You Brexit, You Buy It: Why Did Britain Vote 'Leave'?

The author argues that British politicians only have themselves to blame for the Brexit crisis.  

The 2010s have probably been the most turbulent decade for British politics in the post-war period. There have been three general elections, two United Kingdom-wide referendums (one on the Alternative Vote reform and the other, famously on membership of the European Union), two separate national referendums (in Wales and in Scotland, including on Scottish independence), and for good measure, one election to the European Parliament. 

While all of these were remarkable for a number of reasons in their own right, it was the 2016 referendum asking the voters of the UK whether they wished to remain a member of the 28-member European Union or not, that resulted in the most controversial outcome.  The 2016 Brexit referendum, with  51.9% in favour of leaving and 48.1% voting to remain, 17.4m to 16.1 million (m) (BBC 2016), was an unexpected blow to the political classes, who have since been negotiating to voluntarily leave the largest and most successful political and economic union in modern times.

The EU is an entity that is an emerging superpower, has a combined gross domestic product of more than $22 trillion (IMF 2018), contains more than half a billion people (Worldometers 2019), and allows those citizens free movement to live, work, and study in any of its member countries from the Arctic Circle to the tip of North Africa and from the shores of the Black Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. While the EU may be imperfect, it will nevertheless go down in history as one of the continent’s boldest and most ingenious political experiments. Let us not forget that its founding fathers’ original aims to make war between its members “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible” has been achieved (EU Publication Office 2017); a remarkable triumph given Europe’s history of unrestrained bloodletting in two world wars in the first half of the 20th century. That so many people are either unaware of this, choose to overlook it, or take this hard-won peace for granted, is telling of how successful the European Union has been in achieving its primary purpose.

For the past two-and-a-half years, the functioning of the UK Parliament and indeed the whole of politics has been totally absorbed by the Brexit debate. Little has been achieved by the government or Parliament in that time, whether on the home front or with regards to Britain’s relations with Europe and indeed the rest of the world. 

As Britain hurtles towards the deadline for leaving one of the world’s most successful institutions, the question must be asked: was the outcome of the Brexit Referendum an outburst of Europhobic xenophobia (Wheatcroft 2016), an anti-elite expression of mistrust by the “left-behind” against globalisation (Hobolt 2016), or a hankering after a long-lost (if indeed it ever existed), mythical imperial heyday. I shall argue that while this fit of pique by the British electorate was a combination of all three, the real problem lies in the British political system and its leaders, all of whom have been shown to be woefully inadequate to face the challenges that Brexit has thrown up.

Migrants and the European Union

The UK’s relationship with mainland Europe has been complex and complicated. The British, and particularly the English, see themselves as Europeans by an accident of geography. Certainly from Oliver Cromwell onwards, they like to see themselves as a race apart, chosen by God, above all others. The author Geoffrey Trease wrote that children’s storybooks showed that “the British must always win. One Englishman equals two Frenchmen equals four Germans equals any number of non-Europeans (Knuth 2012).”  

To the above we must add the national myth that Britain stood alone in Second World War II as “a plucky little island defying the massed ranks of fascists and Nazis” (Micner 2016), until the Americans—somewhat belatedly and reluctantly—sent men and materiel to help defeat those two great 20th century evils. However, what nearly all Britons tend to forget, is that Britain alone did not fight the war. Rather, it was the British Empire, with over two million soldiers from undivided India forming “the largest volunteer army in the world” (Viswanathan 2014), serving the British in theatres of war in Europe, Africa, and of course Asia, as it had done in the First World War I.

The huge costs of fighting two world wars placed a massive burden on the UK economy, and the country was left effectively bankrupt. After 1945, Britain gradually gave in to independence movements from within her empire, and the humiliating Suez Crisis of 1956 eroded her status as a global superpower. The UK then, and to some extent even now, strongly believed that she was as much an Atlantic power as a European one, and that her ties to the United States (US) mattered at least as much, if not more than her ties to Europe. After years of debate (and rebuffs), the UK formally joined the European Economic Community, the forerunner to the European Union, on 1 January 1973 (Marr 2007).Thus from the very beginning of Britain's formal relationship with and entry into the European Common Market, the British have been pulled three ways: to Europe, to the US, and to the Commonwealth.

Whilst xenophobia and indeed hostility to immigration is nothing new in British public and political life—anti-Irish sentiments in the 19th century (Wohl 1990), anti-Semitic ones in the early 20th century (Gainer 1972), or even opposition to “coloured” immigrants from the Caribbean and South Asia in the 1960s and 1970s  (Holmes 1994)—it had always remained an abhorred minority interest aired, for the most part, by oddball elements of British right-wing fringe.

Even so, this trope was picked up every now and again by “respectable” mainstream politicians: infamously, during Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 interview[1]

Now, that is an awful lot [of migrants] and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in. 

But, almost always, these comments were swiftly disowned and discredited by other “respectable” politicians, often from their own side.

Since the 1980s, Britons have generally thought (according to opinion polls) that there were “too many immigrants” (Collins 2016). However, the relative importance of immigration as an issue compared to others such as the economy or the National Health Service was almost insignificant until the mid-2000s. From the late 1990s some sections of the British tabloid press picked up and exploited this element of xenophobia and the government responded by itself using harsher language and introducing tougher measures against immigrants (Smith 2014). There was a general blurring of the distinction between asylum seekers, illegal migrants, illegal working and criminal activity, all of which fed and encouraged a general suspicion of all migrants. The media began to gorge itself on stories featuring refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, and migrants, few of which presented the new arrivals in a positive light, and who were often portrayed by the press as posing a problem (Lubbers 2004).

In the 2000s, as the EU moved to “ever closer union” and “ever deeper integration,” Eurosceptics within the Conservative party began to talk openly of leaving the EU (Szczerbiak and Taggart 2008). In 2004, the EU undertook its largest ever expansion with the accession of 10 new members: primarily, former Baltic members of the Soviet Union and a handful of Central and Eastern European states, as well as the island states of Cyprus and Malta (Europa 2004)  While both the Labour and Conservative parties were in favour of enlargement, the latter once again aired the old racist canard of immigrants both taking and displacing native jobs, whilst oxymoronically claiming welfare benefits (Pitcher 2006).

David Cameron, once elected in 2010 as the head of Britain’s first peacetime coalition government in eight decades, said that he wanted his party to stop “banging on about Europe.” To this end, he decided, in 2013, to make a manifesto commitment on an “in/out” referendum at the 2015 general election. In a remarkably frank interview with the BBC, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, recalls asking then Prime Minister David Cameron (Boffey 2019),

Why did you decide on this referendum? It’s so dangerous, so even stupid, you know, and he told me, and I was really amazed and even shocked, that the only reason was his own party ...  [Cameron] felt really safe, because he thought ... that there’s no risk of a referendum, because his coalition partner, the Liberals, would block this idea of a referendum. But then, surprisingly, he won [the general election] and there was no coalition partner. So paradoxically, David Cameron became the real victim of his own victory.

Disaffection with The Political Classes

Throughout the 2000s trust between politicians and the public was eroding. There was a feeling that politicians had become too polished and too remote from “ordinary folk”, and that this “professionalisation” of politics was a major factor in voters’ growing disaffection with the political classes (Allen and Campbell 2013). A common worry was that Parliament was being run by the “Oxbridge elite” (Ryan 2016), with politicians often taking similiar routes to becoming Member of Parliaments: a degree at one of the more prestigious universities, a stint as a researcher for a sitting MP or a job in whichever party’s central office, or as a special adviser to a minister, followed by parachuting into a safe seat, strictly adhering to the party line and the inevitable climbing up the pole to a potential junior post in the government, and if lucky to the Cabinet itself (Malone 2015).

Following on from the world-wide recession of 2008, the UK economy declined by more than 4% the following year, by far her worst performance since World War II. The Conservative-led coalition government (23 of whose members, including Cameron, were millionaires Glen 2010) then set about a programme of savage austerity (BBC 2010) under the non-ironic slogan of “We’re all in this together.

These cuts hit hardest in those areas of the UK, such as the North of England, central Scotland, and South Wales, which were not only suffering from the 2008 recession but had suffered years of neglect and under-investment following the hollowing out of traditional heavy industries such as ship-building, iron and steel, and coal-mining that Margaret Thatcher’s neo-liberal policies had inflicted in the 1980s (Wood 2010).

To top it off, the “expenses scandal,” which broke in 2009, struck a blow to the British peoples’ trust in their MPs. Reports of widespread misuse and abuse of parliamentary allowances and expenses involving dozens of MPs claiming hundreds of thousands of pounds to which they were either not entitled or which they had to repay, caused shock, disbelief, and anger among the public and which resulted in many MPs resigning, or retiring or being sacked or de-selected (Telegraph 2009). 

The 2016 Brexit Referendum, therefore, highlighted some current divisions in British society and brought them to the forefront (Freedman 2016):

The divide between the young and old.

The divide between those with a higher education and those without.

The divide between residents of the cosmopolitan cities and those from rural areas and small towns.

The divide between the Celtic fringes and England.

The divide between the “left-behind” and the socially liberal whose views and values on everything from race, sexuality, immigration, and identity clashed almost irrevocably.

All of these were major contributors to the result of the referendum.


Harking After A Long Lost Empire

There was an unwritten arrogance and misplaced self-belief bordering on delusion that the UK could walk away from her allies, her friends and indeed, her European family without a care in the world as if the good ship Britannia would sail the world unencumbered by reason, reality, and rectitude. The prevailing sentiment was that this ship would sail back in time and land in the heyday of the Empire. 

The British also assumed that Commonwealth countries would surely want their coloniser to come back and retake her seat at the head of the table. Reality, however, paints a different picture: After World War II, nearly half of British trade was with the Commonwealth (de Bromhead et al 2017), but today it is less than 10% (House of Commons 2019). Further, as was made clear at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2018, the rest of the Commonwealth countries simply have no wish to become the UK’s post-Brexit crutch (Dickinson 2018)—countries like Australia and New Zealand are already negotiating bilateral free-trade agreements with the EU, and these deals are much more valuable to them (Boffey 2018).

One Twitter user succinctly summed up the UK’s trade debacle, writing that Brexit was like cancelling your Netflix subscription and instead negotiating with each individual film producer separately to get the best deal for yourself.[2]

The rhetoric by the “leave” camp was that the UK could look further afield, seek global markets to trade bilaterally with whomsoever she wished. While this is not impossible, the reality is that the UK exports more to Ireland (a country of fewer than five million people) than to all the big hitters of the Commonwealth combined, (that is, in order, Canada, Singapore, Australia, India, South Africa, and Malaysia). Indeed her exports to the Benelux countries (fewer than 30 million consumers) are twice as much as that to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa possessing 3 billion consumers) combined. Trading with the wider world, while doable, is by no means easy. 

The Way Forward

As it stands, we have a situation in the UK, where, as some might say a foolish short-term decision taken by, again some might say, an arrogant and hubristic Prime Minister to go ahead with a referendum simply to shut up the Europhobic right-wing of his own party has plunged the UK into a crisis wholly of its own making with some of the most damaging consequences since the World War II.

At the time of writing this, there are various ways forward:

Do nothing, and the UK will crash out of the EU in a “no deal” scenario. All EU rules and regulations will instantly cease to apply to the UK as of 11pm on the 29th of March 2019. This means there will be no remaining agreements between the UK and the EU on how to manage customs, trade, travel, or most importantly, citizens’ rights. The most significant consequence, however, would be political rather than simply economic: a “hard” Brexit reintroduces border checks on some 300 crossing points along the 500kilometre border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The EU has suggested a “backstop”  which would see Northern Ireland continue to follow the same rules as the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU for a brief period while both sides try to work out what to do in the longer term (Campbell 2018). Neither the Conservatives nor the Democratic Unionist Party want this as it would treat one part of the UK differently from the rest.

When Prime Minister Theresa May came to the House of Commons with a deal which she, and the EU, said was the best that the UK was going to get, the proposal was rejected 202–432 (Cooper 2019), the largest defeat on a government motion ever.

A second option is for the UK to ask the EU to postpone her departure for anything between three and nine months to try to achieve a negotiated deal. However, given that the EU has insisted that what has thus far been negotiated is the “best and only deal possible” (Banks 2018), it is difficult to see what more concessions the UK could wring from the EU.

The UK could also unilaterally revoke Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon as the EU’s top court has declared that she can, and go back to square one (Smyth 2018). Given that the UK is constitutionally a parliamentary democracy, Parliament and parliamentarians of all political parties could be brave and statesmanlike enough to do the job that they were elected to do, namely, to act in the best interests of the people and the country. However, as Parliament is split not only along pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit lines, but also along party lines with at least half a dozen different factions, including those on the Conservative payroll (ministers and the like), Conservative and Labour “loyalists”, Conservative and Labour Europhiles, Conservative and Labour Brexiteers, as well as anti-Brexiteers including the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru and the Greens, this may be mere wishful thinking.

Perhaps the only viable way forward is for the UK to move to a “People’s Vote” or “second referendum”, wherein the full facts of the UK’s membership of the European Union are laid out before the people. At present, this option has support. There has been a change in perception amongst the public, with over 6,70,000 people demonstrating in London in October 2018 for a “People’s Vote” (Buchan 2018). Opinion polls also show a clear and commanding lead for people wanting to stay in the EU especially now that the Labour Party has finally decided to endorse a second referendum between Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal and staying in the EU (National 2019). 

It remains to be seen whether the political classes will listen to the will of the people and heed their voice.

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