He left Berlin in July 1939 to come back to Ireland and never completed his PhD! Needless to say he had first hand experience of the Nazis but said they could take over everywhere when conditions were right. Firstly you need a big nation which believes in exceptionalism, a sufficient economic downturn and an ‘alien’ group which can be blamed for their economic woes.

      My father though either the US or UK (well England) were the most likely countries in which some form of fascism might emerge. I wish he were alive today (he would be 104) to see what he thought.

    2. George Carty -

      While all the major European powers had acquires colonial empires by the turn of the 20th century, Britain was unique in that it acquired not just cheap resources but actual Lebensraum for settlement (in Australia, New Zealand and Canada).

      I wonder if a good portion of Leave voters are yearning for the way of life that is normal in sparsely-populated countries such as these (and in the USA – another English-speaking settler nation) with its big houses on bigger plots and the freedom of the open road? Since most Brits greatly overestimate how many immigrants are living here, perhaps some of them believe that deporting the immigrants will reduce Britain’s population sufficiently to make possible a more “New World” way of life?

  3. Ivan Horrocks -

    An excellent blog, Sean. Your analysis of the various groups is spot on. One little thing that did make me smile is that the name of the leader of the ERG, and thus a person committed to UK isolationism from Europe, is Suella Fernandes. You really could not make it up.
    I agree entirely that what we’re seeing is a coup by the extreme right, driven on and resourced by individuals with serious money and very little interest in the wider and significant damage a hard Brexit will do to the majority of the population of the UK.
    Interestingly, there are strong parallels here with what’s been going on in the US, first with the attacks on Obamacare and now the so called (by that master of the English language, Donald Trump) ‘cut, cut, cut’ tax bill the Republicans are pursuing. Every even-handed analysis shows this to be primarily about pumping more money the way of the rich and large (also rich) corporations, while having a negative impact on middle income earners and others (such as the removal of the allowance that allows teachers to claim back the money they spend on pencils and so on for their pupils – yes the US public education system really is that poorly funded, not to mention teacher poorly paid). And like Obamacare opinion polls show it to be unpopular. Not only that but it’s increasingly obvious that a fair number of Republicans will not support the Bill, given the negative effect it will have on many people in the districts and states they represent. In short, in may turn out to be another policy fiasco for the Republican Party.

    Nevertheless, they plough on. Why? Apparently because the policy is ‘donor driven’ (as was the attack on Obamacare, although here you also have the hatred of public services by some/many in the Republican Party, and also Trump’s own hatred of anything related to his predecessor). In short, the likes of the Mercer’s, Koch brothers etc are demanding their pound of flesh from all those who’ve allowed themselves to be ‘supported’ (to use a euphamism for something far more than that) over the years regardless of the immense hurt this causes to many of the electorate.

    Ditto here in the UK with Brexit, as your blog illustrates. A small group of individuals with absolute contempt for democracy, aided by acolytes such as Dacre, who draw their influence from doing the bidding of those with real power, are more than happy to take this country to a place in the world that will do damage to the interests and well-being of the majority of its citizens. It’s almost impossible to imagine the nature of people that would pursue such actions, except that we know they are wealthy enough to escape the disaster that unfolds – and indeed will likely benefit – much as happened during the age of serfdom, to which they wish the UK to return.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Ivan thanks. Maybe its because I’m Irish but I despise the ‘Little Englanders’ and really don’t care if they go to hell in a handcart, what I object to strongly is them dragging sown the rest of us with them.

      Indeed Suella Fernandes seems a high flyer. She only entered parliament in 2015 and already has a junior post in the Government as well as chairing the ERG. The name sounds as if its from the Iberian peninsula but her parents are from Kenya and Mauritius. I would have guessed her parentage was from the Indian subcontinent from her appearance.

      As you say the parallels with the US are striking. Sadly for some years it seems that the US has been a sham democracy with the Republicans in particular being in hock to shadowy billionaires such as the Koch brothers. The Tories don’t seem that far behind it seems. Worrying times!

  4. Geoff Plant -

    Excellent piece Sean.
    Hear in France there is a remarkable and visible example of your article playing out in full view.
    I believe there are quite a lot of Britsh people in France who rely on other Brits as clients to make a living. Because their employment status may be precarious they are vulnerable, and they may be very fearful. But they don’t get into any public discussion about Brexit consequences for fear of upsetting clients or ‘friends’ who they actually rely on for work (who tend to be more comfortably off). So effectively there is a group who choose to remain silent due to the social pressures they find themselves in. This situation is a little delicate so I hope I have described it adequately.
    Since moving to France sadly we have seen the British class system replicated here among Brits!

  5. Charles Adams -

    On ‘the problem with the English’, I partially agree with Nicholas Boyle’s piece

    but I am not sure that the English are any better or worse than any other nationality. All nations are far more diverse than any national stereotyping might suggest. We are all shaped by our retold history and the English were taught that they were always the good guys and always won. Now everyone speaks their language and have copied their ways. This is far from the truth story, but the English are – as everyone else, as much or even more – victims of poor education and poor leadership. Perhaps more than everyone else the English struggle with their identity – not being allowed to be English except when they watch sport. Like everyone else they are prone to diversion and manipulation. Among your six tribes, is a group that just wants to be English and accepted that this is something not too bad.

    I want to be English because I am English but I want to be European too. Why can’t I be both I wonder?

    1. Sean Danaher -

      a very good question and our October Book of the Month “The Lure of Greatness” explores it in detail. I’m for example very happy in being Irish, in branding terms it is is very good and for example even Irish football fans are exemplary this is not a one off they seem to get similar ones at other tournaments.

      English Nationalism is inter-tangled with British Nationalism and too often hijacked by unsavory types. I have no problems at all with the English. I live in England, am married to an Englishwoman and have dozens of English friends. Acceptance is fine. A belief that they are better to say an Irish person because they are a superior race and have a God given right to rule is unacceptable. I think this may have played a part in Davis’s initial reaction to the Irish border

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