A tale of two cities

  • 2016-02-25
  • The Economist

BEING a Eurosceptic in a university city is a lonely business. In the drizzle outside the Cambridge Union a student in a roll-neck is trying to hand anti-EU leaflets to the cliques hurrying past. Most ignore him. One, having taken a folded piece of card, glances at it and sighs “nah”, shoving it back into the campaigner’s hand. Inside, in the neo-Gothic chamber, pro-EU luminaries ply their arguments to cheers. When Richard Tice, an anti-EU campaigner, delivers his speech students bob up and down, machine-gunning him rebarbative questions. Did regulation not exist before Britain joined the union? Why do so many firms support membership? If Britain doesn’t control its borders why do foreign students struggle to get visas? When Mr Tice quotes “the highly respected economist, Tim Congdon” (a notorious Eurosceptic) the chamber resounds to laughter and sarcastic applause.

This attitude is not limited to Cambridge’s student population. A recent debate among residents produced an even more overwhelming pro-EU vote: about 300 to six, reports Julian Huppert, a former local MP. The city’s exceptionalism is borne out by a ranking, produced by Chris Hanretty and other political scientists using polling and demographic data, of parliamentary seats in England, Scotland and Wales by their level of Euroscepticism. Cambridge came 619th of 632 with an estimated Out vote of merely 27%. Compare that with Peterborough, a similarly sized city at the other end of Cambridgeshire. At a public debate there locals voted decisively in favour of Brexit. “I asked rhetorically what the audience would put at risk to leave the EU,” recalls Mr Huppert. “They shouted back: ‘Everything’.” Sure enough, it came 49th on the ranking, with a projected 62% voting Out.

Which is curious and especially relevant today (as The Economist went to press David Cameron was in Brussels, hoping to finalise his EU renegotiation ahead of an in-out referendum). Cambridge and Peterborough are in the same part of the country. Both are about an hour by train from cosmopolitan London, are growing fast, have younger-than-average populations and mostly white-collar workforces. Both benefit from EU funds. And according to the census in 2011 they have a near-identical share of residents born in other EU countries—around one in ten. Yet one is a bastion of Europhilia, the other of Euroscepticism