By Martin Mangler, Media Fellow reporting from the British Science Festival

Brexit – whether we loathe it or love it, no one can escape its gravity field. As it crowds our media landscape for the fourth year running, you would be forgiven to think that every possible angle of the issue has been explored. But Oxford-based professor in human geography, Danny Dorling, has an altogether different theory about the reasons behind Brexit and the future of the United Kingdom. At this year’s British Science Festival, he presented his take in an event tantalisingly entitled: “Brexit: a fairer future?”.

Dorling argues that contrary to the common narrative, Brexit was not primarily driven by votes from the neglected North of England, but rather by old, relatively well-off conservatives in the South of England who felt nostalgia for the empire, and that their personal wealth was threatened.

In his talk at the British Science Festival, Dorling presented surprising statistics from the 2016 referendum, backing up his hypothesis: English heartlands like Hampshire, Cornwall and Kent all accrued more absolute Leave votes than supposed Brexit heartlands like Stoke-on-Trent or Sunderland. ”The BBC should have always gone to Cornwall instead of the Nottinghamshire cornfields to talk about Leave”, Dorling pointed out.

What is it then, that we could have found out by visiting the South of England? Dorling suspects that, beneath many voting decisions in those areas, lies a centuries-old belief that British is somehow “exceptional”. These views are rooted in the British Empire but have been called into doubt since the Second World War. The Suez Crisis 1952, the subsequent decolonisation of Africa, and the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, trace the end of the Empire and map out the decline of British influence on the world stage.

Dorling argued that unlike other former colonial powers, such as the Netherlands, Britain has never reviewed its colonial past. Instead, the UK, and specifically the more conservative South of England, preserve a deeply ingrained belief in British superiority up until the present day. Dorling believes a major reason for this is the British education system: “We have a very high opinion about ourselves because of how we teach our history. We tell ourselves a story of empire which is very different from the story that is told elsewhere”.

In light of this, I revisited some research carried out by the British Science Association in 2016-17. They found that although people who have a science-related job or study science were more likely to have voted remain, the majority wasn’t as large as had been expected. You can read more about how Brexit intersects with peoples’ relationship with science in the blog: “The Brexit chasm” or see the breakdown of figures in the image below (further explained in the aforementioned blog).

Visually aided by a myriad of vintage Empire propaganda posters and photos of present-day Britain, Dorling argued that while British exceptionalism has survived the blows of past decades, they certainly have inflicted painful wounds. But rather than simply dwelling in nostalgia, for many people, Brexit offered a last opportunity to defend, redefine and restore British greatness against a foreign power (in this case, the European Union).

Dorling suggests that the slow progress in Brexit negotiations will eventually lead to more reflection about the UK’s role in the world. “We had a much, much poorer hand to play than any of us thought we had”, he said at the end of the event, adding in the same breath a message of hope for a better, more equal society: “But once we realise this, it’s going to be a good thing. It will be a fairer future.”

Witnessing Dorling’s polemic and fierce criticism of British exceptionalism was as entertaining as it was polarising. During the event, I couldn’t help thinking that his scathing rhetoric might actually be doing his hypothesis a disservice. After all, I believe Dorling has touched a nerve with his take on Brexit that few people across the political spectrum in the UK even realise exists. Without intending to dismiss other driving factors behind Brexit, Dorling’s analysis certainly reveals a need for reflection that tends to be overlooked in this country.