Brexit referendum

The UK Brexit referendum of 23 June 2016, which resulted in a surprise vote to leave the European Union, has been revolutionary in its impact. Initiated by Prime Minister Cameron as a means to resolve a long-term split in his party over Europe and to head off a threat from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) on his right, it became an insurrection over the remoteness of the affluent and cosmopolitan “metropolitan elite” from the mass of provincial, rural and small-town England and Wales in particular.  It has finally exposed a long-developing shift in political alignments, and, given how fundamentally Brexit is likely to impact the UK, could result in a significant change in policy, party-political support and how politicians relate to their voters.

Why the referendum was called

The eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, supported by a powerful eurosceptic press, had for long been campaigning to take Britain out of the EU. Ever since the Maastricht Treaty (1992) which set up the EU, the issue was toxically divisive for the Tories. Polls showed at the most luke-warm support for continued membership although on the eve of the referendum still indicated a majority for Remain. UKIP had developed an opinion poll support of between and 13 and 20% and in 2014 had won a by-election from the Tories in Clacton, which it held in 2015. While in opposition, the Tories were mainly anti-EU but when Cameron became PM in 2010 he was in coalition with the pro-EU LDP (Liberal Democrat Party). He tried to keep the peace both with the latter and his own pro-EU Tories, and also tried to keep onside the at least 100-strong rebellious eurosceptics. Such was the eurosceptic grip, both in Parliament and among party activists, that Cameron was constantly under pressure and forced into concessions. Eventually, in his Bloomberg speech (2013) he gave in and promised a referendum but only after he attempted to “re-negotiate” the terms of membership.

Having won the 2015 election, Cameron did secure small-scale changes, the most well-known being an opt-out from the EU core concept of “ever closer union” and a temporary freeze in immigration from EU countries. He then called the referendum, arguably gambling that the small pro-Remain poll lead would see him through, especially once the economic costs of leaving had been fully presented. Knowing that referendums have usually voted against change and having won the Scottish referendum against independence in 2014 as well as the general election in 2015, he thought he could pull it off again. So too thought many pundits.

The Campaign

The UK government were a party to the campaign, led vigorously by Cameron. The Remain camp paid scant attention to the principle of European unity and instead invested heavily in the economic case. In general a key deciding factor in voting is the economy. Called “Project doom” by the Leave side, not only the government but a series of independent expert bodies all argued, based on research, that the economic costs of leaving the EU were too high (for details, see article here). Most of the cabinet, most MP’s, business, and others in the “elite”, supported by EU and other Western leaders, backed Remain. Surely, it was thought, no sane and rational person could contemplate anything other than voting in the national interest to Remain in the EU. Curiously these factual arguments turned voters off and the powerful guns proved ineffective on the day. The gamble failed.

The Leave camp ran a well-organised and financed campaign to “take back control“. The British Parliament they argued had lost sovereignty to a remote and bureaucratic “Brussels” elite. In addition the EU was seen as in part responsible for unacceptably high levels of immigration, which chimed effectively with TV images of Muslim migrants seemingly flooding uncontrollably into Europe from the war-torn Middle East and North Africa.They argued that the large amounts of money paid to “Brussels” could instead go to fund the under-financed NHS, to the tune it was alleged of £350m a week, a figure quickly withdrawn after the result.

The result: a revolution

Despite Cameron’s optimism, the small poll lead for Remain was transformed into a small Leave lead when the result was announced, 52% to 48% on a 72% turnout.

While metropolitan and city areas like London, Bristol, and Manchester voted Remain, along with Scotland and Northern Ireland, outside the metropolises, in Southern English relatively-affluent rural areas, the East coast, the Midlands, the North, and South Wales voted massively to Leave.

The socio-economic facets of this Leave vote are hugely instructive for the transformation that Britain is undergoing. It is striking how the vote divided despite the very strong economic arguments for Remain.

  1. Working class revolt: The industrial parts of the East coast, Midland, Northern and South Wales areas would usually have voted Labour in general elections, a long-term tribal loyalty. Now however their vote was not submerged in multiple single member constituencies. Despite Labour’s support for Remain, traditional Labour heartlands voted to leave: for example “rock solid” ex-mining centre Barnsley voted 68%. Sunderland, despite having the prestige Nissan plant which could be impacted by Leave, voted 61%. Walsall voted 68% for Leave, an unemployment black spot in the West Midlands. It should be noted that these areas are ones of former traditional heavy industry and hit by globalisation and de-industrialisation. These are the people whom Goodwin and Ford have dubbed the “left behind“, by the forces of economic and social change and globalisation. They finally had their revenge for 30+ years of marginalisation and neglect. One key value has stood out in post-referendum surveys, that for many voters outside the metropolitan areas many were “looking back” to perceived better times in the past. So, across the country, social groups C2 and DE each voted 64% to Leave, while 57% of AB’s voted Remain.
  2. Education: Remainers were also more likely to be university graduates. A majority (57%) of those with a university degree voted to remain, as did 64% of those with a higher degree and more than four in five (81%) of those still in full time education. Areas with a high proportion of graduates like Cambridge or Richmond Upon Thames were Remain, a factor recently borne out too by the surprise LDP by-election victory in the latter area in December 2016. Among those whose formal education ended at secondary school or earlier, a large majority voted to leave.
  3. Age and differential turnout: Leavers were heavily represented in the over-65 age bracket, and they were the most likely to turn out and vote. 90% in fact voted, whereas only it was 64% amongst the 18-24 group. 70% of young voters chose Remain, while 60% of over-65’s voted Leave.
  4. Region and nation: The referendum result leaves the UK more fractured and divided than for a long time. As well as the social class, education and age differences shown above, London and other metropolitan centres who have done relatively well since the 2008 crash are shown more as Remain while rural, small town, and provincial areas were more Leave. These latter areas have, many of them, seen little if any growth since 2008. Scotland and Northern Ireland were strongly Remain, unlike England and Wales, thus putting strain on the devolution arrangements.
  5. Immigration and Nationalism: Brexiters in the Tory party and Farage’s UKIP were able to play on the emotional pull of British identity at a time of seemingly uncontrollable change, one could say more English than British as far as voters were concerned. The Remain team were totally unable to answer the Leave camp’s attack on immigration, a key concern as shown in Ipsos Mori’s political issue polling as the top political issue of concern to voters. Nationalism was a strong undercurrent, implicit with regard to the “Take back control” and “Get our country back” mantras in relation to the power of “Brussels” and immigration. The spike in hate crimes also showed a rise in racism.
  6. Values and culture: Older white socially conservative working class voters from the “regions” increasingly see themselves at odds with an educated, relatively prosperous socially liberal cosmopolitan elite and thus unwilling to support the lead given by Labour who are seen as part of this latter community. The less travelled people were, and the less they engaged with the outside world, the more they were likely to have voted Brexit. Surveys have shown that about 48% of the voting population holds “authoritarian populist” views according to YouGov, negative about human rights, the EU and immigration and favouring rolling back the state. Some have speculated that UK politics may be shifting towards the “culture wars” seen in the US, a polarisation more around values than the old social class factor in voting behaviour in the past. Thus, according to a study of the result, Brexit voters were more “authoritarian” than “libertarian”, by 66% to 18%. In general, political scientists have been arguing for some time that social class and the “left/right wing” divide is now much more complex, some seeing a 4-way split between authoritarian/libertarian on one axis and right/left on the other. Furthermore social class is now more likely to be segmented into much more complex groups (see the BBC survey, for example).
  7. Credibility and media influence: The role of the media is often over-stated (“It was the Sun wot won it” – Sun headline, 1992 election). Often people see through and ignore the bias of their media source, if any. Also newspaper circulation is in serious decline. However most of the press is Brexit and it has been stated that this time the influence was more marked than usual. A complicating factor is considered to be the role of social media, and the tendency to believe what is read in people’s media and “friend bubbles” as against the views of experts, the latter being seen as having diminished credibility when their findings are contradicted in some way by other research or reports. “Britain has had enough of experts”, said Michael Gove during the campaign. Some have since speculated about a “post-truth” society, where lies and myths trump reason (Pun not intended).

All is changed

Britons woke after the referendum to find their country radically changed. The vote has revealed changes to full glare that were a long time in the making, which could unseat old political loyalties. Moreover a popular vote has triggered a massive shift in policy, one that has profound implications, for trade, migration, foreign policy, Britain’s role in the world, her constitutional make-up, and the political balance of power at Westminster, to name a few. This marks a major shift in how the country (countries?) sees herself. It is arguably nothing short of a revolution.

As an English European this is the biggest political defeat of my life“, Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies, Oxford University, 24 June 2016.

Dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom“, Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, 24 June 2016


Further reading

Research on importance of immigration, sense of lack of control and of having lost out compared with other groups in society, and shift towards emotion-based political choices among poorer voters in Referendum: Click here

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