COVID-19 study: Social distancing and the big Brexit divide

Ben Ansell, Professor of Comparative Democratic Institutions, looks back at Britain’s transition into lockdown, breaking down big data to discover a correlation between ‘Remainer’ areas and the greatest reduction in workplace activity.


Using ‘big data’ from Google’s community reports Professor Ben Ansell has mapped how the reduction of time spent at ‘workplace’ locations is different according to region, age, income, population density and political persuasion.

He found the strongest predictor of reduced workplace activity was a locality’s vote in the Brexit referendum of 2016.

The reasons for this, he suggests, could be that Remain areas are more easily able to social distance due to the nature of their work, as well as potentially different underlying attitudes.

Charting the UK population’s behaviour change since 29 February 2020, he observed a further difference: The gap between Remain and Leave areas opened up about a week before official lockdown, with more people in Remain areas making the decision to stay away from their workplace, in advance of the Government’s stricter advice.

This difference in workplace behaviour between Leavers and Remainers could widen Britain’s social divisions, Ansell warns.

“It is not hard to imagine resentment building over the fact that in some places everyone seems to be working from home, whereas in others people have to head into work, putting themselves at risk. Or viewed the other way, there could be resentment that some people feel they are abiding by the lockdown, whereas others are following it more loosely.”

Instead of bringing the country together in its response, the Coronavirus pandemic has the potential to broaden Brexit divisions. In addition to this difference in social-distancing between Leave and Remain areas, the economic shocks from Covid-19 are likely to be felt unequally across the country too, he points out. Coronavirus, like the credit crisis, could widen the social, economic and political divisions in an already deeply divided Britain.

“Anything that further widens Britain’s already sharp divides should give us cause for concern.”

During the global COVID-19 pandemic the department has decided to share opinion and blog pieces written by members of the faculty, who are bringing their unique research perspectives to engage with the big questions of the day. The views expressed within opinion pieces do not represent the department’s official view, instead they shine a light on the intellectual plurality of our diverse community of academics and scholars.