Don’t be fooled, political scientists did see Brexit coming


By Matt Wood, University of Sheffield. This article was originally posted on the Political Studies Association website.


This week the artist Grayson Perry took a swipe at political science in the annual PSA Awards, claiming the profession completely failed to foresee Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. The notion that Brexit was a defeat for political science seems to have become a commonly accepted lesson from the vote on June 23rd this year. For some, this was because the quantitative polling methods that widely predicted a narrow win for Remain were wide of the mark. For others, it was because political science has avoided its professional and ethical duties in defending informed public debate.

In this blog I’m going to challenge this narrative. I’m going to offer some reasons why political scientists in fact did see Brexit coming, in the form of a deep and intractable crisis of legitimacy for the EU. The clickbait-style title of the blog is intended to be provocative. Evidently, most political scientists did not predict the specific outcome of the referendum vote. However, we have long diagnosed democratic weaknesses in the EU’s fuzzy and incoherent governance structures, noted how weak European identity is, and even argued for ‘taking back control’ ourselves. I think we need to reflect on our professional and emotive commitments as a result.

The Democratic Deficit

For decades political scientists have been warning that the European Union has faced a fundamental crisis of democratic legitimacy – what was termed the ‘democratic deficit’. In a widely cited article published ten years ago, Professors Simon Hix and Andreas Follesdal noted with some exhaustion that “The fate of the Constitutional Treaty for Europe after the French and Dutch referendums will no doubt prompt further volumes of academic books and articles on the ‘democratic deficit’ in the European Union (EU). The topic already receives huge attention”. They were right; the ‘democratic deficit’ debate goes back to some of the foundational debates about the EU in the academic ‘literature’. Big, influential scholars, for example Fritz Scharpf, Giandomenico Majone and Vivien Schmidt, have weighed in with ideas of how to alleviate the problem. Majone, one of the doyens of EU scholarship, has even very visibly changed his view on the EU, arguing in a recent book the Union now faces an existential crisis related to the Eurozone.

If anything, political science has moved beyond simplistic arguments that people would support the EU just because it is good for economic growth. In an animation released earlier in the year by the Sir Bernard Crick Centre, dedicated to translating academic research into practice, we highlighted the dangers posed by the democratic deficit to the European project. The media debate, though, was dominated by economists, global figureheads and business leaders who still thought economic arguments would be enough. Our video clearly wasn’t as well watched as we would have hoped! But even it had been, would anyone have noticed?

European identity

The second glaring issue political science got right before the referendum was the clear and consistent finding that British people (and Europeans more generally) simply do not feel European. Recent Eurobarometer findings show just how few citizens of Europe, and Britain especially, actually feel uniquely European, as well as their focus on key challenges like immigration. More broadly political scientists have criticized the notion of European identity, recently arguing for example: “European identity remains a ‘dry, institutional, symbolic conception’ … which has failed to reach the ‘hearts and the guts of the peoples of Europe’”. We’ve also uncovered how those who are most committed to the European project are liberally minded Erasmus students or business people who tend to travel regularly between European countries.

This does not strike me as putting our heads in the sand, or failing to see the ‘Brexistential crisis’ coming. It’s entirely consistent with what most commentators have been saying post-referendum. Perhaps if we’d written more blogs about this identity crisis, the public would have sat up and taken notice? Perhaps if we acted more like think tanks, political talking heads or Sun columnists, we would get more of a hearing?

There may be something to this, but the question though is if political scientists don’t write enough for public audiences, would anyone actually listen to us if we started writing more? Would they be any more likely to listen to us on the benefits of EU membership than, say, the Bank of England, Ryanair or the International Monetary Fund?

Taking back control

The last, perhaps more controversial point, is many prominent political scientists have been arguing in favour of themes used by the Leave campaign for quite some time now. While focused mainly around globalisation, a number of political scientists and political economists have been saying that communities, activists and governments should be challenging globalisation and transnational institutions. They’ve argued these institutions are disastrous, undemocratic and obscure. Politics, they argued, should be about having ‘control’; having collective agency, engaging in deliberation and promoting democratic choice. This is certainly what we think in the Anti-politics specialist group of the PSA. Some of us have been saying talk of ‘globalisation’ disincentivises public engagement and participation. Others have been making the broader argument that we shouldn’t accept the ‘neoliberal’ settlement as inevitable.

All these themes were used to devastating effect by the Leave campaign. They created political engagement in some areas of the country not seen since Tony Blair’s 1997 electoral victory. Put in a mischievous way, if political scientists had hoped for stimulating mass political engagement and challenging ‘anti-politics’, then they have, in many ways succeeded. They just haven’t succeeded in the way they would have hoped.

Critical Friends

Should we conclude Brexit has been a resounding success? Are we all eminently happy with a possible new world order of closed borders and economic uncertainty? Many political scientists would not wish to settle for that. What it does suggest, I think, is we need to look at our own emotive attachments, and whether we do our jobs properly as ‘critical friends’ of the institutions we study. If anything has been surprising, it has been how dismayed many of us claim to be about Brexit, given that political science has been highlighting the limitations of the EU, discontent with globalisation and so on for decades. Could it be, then, we need to reflect on our attachments and orientations as a discipline, rather than the specific ‘research findings’ and how they are ‘communicated’?

Perhaps our feelings of existential crisis have more to do with the funding and culture of universities themselves, than whether our actual research findings are ‘valid’? As the impact agenda has taken hold, we have grown closer to government, European bodies, think tanks, and other ‘elite’ organisations. While we should help out those organisations and fulfil our commitments as advisors and communicators, we should never forget academics need to have the role of ‘critical friends’ in helping these institutions out. That’s what distinguishes our profession. The idea is we take what the best evidence and theory tells us, not being afraid to point out the flaws in the system, as well as being honest about the limitations of our findings.

We are witnessing the crisis of a transnational system that, for all its faults, many political scientists feel an emotive connection to, often due to feelings of solidarity and liberal values of openness and tolerance. At the same time we understand the EU’s inherent weaknesses, the desire of local communities, beset by divisions and inequalities, to ‘take back control’. We understand how deeply undemocratic the project has been, and feel we must be critical.

This creates dilemmas. Many of us balk at the idea of supporting ‘elite’ institutions, but at the same time don’t wish to bias our research to movements campaigning to ‘take back control’ even if we believe there may be merits to this. If anything, maybe this dilemma means we put our heads in the sand about the momentous consequences of the referendum, rather than being short of explanations for why it happened.  Now more than ever, good evidence is needed to improve public policy responses to the great challenges of our time. Governments need political science more than ever. But we should be confident in being critical of mainstream media and public opinion, whether that is as electoral commentators, advisors to government, or wider public speakers.

Did Brexit increase hate crimes? Probably, yes.*

By Dan Devine. Dan is a PhD student in Politics at Southampton. He specialises in comparative politics, political attitudes and quantitative methods (@DanJDevine, personal

Tl;DR: Brexit probably caused an increase in hate crimes. I provide descriptive and statistical (linear regression and regression discontinuity) evidence for this claim, but the claim that there was a rise in reporting rather than hate crimes per is also plausible. It’s also positive to see that this is not a lasting effect (at least in the data), although there is still an upward trend in hate crime since 2013.

In the wake of Brexit – when the UK voted to leave the European Union – there was a flurry of activity in newspapers and across the internet reporting a rise in racial tensions and hate crimes. In the following weeks and months, this was widely reported in the Guardian (a lot), the BBCHuman Rights WatchSky NewsThe Telegraph, and I’m sure some others that I’ve missed. Nevertheless, some individuals and outlets (such as Spiked and ConservativeHome) remain extremely sceptical of the claim that the vote to leave the EU was behind a rise in hate crime – and indeed, call into question the validity of the numbers at all. 

As many outlets have picked up in the last week, the government have recently released the full figures of hate crime that cover the referendum and post-referendum months and days. This allows us a much closer look at what exactly was going on around that time (and gives me a chance to try out some new ideas at visualising data). Here, I take a look at these numbers, put them through some rough-and-ready statistical tests, and look at some other explanations of the findings. In general, though, the evidence is overwhelming that Brexit did cause a rise in hate crime. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that (at least according to the data) this does not seem to be a ‘lasting effect’, as The Independent reports.

What is hate crime?

Many of the biggest critiques of the data concern what is meant by ‘hate crime’. Hate crimes in general are defined as ‘any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards someone based on a personal characteristic’. However, the data I use here is focused specifically on racially or religiously aggravated offences (from now, I will just call these hate crimes). This includes crimes such as: assault with or without injury, criminal damage, public fear or distress, and harassment. This also includes graffiti of a racist nature (presumably under the latter two categories), and attacks on asylum seekers or refugees (regardless of their race). 

This does mean that essentially, anyone can report something as a hate crime if they perceive it as such. In addition, it’s true that a majority of these cases go unsolved – about a quarter of offences are taken to court. I don’t want to get into the territory of disagreeing with the very definition of hate crimes (or how they’re reported) – but it’s worth being open about what is behind the analysis.

An increase in hate crime is descriptively clear

At first glance, it is clear that there was a rise in hate crime surrounding the Brexit referendum. The first graph below shows hate crimes by month since 2013. Although there is always a seasonal effect – hate crimes increase over summer – the sharp rise in June and July 2016 is startling, and the drop off in August is not particularly drastic (or at least as drastic as we would hope). From this longer-term perspective, the summer months of 2016 are outliers in the recent history of hate crime. It should be noted, however, that there is a clear upward trend in hate crime since 2013; the low point of 2016 is around the same as the high point of 2013. This upward trend should send a warning to those interested in social cohesion.


It’s also possible, with the Home Office data, to have a more fine-grained analysis. The graph below presents daily data for the months of May, June, July and August. Once again, the dashed horizontal line indicates when the referendum took place. The interesting part of this is the sudden increase the day after the referendum, which persists for several days, peaking approximately a week after (more on this later).  There is, as in the monthly data, a slow decline to pre-referendum levels.


From both of these graphs, it is clear that there was a peak in hate crime surrounding the referendum. But there is also a lot of variability, and some claim that this is not necessarily down to the referendum. In lieu of suitable data to test the competing claims, I wanted to look at this statistically as best I could.

And the differences are statistically significant

To do this, I took two approaches. I make no claim that these are conclusive. They are relatively back-of-the-envelope tests, but I think they are nonetheless strong evidence for the impact of Brexit on hate crimes (for those interested, details are at the end). The first tests how much variation can be explained by the referendum, and how many hate crimes can be attributed to Brexit. What the results indicate is that Brexit increased hate crimes by about 31 a day (if we use the daily data), or by 1600 a month (if we use the monthly data). Due to the few months following the referendum, I would say the daily data is more accurate. Importantly, the results indicate that Brexit explains about 35% of the crimes in the days following Brexit – which is a statistically and substantively significant amount.

But regressions are flawed for a range of reasons, especially when done like this. As is clear from above, hate crimes slowly decrease after the peak. In other words, June and July are huge outliers. So, as another check I carried out a regression discontinuity test (again, details at the end). This narrows the focus to the days surrounding the referendum, and essentially treats the referendum as an experiment: the day of the referendum and afterwards are those ‘treated’ with the experiment, whilst those before are the control group. In other words, there should be no real difference between June 21st and June 24th other than the referendum.

The results are the same. It is statistically significant. Moreover, in the ‘RD Plot’ at the end of the post, you can see how this relationship changes dramatically. Put another way: the days either side of the referendum are fundamentally different, and the only plausible explanation is the referendum. Indeed, this is what the regression discontinuity provides extremely strong evidence for.

But was there really an increase in hate crime?

The evidence in the data is extremely strong. However, there can be a few objections which are more theoretical. The first, and most important, is that the difference might be due to an increased awareness and therefore increased reporting (this is what the police claimed at the time). In other words, hate crimes did not increase, but the reporting of them did. This is certainly plausible.

In the days following the referendum, I find this hard to believe. Why would people be more likely to report hate crimes following a referendum? This did not happen after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, or Paris attacks, or other elections, or the start of the Palestine-Israel conflict – events which are more closely tied to the potential for hate crime. It only increased slightly even after the murder of Lee Rigby. The reverse is much more plausible: that hate crimes (remember, this includes damage to property and graffiti) ensued after the referendum. However, the peak of hate crimes occurred a week after the referendum. This is surely likely to be influenced by media coverage of the previous rises. Again, I think it is likely that there was indeed increased reporting of hate crimes, in response to national media coverage and the existence of more hate crime in general. In other words, I think it was a bit of both, with more hate crimes leading to coverage and more reporting (we must also remember that hate crimes are still hugely under-reported). 

Other claims I find less appealing. One might just say it is a coincidence. The statistical weight of evidence is, for me, far too strong for that. It is far less than a 1% chance that this was just a random increase which happened to occur at the exact time of the referendum. Other claims might argue about the definition of hate crime, how they are accounted for, and how few are brought to court. These are not the focus of this post – not because they’re not important, but because they can’t be drawn from the evidence here.

Brexit, hate crime and the future

A lot of coverage has argued that the atmosphere in the UK is increasingly toxic and intolerant. The data released only extends a few months after the referendum, so we cannot be sure of what’s actually happening. But from the existing data, I would conclude that the actual impact of Brexit on hate crimes was a short-lived one, and that the effect will decrease over time.

However, I would also suggest, on a more negative note, that all Brexit did was mobilise latent attitudes into behaviour. In other words, I do not think it changed attitudes that much, but acted as a catalyst to change those attitudes into actual actions – and hate crimes. This is in part evidenced by the general upward trend in hate crimes since 2013. For what it’s worth, going forward, the media and politicians need to be extremely careful not to stoke the flames of these attitudes. The referendum has shown that it does not necessarily take much to spark an increase in hate crimes. Other catalysts are possible. And it’s important that, when the next one comes, it is much harder to translate these beliefs into actions. 

*Probably = almost certainly


Statistical/methodological notes:


Graphics and tests were produced in the software package R, using data from the Home Office. The background design for the graphs was taken from code by Max Woolf

Summary statistics for the two data sets used (monthly and daily data):

Statistical Tests

Firstly, I ran a basic regression on both the daily and monthly data. This uses the referendum to ‘predict’ the variation in hate crimes after the referendum. The regressions were run using the variable ‘brexit’ as a binary predictor for the dependent variable ‘hate.crime’. Clearly for the monthly data, this is hugely unbalanced, so should be treated with a bucket load of caution. The daily data is more stable.


The regression discontinuity used the day after the referendum as the cut off. This is because the referendum really would not have had an effect until the result. Nevertheless, it is centred around 0, the day of the referendum. It is statistically significant as well. Additional analysis by Professor Will Jennings, using a time series intervention model, confirmed the findings here. The debate about whether to use a time series or discontinuity approach continues…


The R code used is as follows. You will need the theme function downloadable from here. If you’d like the data, please contact me (

setwd(“”) # set your working directory

hate <- read.csv(“day.hate.csv”) # read in the data
hate2 <- read.csv(“”)

install.packages(“rdrobust”) #install packages
install.packages(“ggplot2”, dependencies = TRUE)
loadfonts() # note, loading the fonts package will take considerable time depending on the machine
pdf(“plot_garamond.pdf”, family=”Garamond”, width=4, height=4.5)

rdrobust(hate$hate.crime, hate$since.ref, c = 1 ) # regression discontinuity
rdd_est <- rdrobust(hate$hate.crime, hate$since.ref, c = 1 )
rdplot(hate$hate.crime, hate$since.ref, c = 1)

stargazer(hate, type=”html”,
title = “Summary Statistics for Daily Data”)
stargazer(hate2, type=”html”,
title = “Summary Statistics for Monthly Data”) # summary statistics, output in HTML <- lm(hate$hate.crime ~ hate$brexit) # regular regression on day
linear.month <- lm(hate2$hate.crime ~ hate2$brexit) #… and months
stargazer(, linear.month, type=”html”,
title = “The Effect of Brexit on Hate Crimes”,
column.labels = c(“Daily Crime”, “Monthly Crime”),
coviariate.labels=”Brexit”) # table of the regression

month.crime.plot <- ggplot(data=hate2, aes(x=id, y=hate.crime)) +
fte_theme() +
geom_line(color=”#c0392b”, size=1.45, alpha=0.75) +
geom_vline(xintercept=42, linetype = “longdash”, color = “gray47″, alpha = 0.7) +
geom_text(aes(x=42, label=”Referendum”, y=2300), colour=”gray36″, size=8, family=”Garamond”)+
ggtitle(“Hate Crimes in England and Wales, 2013-2016”) +
labels=c(“June 2013”, “Dec 2013”, “June 2014”, “Dec 2014”, “June 2015”, “Dec 2015”, “June 2016”)) +
labs(y= “# Hate Crimes”, x=”Date”) +
theme(plot.title = element_text(family=”Garamond”, face=”bold”, hjust=0, size = 25, margin=margin(0,0,20,0))) +
theme(axis.title.x = element_text(family=”Garamond”, face=”bold”, size = 20, margin=margin(20,0,0,0))) +
theme(axis.title.y = element_text(family=”Garamond”, face=”bold”, size = 20, margin=margin(0,20,0,0))) +
geom_hline(yintercept=2000, size=0.4, color=”black”) # monthly graph

day.crime.plot <- ggplot(data=hate, aes(x=id, y=hate.crime)) +
fte_theme() +
geom_line(color=”#c0392b”, size=1.45, alpha=0.75) +
geom_vline(xintercept=54, linetype = “longdash”, color = “gray47″, alpha = 0.7) +
geom_text(aes(x=54, label=”Referendum”, y=85), colour=”gray36″, size=8, family=”Garamond”) +
ggtitle(“Hate Crimes in England and Wales, May-August 2016”) +
scale_y_continuous(limits=c(75,220)) +
scale_x_continuous(breaks=seq(14,123, by=14),
labels=c(“14 May”, “28 May”, “11 June”, “25 June”, “9 July”, “23 July”, “6 August”, “20 August”)) +
labs(y= “# Hate Crimes”, x=”Date”) +
theme(plot.title = element_text(family=”Garamond”, face=”bold”, hjust=0, size = 25, margin=margin(0,0,20,0))) +
theme(axis.title.x = element_text(family=”Garamond”, face=”bold”, size = 20, margin=margin(20,0,0,0))) +
theme(axis.title.y = element_text(family=”Garamond”, face=”bold”, size = 20, margin=margin(0,20,0,0))) +
geom_hline(yintercept=75, size=0.4, color=”black”) # daily graph


After Brexit, What Next? Not Much Mandate for Anything…

By Ben Saunders, Associate Professor in Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@DrBenSaunders,


As the dust settles after June’s referendum, it’s notable that the leaders of the Leave campaign (Johnson, Gove, Farage, Leadsom) have all vacated the main stage, leaving it to others to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU. This is probably wise on their part, not only because the political divorce is likely to produce considerable short-term discomfort, but also because it seems that no one had any clear post-exit strategy.

We’re told that the British people have spoken and their will must be respected. But, even setting aside reports of widespread protest voting and regretful Leavers, it’s not clear what ‘the people’ (or 52% of them) voted for, beyond the obvious (leaving the EU). Leaving the EU doesn’t itself specify what alternative arrangements should be put in place.

Some want to withdraw as completely as possible from the European project – in particular, in order to control migration. Call this Total Exit, or TE for short. But not everyone in the Leave campaign favours TE. Others made quite clear that they welcome trade and cooperation with our European neighbours, they merely oppose the EU organisation and the threat of a federal European state. These people would be happy for the UK to adopt a position like Norway or Switzerland, not an EU member but not so different in practice. For want of a better label, call this Weak Exit or WE. (For simplicity, I’ll only consider two alternatives, though there are many possibilities.)

Obviously, these alternatives are incompatible. If the UK opts for WE, then we will have no more control over migration or over laws and regulations that continue to bind us. The referendum result will, officially, be respected – we’ll be out of the EU – but many of the 52% won’t be satisfied. But, on the other hand, if we got for TE then, though we’ll have control over these things, we won’t have the strong relations with Europe that were promised and, further, this is more likely to cause great economic disruption than WE. Again, a significant number of the 52% are likely to be dissatisfied – while they may have wanted out of the EU, they didn’t necessarily want TE.

It might be that the 52% are so strongly committed to leaving the EU that they would prefer either TE or WE to continued membership, but I doubt all of them feel this way. Someone who dislikes loss of sovereignty, but is also concerned about the possible economic effects of Brexit, might reasonably prefer WE to Remain, but also prefer Remain to TE. That is, their preferences might be WE > R > TE (with ‘R’ standing for ‘Remain). If they were moderately optimistic about what ‘Leave’ meant (i.e. WE), they would vote for Leave, but they would prefer Remain if the alternative were TE.

Conversely, someone whose chief concern was migration, while ideally wanting TE, might prefer Remain to WE. The Leave campaign emphasized the threat of Turkey joining the EU but, as a member, the UK would have a veto over this. If the UK ends up like Norway, having to accept free movement but without that veto, then the UK would actually have less control over migration than before. So it could be perfectly consistent for someone to prefer Remain over WE, even if their first choice would be TE. That is, TE > R > WE.

The Leave campaign was actually a coalition of people wanting inconsistent things. Some were voting for TE and some for WE. Since we can’t have both of these, it’s likely that a considerable number of Leave voters will end up disappointed, whatever the eventual outcome – and some of them might even have preferred to remain in the EU to the eventual outcome.

Given the closeness of the result, it might seem reasonably likely that, given a choice between ‘Remain or TE’ a majority of the population would have voted to Remain and, likewise, that given a choice between ‘Remain or WE’ a majority of the population would have voted to Remain. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. So far, I’ve only highlighted divisions amongst the Leavers, but the Remain voters might also have been influenced by lack of clarity over the options.

No doubt many amongst the 48% who voted to Remain prefer that to either TE or WE. However, it could be that some were simply pessimists about the likely consequences of Brexit. Suppose, for example, that someone would really prefer WE to Remain and Remain to TE (i.e. WE > R > TE). Such a person might nonetheless have voted to Remain if they (pessimistically) thought that Brexit was more likely to result in TE than WE. Had the ballot in fact given the choice between ‘Remain or WE’ then they would have switched their vote from Remain to WE. Likewise, someone whose preferences were TE > R > WE might have voted Remain had they feared that Leave would result in WE.

So, even if some Leavers would have voted Remain, given this choice, it’s also the case that some who actually voted to Remain might have voted to Leave, given a more concrete proposal. For all the talk about ‘respecting the will of the people’ the problem is that there are more than two options. The referendum didn’t really present a choice between two clear options, but rather a choice between the status quo and a mystery box. Now we’ve chosen to open the box, what’s inside is still unclear.

Though the referendum was not legally binding, I think it would be politically impossible for the government to ignore the result. The problem, however, with respecting the will of the people is identifying what it is that the people want. Given that the only really clear outcome of the referendum is that the people are deeply divided, and that both the Conservative Party and Labour Party have been plunged into leadership contests, probably the only certainty is that the political landscape will be unsettled for some time.