‘New political divides’ opening up between countryside and city dwellers across Europe, research suggests

·4-min read
Away from metropolitan centres Europeans tend to become increasingly right wing, less trusting, but more likely to vote (Getty)
Away from metropolitan centres Europeans tend to become increasingly right wing, less trusting, but more likely to vote (Getty)

Political polarisation in the 21st century could be linked to whether you live in the countryside or in a city, according to new research examining civic attitudes across Europe.

Analysis by a research team at the University of Cambridge suggests political division is “opening up” across the continent, with an increasing level of “disenchantment and distrust in democracy” that rises from lower levels in urban centres, but goes up through suburbs, towns, villages and is at its highest out in the open country.

But the researchers said ​​that while people in more rural parts of Europe have the lowest levels of trust in their nation’s current political system, they are significantly more likely than their urban counterparts to actually vote in elections.

Those in suburbs, followed by towns and then the countryside, are increasingly more likely to see themselves as politically conservative, and hold anti-immigration and anti-EU views, while city dwellers lean towards the left.

The team, from Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy and Department of Land Economy, said their study suggests a “deepening geographical fracture” in European societies, which could see “a return to the stark urban-rural political divides of the early 20th century”.

“Those living outside of Europe’s major urban centres have much less faith in politics,” said study co-author Professor Michael Kenny from the Bennett Institute.

“The growth of disenchantment in more rural areas has provided fertile soil for nationalist and populist parties and causes – a trend that looks set to continue.

“Mainstream politicians seeking to re-engage residents of small towns and villages must provide economic opportunities, but they also need to address feelings of disconnection from mainstream politics and the changes associated with a more globalised economy,” he said.

Across Western Europe, residents of rural areas are, on average, 33.5 per cent more likely to vote than those in inner cities, but they are also far less likely to engage in political actions such as protests and boycotts.

Conservatism incrementally increases as locations shift from suburb to town to the countryside.

Europeans in rural places are an average of 57 per cent more likely to feel one point closer to the right on the political spectrum (on a 10-point scale where five is the centre ground) than a city dweller.

When surveyed on whether migration and the EU “enrich the national culture”, rural Europeans are 55 per cent more likely than those in cities to disagree by one unit on a ten-unit scale.

However, on issues of the welfare state and trust in police – issues which both defined post-war rhetorical battles between left and right – no urban-rural divisions were detected, the research team said.

“Worries about law and welfare may no longer be key to Europe’s political geography in our new populist age,” said Professor Kenny.

Overall there is a global decline in satisfaction with democracy, research by the same institute revealed last year, and the latest study suggests that – in Europe, at least – this is most acute in rural locations.

After discounting characteristics typically thought to influence political attitudes, from education to age, the researchers still found that people in rural housing were 10 per cent more likely than urbanites to report a one unit drop in democratic satisfaction, on a scale of 0-10.

“We find that there is a geography to current patterns of political disillusion,” said Dr Davide Luca from the Department of Land Economy, co-author of the study.

“As disenchantment rises in European hinterlands, democratic politics risks being eroded from within by people who engage with elections yet distrust the system and are drawn to populist, anti-system parties.”

Of the thirty nations they looked at – the EU 27 plus Norway, Switzerland and the UK – France had the sharpest urban-rural divide in political attitudes.

“Large cities such as Paris and Lyon are seen to be highly globalised and full of bohemians nicknamed the ‘bobos’, while small towns and rural areas are primarily inhabited by long-term immigrants and the indigenous working classes,” Dr Luca said.

While less pronounced across the Channel, the trend is still very much in evidence in the UK. “Cambridge is a prime example,” said Dr Luca.

“The centre hosts the world’s leading labs and companies, yet greater Cambridge is one of the UK’s least equal cities – and the fenland market towns are even more disconnected from the city’s hyper-globalised core.

“Ageing populations in small towns and villages combined with years of austerity have put pressure on public services in rural areas – services that are often central to the social connections needed for a community to thrive.

“Reviving these services may be key to reducing the political divides emerging between urban and rural populations across Europe.”

The research is published in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society.

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