The British vote in 2016 to leave the EU: ‘Brexit’

There are many ways of explaining the British vote in the EU Referendum on 23 June 2016, which resulted in 52% voting to leave against 48% voting to remain in the EU.  The BBC reported the results the following day, under the heading EU referendum: The result in maps and charts.

YouGov published an analysis three days later, How Britain Voted, which identified some marked patterns in voting preferences:

  • People were more likely to have voted to leave if they lived in ex-industrial regions, where neglect by the Westminster government had probably led to discontent. Feeling ‘left behind’ was undoubtedly a major factor in wanting to leave.
  • 71% of people in the 18-24 age range voted to remain, but 64% of people aged 65 or more voted to leave – suggesting that nostalgia may have been a factor: wanting to return to the world as it was before EU membership.
  • The Leave campaign highlighted sovereignty, using the slogan “take back control”, arguing that Britain was being governed by an unelected elite in Brussels.
  • The government, in arguing for a vote to remain in the EU, tried to play on people’s fears of the unknown and didn’t put forward positive arguments for staying. The Leave campaign communicated more effectively (although not always honestly).
  • 68% of graduates voted to remain, but 70% of those whose education was to GCSE or lower voted to leave.

These five factors are examined in more detail below.

Globalisation and neoliberalism ( have benefited most people but have also created some losers in wealthy countries: people ‘left behind’.  This problem is not caused by membership of the EU (which erects tariff barriers against the rest of the world).  It is a global issue, whose political aspects are examined later in this chapter (6.7.8) and which is summarised in the last chapter (9.3).  Regional feelings of neglect are not EU-specific either (outlying regions have received a lot of EU support); they are more affected by how Britain is governed, as argued in a BBC article on 23 December 2016: What did the Brexit vote reveal about the UK?  The referendum revealed frustration with the government.

Edoardo Campanella’s article, The Global Nostalgia Epidemic, describes how “as seven recent books show, the Brexiteers’ yearning for a return to their country’s supposedly glorious imperial past is not just fanciful, but also dangerous”.  Reactionary conservatism, as described earlier in this chapter (, can be exploited by ‘authoritarian populist’ political leaders ( offering strong government, anti-immigration policies and protectionism.  There has been a resurgence of aggressive nationalism ( across Europe, reminiscent of political conflicts at the beginning of the last century.

The suggestion that Britain could “take back control” of its sovereignty is also unrealistic – as pointed out in a blog post on the Patterns of Power website in February 2016: The campaign for a Brexit.  That post was triggered by an article by Michael Gove which purported to offer a sound intellectual justification for Brexit.  He appeared to have misunderstood, or misrepresented, the nature of sovereignty (2.8.3) and the concept of agreeing a set of rules jointly with other countries for mutual benefit.  His motivation may have been as an advocate of neoliberalism – minimum regulation and ‘laissez-faire’ government (  He failed to point out that all exports have to comply with the regulations of the importing country – so freedom from regulation is a fantasy for exporters.  As noted above (, the Brussels regulations were set with British co-operation and not just handed down.  The question of our legal sovereignty was described in an earlier chapter (

The Leave campaign communicated more effectively than those who argued to remain, as described by the BBC in an article Eight reasons Leave won the UK’s referendum on the EU, which was published the day after the referendum.

  • The Remain campaign tried to use reasoned argument and financial projections prepared by civil servants, but the Leave campaign was much more effective in reaching people’s emotions ( by appealing to nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiments.
  • Both campaigns used statistics to mislead people ( but, as asserted in an opinion article in The Guardian: There are liars and then there’s Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

Michael Gove said that “People in this country have had enough of experts” – thereby dismissing careful research, exploiting people’s mistrust of the government without answering the difficult questions posed.

It is only possible to guess at why there was a correlation between having higher education and a preference for remaining in the EU.  Perhaps reasoned argument appealed more to educated people, or maybe they were less likely to feel ‘left behind’ and to value their European citizenship.

Looking at the five factors identified above, it is striking that many people who have been damaged by neoliberalism voted to leave the EU – yet neoliberals themselves also voted to leave.  This needs closer examination.  Wealthy newspaper proprietors and some very wealthy individuals backed Brexit – as pointed out by George Monbiot in an article published on 19 July 2016: Billionaires bought Brexit – they are controlling our venal political system.  They spent a lot of money to persuade people to vote to leave the EU, presumably because of an ideological belief in free markets and a desire for less regulation.

Major employers such as the car industry and aerospace, who have close links with the EU, have expressed concern about damage to their businesses.  Boris Johnson rudely dismissed those concerns, though, as described in a BBC article on 26 June 2018: Boris Johnson challenged over Brexit business ‘expletive’.  The neoliberal backers of Brexit weren’t personally dependent on the EU single market.

None of this analysis suggests that Brexit would solve the problems of many of those who voted to leave.  Nor does it suggest that the world would be a better place without the EU.


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