In seeking to understand the economic basis of the Brexit vote, we should concentrate not on globalisation but on the long-term impact of de-industrialisation. That is the central message of economic historian Professor Jim Tomlinson, in an analysis presented at the Economic History Society’s 2017 annual conference.

The evidence is certainly strong that economic disadvantage played a significant part in the patterns of voting in the referendum (though age and educational qualifications seem to have played a large, independent role). But this disadvantage seems best linked to de-industrialisation, which has left a legacy of a much more polarised service sector labour market, with large numbers of people condemned to poorly paid and insecure jobs.

Globalisation has contributed to de-industrialisation, but it is only one contributor, and historically not the most important. De-industrialisation began in Britain in the 1950s. It was driven by shifts in patterns of demand and technological change, most strikingly in increasing the growth of productivity (and lowering the relative price) of manufactured goods. (Total industrial output has not fallen, but grown slowly on trend.)

These broad trends have affected all industrial countries, so that industrial employment has fallen substantially even in successful industrial countries with a manufacturing trade surplus, such as Germany. Industrial employment as a share of the total has more than halved in that country since its peak in 1970.

The long-run nature of these trends is illustrated by the fact that many more coal-mining jobs were lost in Britain under Harold Wilson’s government of the 1960s than under the Margaret Thatcher’s government of the 1980s.

Similarly, the big collapse of industrial jobs in Lancashire began in the 1950s and accelerated in the 1960s; across the country, textiles and clothing lost 123,000 jobs between 1964 and 1969.

Photo by Alberto Pascual, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Proportion of workers in industrial employment in the UK

1957               48%
1979               38%
1998               27%
2016               15%

Serious errors of policy have undoubtedly accelerated this process, and compressed it into short time periods (most obviously, the extraordinary appreciation of the pound in 1979-81 as a result of the Thatcher government’s policies). But overall the process has not mainly been policy-driven.

In responding to the economic problems that underpinned the Brexit vote, it is important to be clear that globalisation is only one part of the story. To put it crudely, if globalisation were somehow reversed, it would not return Britain to having anything like the number of industrial jobs that existed in the 1950s.

While there are certainly powerful arguments for seeking to offset the impact that globalisation has had on particular groups of workers, the biggest challenge is how to make a service-dominated economy deliver much better outcomes for those who currently occupy the lousy jobs in the service sector.

This blog post was originally published in The Long Run (the blog of the Economic History Society). 

The post gives the views of its author, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics. Photo by Alberto Pascual, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Jim Tomlinson is Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow.

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