MILTON KEYNES (UNITED KINGDOM) (AFP) – It’s got money, jobs and it voted Brexit: the town of Milton Keynes near London represents a slice of middle-class voters fed up with a political elite ignoring their concerns.
Just as in the United States, it was not just struggling blue-collar workers fed up with the flip side of globalisation who rebelled last year.
“We continually underestimate the silent majority,” said Richard Heffernan, an expert in government at The Open University, which was set up in Milton Keynes shortly after the town was established in 1967.
Three days after the inauguration of billionaire property tycoon Donald Trump as US president on January 20, the town will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
Enjoying some of the best employment and growth rates in Britain, Milton Keynes could have been fertile ground for those backing the status quo in Britain’s 2016 vote on whether to stay in the European Union.
But the 250,000-strong town voted by 51 percent for Britain to leave the bloc, closely mirroring the 52-48 vote split across the country.
Alongside the state of the economy, Britons who voted to leave the EU said their two other motivating factors were the influx of East European immigrants and the importance of national sovereignty.
In Milton Keynes, the latter seemed to dominate.
“It was not so much immigration as sovereignty and accountability,” 69-year-old retired nurse Diana Miller said of her Leave vote as she toured an exhibition to mark the town’s anniversary.
In the 1975 referendum on Britain’s entry into what was then the European Economic Community, “we voted for the common market, not a loss of sovereignty,” she said.
“We are a powerful country, we value our independence.”
– ‘Bang on the money’ –
The townsfolk put their concerns over the EU directly to then prime minister David Cameron in a television special four days before the June 23 referendum.
Voters quizzed Cameron on immigration, the possibility of Turkish accession to the bloc and the idea of spending more money on the National Health Service (NHS) instead of the EU budget.
The Brexit result exposed a gulf between Remain-voting metropolitan types and the Leave-backing post-industrial north, just as the US vote revealed divisions between city liberals and rural conservatives.
Yet in both countries, it was quiet support in those places in between that really made the difference.
“As the nation goes, so goes Milton Keynes,” said Heffernan.
“It’s moderate, centrist, and since 1997 it has been an electoral bellwether, in the same way as Ohio in the United States.
“In terms of Brexit, it was bang on the money.”
But the depth of its euroscepticism did not set alarm bells ringing for the establishment, despite political parties spending years doing focus groups in Milton Keynes, seen it as a microcosm of public opinion.
“A lot of people who study politics and analyse it are part of a metropolitan elite,” Heffernan told AFP.
“The liberal elite’s inability to represent many people was held against them.”
Following the Brexit and Trump votes there are now a plethora of anti-establishment movements in Europe seeking to rise up against urban and political elites, as well as against Brussels, and “return” their countries to the struggling middle classes.
– Boomtown backs Brexit –
The 50-year story of Milton Keynes is being told in an exhibition entitled “A New City Comes To Life”, which is located in the main shopping centre.
Built as a 1960s futuristic vision, its grid-pattern layout is unique in Britain and its green-fringed boulevards were purpose-built for the motor age.
Sited in the prosperous southeast of England, its major local employers include Spanish bank Santander and German carmakers Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz.
It has seen the highest jobs growth of any British city, up 18 percent between 2004 and 2013.
Milton Keynes-born Katherine Moore, 31, who is qualified in catering but off work while looking after her baby, said: “There’s always good job opportunities here. If you’re trained in those fields, there’s so much work. I will never leave.
“The only reason I voted out was the NHS. But we need the foreign people, they built it up.”
Heffernan said it was alienation, not apathy, that stirred hitherto silent centrists into backing Brexit and Trump.
“It applies to middle-class professionals as much as to people who hammer metal,” he said.
“Politicians are now like rabbits caught in the headlights. They’re aware the guy driving at them doesn’t like them — and they don’t know what to do.”