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

On 23 June 2016, voters were asked in a referendum whether they wanted Britain to remain in the EU or to leave it in a ‘Brexit’.  This amounted to asking if they were satisfied with the status quo, because no one had defined what a post-Brexit Britain might look like.  People were experiencing different kinds of dissatisfaction, not all of which were connected to EU membership.  The result was a narrow decision, 52% to 48%, to leave.

There were three main strands of public discontent – nostalgia, neoliberalism and feeling left behind – as illustrated in the diagram below (the numbers on the diagram relate to the paragraphs of explanation which follow it):

  1. As revealed in a YouGov survey three days after the vote, 71% of people in the 18-24 age range voted to remain in the EU, 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.[1]  They believed that Britain could proudly stand alone: “Land of hope and glory”.  They wanted to recover the country’s sovereignty.  The Vote Leave campaign came up with the powerful slogan “take back control”, to resonate with these voters.  Boris Johnson inspired confidence by his energy and ability to brush opposition aside: he was an authoritarian populist (6.3.2.6).
  2. Margaret Thatcher was a champion of deregulation and free trade. She had been instrumental in setting up the EU Single Market, but she disliked the Commission’s increasing bureaucracy and its desire for more integration.  She said in her Bruges speech in 1988: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”  That fed Euroscepticism in her party, including the writers of Britannia Unchained.  They wanted to leave the EU in pursuit of a deregulated neoliberal vision of a “global Britain”, able to trade with other faster-growing parts of the world.  George Monbiot’s article, Billionaires bought Brexit, also identified neoliberalism as the motivation for wealthy sponsors of the leave campaigns and the newspaper owners who supported them.
  3. Globalisation and neoliberalism (3.5.9.1) 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 economic issue, whose political aspects are examined later in this chapter (6.7.8) and which is summarised in the last chapter (9.3).  UK governments of both political parties had ignored ex-industrial regions – leading to feelings of neglect; the YouGov survey showed that people were more likely to have voted to leave the EU if they lived in these regions.  Vote Leave analysed Facebook data to build a database of people’s profiles – which include those who had lost confidence in the political system and did not usually vote; the campaign spent more than £2.7m on Facebook advertising to reach them with cleverly targeted (and dishonest) messages, including the claim that Turkey was joining the EU for example.
  4. Some people associated social change with immigration. Nigel Farage and the millionaire Arron Banks set up the Leave.eu campaign, which attracted supporters of UKIP and the anti-immigrant British National Party.  Leave.eu successfully stimulated a wave of ‘alt-right’ identity politics (6.2.4.6), using propaganda with echoes of Nazism.  They persuaded voters that they needed to “take back control” of the UK’s borders by leaving the EU – which had received a large influx of refugees, mainly from wars in Syria and Afghanistan.  Islamists of Arab origin had recently perpetrated terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, so immigration had become associated with terrorism.
  5. George Osborne was the Chancellor in Conservative governments following the Great Recession.  He was a Thatcherite and wanted to reduce the size of the Welfare State.  Although most economists since Keynes have advocated stimulating an economy during a recession (3.3.8.2), Osborne took the opportunity to persuade his colleagues and the country that a period of austerity was necessary: to ‘balance the books’.  He reduced welfare benefits, resulting in economic hardship – especially for poorer families.  Austerity bred distrust and resentment against the government and the Treasury.  When the government advised people to vote to remain in the EU, people naturally did the opposite – encouraged by Michael Gove saying that “we have had enough of experts”.

Voters in this last category could be described as victims of neoliberalism, yet they voted for a Brexit that included what the neoliberals themselves wanted: free markets and a desire for less regulation.  People with very different reasons for voting to leave the EU became united with nationalist fervour, seeking to recover Britain’s sovereignty.  An LRB article, New-Found Tribes, describes how British nationalism was a more important factor than economic considerations for many voters.

A BBC article, Eight reasons Leave won the UK’s referendum on the EU, described how Vote Leave ran a more effective campaign than the government – though arguably more dishonest.  The government, in arguing for a vote to remain in the EU, tried to play on people’s fears of the unknown – “Project Fear” – and failed to put forward positive arguments for retaining Britain’s influence on its more powerful neighbour.

The suggestion that Britain could “take back control” of its sovereignty is unrealistic.  Michael Gove appeared to offer an intellectual justification for Brexit – but he 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.  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 – and, as noted above (6.6.5.4), many Brussels regulations were designed by the British.  As for legal constraints, Britain had signed several of the relevant international treaties before it joined the EU (5.3.5.5).

In the four and a half years that it took to negotiate exit from the EU, British public opinion had already swung slightly against Brexit.  Boris Johnson’s government negotiated a trade deal that prioritised sovereignty over frictionless trade and cooperation with the EU.  It is easier to see the cost of Britain’s surge of nationalism than it is to predict what economic benefits might be gained in the long-term future. 

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This is a current page, rewritten since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6588b.htm

[1] 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”.