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British Politics and Brexit 101: Before the Referendum – A Public Wedded to Brexit?


The United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum on European Union membership ended with the shock decision to exit the EU and started the leaving process that has come to be known as Brexit. After over 40 years of membership and integration, this decision has had profound effects not just in terms of Britain’s relationship with Europe and the wider world, but also within British politics and society. The referendum results exposed deep fissures within the United Kingdom and led to profound political realignments, with the Brexit issue likely to shape Britain for decades to come. Once considered a bastion of stability, Brexit has instead illustrated the United Kingdom as a nation in flux and undergoing a deep crisis of politics and identity. This 101 series will first investigate the reasons behind the decision to leave the European Union, before analysing the effects that Brexit has had on British domestic politics.

British Politics and Brexit 101 is divided into six different chapters:

This series will begin by examining the state of the British political debate and public attitudes towards the European Union in the years preceding the Brexit referendum. This will provide a basis for understanding how and why the issue of leaving the European Union came into the spotlight and led to a national referendum, and ultimately to Brexit. This article will first explore the level of Euroscepticism displayed by the British public, before then investigating the importance of the European Union as an issue in public opinion. Here it will be shown that, although the British public was prone to Eurosceptical attitudes, the European Union ranked consistently low as an issue of concern in the general public’s priorities, with Eurosceptical attitudes generally not strongly held.

The article will then assess the prevalence of Euroscepticism in politics, by investigating the committed role of right-wing Eurosceptic Conservative Party backbenchers in keeping the issue in the spotlight, and the rise of UKIP as an electoral threat to the Conservative Party, within which Brexit was a relevant raison d'être. The article will also examine the role of the right-wing dominated Eurosceptic press in disproportionately elevating the issue above the public’s priorities, to give Euroscepticism an outsized focus in the public debate. Finally, it will investigate the economic and socio-political context of Britain from Thatcherism through to the post-2008 Economic Crisis. Here it will be shown how post-industrial decline, inequality, immigration, parliamentary scandal and austerity all contributed to an increasing sense of political dissatisfaction and disillusionment, which proved a fertile breeding ground for Eurosceptic politicians and media.

Figure 1: The Sun (1994). The Sun's headline screams: “Now they've really gone bananas” [Photograph].

Eurosceptic or Indifferent? British Public Attitudes to the EU

Euroscepticism has been consistently a feature of British politics and public opinion ever since Britain first joined the European Economic Community (EC) in 1973. Indeed, Britain’s ascension to Europe was given an inauspicious start amidst a time of profound change for the United Kingdom, including the loss of the Empire, combined with the severe economic destabilisation of the 1973 - 1974 Oil Crisis which challenged the Post-War Consensus (Wellings, 2010). Britain’s continuing emotional attachment to the Empire was displayed in a 1974 poll on British attitudes, which showed that 59% of respondents favoured closer ties with the Commonwealth rather than Europe (Stephen, 2000). Against this backdrop, the controversy of EC membership was such that the issue was put to Britain’s first-ever national referendum in 1975, on whether the UK should remain a member of the EC. Yet, despite the rocky start, the 1975 referendum returned an overwhelming majority of 67% voting in favour of staying in the EC, on a 64.5% turnout (Geddes, 2013). This set an early benchmark for Britain’s involvement in the European project, with pragmatic engagement combined with limited emotional investment (Geddes, 2013). This is mirrored in common parlance in relation to Europe, reflecting both emotional and geographical distance, in which British people have always talked of going “to Europe” or visiting “the Continent”, with Europe referred to as a separate ’other’ (Geddes, 2013, p. 29).

Despite pragmatic engagement, the high rates of Eurosceptic attitudes displayed in Britain in relation to other European nations were always notable, with Eurobarometer polls since the 1980s showing consistently higher levels of Euroscepticism than the EU average (Gifford, 2006). Within this context, it is important to understand that British Euroscepticism constituted a broad spectrum. Wariness of increased European integration or opposition to certain policies represented the bulk of the Eurosceptic opinion, with the desire to exit EC/EU membership relegated to a largely fringe concern (Gifford, 2006). In common with the rest of Europe, Eurosceptic attitudes tended to vary among demographics, with over-55s far more likely to hold negative attitudes than younger people, and people with higher levels of education more likely to hold positive views (Clements, 2009). Nevertheless, British public opinion was consistently 10-15% lower in support of integration than the European average, and the proportion opposing integration was some 5-10% higher (Stephens, 2000). More recently, the 2009 Eurobarometer survey showed only 30% of the British public believed EU membership to be a good thing, compared to the EU average of 53% (Eurobarometer, 2009). Meanwhile, the 2011 Angus Reid Survey found that, if given a choice, 49% in Britain would have voted to exit the EU while just 25% would have voted to remain (Miller & Barclay, 2012). This would seem to be a clear omen for Brexit.

Figure 2: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone (1971). Young Brits express enthusiasm at the prospect of joining the European Union in 1971 [Photograph].

Yet what was perhaps most notable in relation to British attitudes towards Europe was instead overwhelming indifference. In most polls, negative attitudes towards the EU were held by a minority of respondents, with between 45-55% of respondents instead consistently holding views that were neither positive nor negative (Stephen, 2000; Eurobarometer, 2011). The average of Eurobarometer polls since 1983 showed the British public ranked the EU in seventh place as a topic of concern, far below priorities like the economy and healthcare — with the proportion of people stating the EU was an important issue rarely going above 25% of respondents (Usherwood, 2002). This lack of interest in turn fed into a self-reported lack of knowledge of the EU, with 82% of British respondents reporting that they knew little or nothing about EU institutions or policies (Eurobarometer, 2011). Subsequently, even for those who did hold negative attitudes toward Europe, these attitudes tended not to be strongly felt — meanwhile those with positive attitudes were not particularly enthusiastic either. As late as the 2010 General Election, 55% of respondents had not considered the EU an important electoral issue (Eurobarometer, 2011). Instead, to understand how and why Britain ended up with the Brexit referendum in the first place, despite the General Public’s overwhelming lack of interest in the EU, it is necessary to look beyond public opinion and toward the role of Euroscepticism in British politics and the media.

The Conservative Backbenches, the Press, and the Rise of UKIP

In the early years of Britain’s EC ascension, it was the left-wing that was the key source of Euroscepticism: it held indeed the belief that the EC favoured big business interests over workers, with Labour leader Michael Foot referring to the EC in the early 1980s as a “capitalist club” (Startin, 2015, p. 313). This was matched by a smaller section of the nationalistic right, who viewed the EC as a threat to Britain’s historical traditions and notions of parliamentary sovereignty (Startin, 2015). Nevertheless, most Conservatives supported the EEC as a useful trading block, short of political integration (Startin, 2015). Yet, as moves to further integrate Europe intensified, the mid-1980s saw a profound split emerge within Margaret Thatcher’s ruling Conservative Party, between those who broadly supported the EC, and those opposed to any form of further integration (Brazier, 1991). Thatcher supported the formation of the single market as a vehicle for economic free trade, leading to her signing of the 1986 Single European Act (Startin, 2015). However, she simultaneously maintained a belligerent attitude towards Europe and soon regretted integration due to its increasing focus on political and social assimilation as part of the Single Market. Her 1988 Bruges speech became a watershed for her party’s Eurosceptic wing in warning of the dangers of European federalism (Brazier, 1991). Ultimately this split led to Thatcher’s 1990 removal from office by those in favour of Europe, but it nevertheless solidified the Eurosceptic wing as an influential and powerful force within the Conservative Party that any future leaders would need to pander to (Brazier, 1991). The signing of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty saw John Major’s Conservative government from 1990 - 1997 repeatedly blocked from making legislation in bitter internal divisions with the parties Eurosceptics (Startin, 2015). Meanwhile, the Labour party began to drop its own opposition to EC integration after becoming convinced of the EC's commitment to maintaining workers’ rights and social policies (Startin, 2015).

Figure 3: Unknown (1984). Understanding Britain’s Ambivalence Toward the Continent Starts With Margaret Thatcher, Who Backed Integration Before Deeply Regretting It [Photograph].

The 1990s also signalled the increasingly active role of the right-wing British tabloid media in influencing the debate, with figures such as Rupert Murdoch owning prominent newspapers (Startin, 2015). For the proceeding decades, the British press was found to be the most consistently Eurosceptic in Europe (Hawkins, 2012). Hawkins (2012) argues that right-wing tabloids played on existing perceptions of British distinctiveness from Europe to portray the EU as a foreign power threatening British parliamentary sovereignty, or else as a bargaining forum that pitted core state national interests — such as that of France and Germany — against other periphery states including the UK. Indeed, as Statham (2007) shows, the dominance of the Eurosceptic press in setting the terms of the debate meant that pro-EU outlets were forced to react to Eurosceptic arguments, in comparison to France where Eurosceptic voices were reactionary to the dominant pro-EU integration press. This argument is supported by the fact that even the pro-EU press in the UK would engage in the Eurosceptic discourse of “core EU states” and “clashes of interests” (Hawkins, 2012, pp. 570-573). The power of this Eurosceptic press became even more apparent under Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair.

By 1997 only 3% of Labour MPs supported leaving the EU, with Labour instead coming to power promising greater positive EU engagement, including a referendum on adopting the Euro should the UK economy meet five economic tests, such as whether business structures and economic cycles were compatible between Britain and Europe (Georgiou, 2017). Nevertheless, Tony Blair actively feared the Murdoch-owned press to the extent that plans for a referendum on the Euro were eventually dropped due to the negative media reaction (Startin, 2015). Indeed, by the end of Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister in 2007, his early public enthusiasm for the EU had instead been entirely discarded as a prominent issue out of fear of the press-induced backlash (Startin, 2015). Yet, as Geddes (2013) points out, research shows that newspapers actually have a limited effect on forming people’s opinions, as people tend to buy papers that match their existing views. Geddes (2013) instead argues that the significance of the Eurosceptic press was in elevating the EU issue into one of prominent debate, whereas, as shown, the British public was generally indifferent to EU matters. Of particular significance to Eurosceptic discourse was the 2004 expansion of the EU into Eastern Europe, in which EU freedom of movement became increasingly linked to large-scale immigration, indelibly associating the two issues, and becoming the core of the anti-EU narrative (Startin, 2015). One study into the prominent Eurosceptic paper The Daily Express from 1st July 2012 to 30th June 2013 illustrates just how disproportionate their EU coverage was: of 313 editions, 33 of them had front pages featuring stories on the EU, and a further 30 had anti-immigration headlines which linked back to the EU, with EU-related stories thus representing some 20% of frontpage coverage (Startin, 2015).

Figure 4: The Daily Mail (2016). The Daily Mail corrected its front-page story claiming that migrants had said they were from Europe [Photograph].

Consequently, this Eurosceptic media spotlight on the EU increased the prominence of anti-EU political voices. Ultimately the biggest beneficiary of this discourse was the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Since its formation in 1993, UKIP had an explicit policy of pushing for a referendum on EU membership to secure the UK’s exit. For most of UKIP’s existence, it positioned itself to the right of the Conservative Party, hoping to attract disaffected Eurosceptic Tories (Fetzer, 2019). Nevertheless, the party was marginal to UK politics, with it winning around 15-16% of votes in European Parliamentary elections — which were characterised by exceptionally low turnout in the United Kingdom of around 35% — as well as some local council seats in Southeast England (Fetzer, 2019). However, the arrival of Nigel Farage as party leader in 2006 saw the party pledge to shed its image as a one-issue anti-EU party, and adopt a more openly populist right-wing nationalist stance, with a focus on anti-immigration (Martin & Smith, 2014). The party’s good performance in the 2009 European Election sprung Nigel Farage into the position of Britain’s most prominent Eurosceptic.

Nevertheless, as late as the 2010 General Election, the party was still winning only 3.1% of the national vote (Fetzer, 2019). Indeed, it was not until 2012 that UKIP — backed by increased media coverage of the EU and immigration — suddenly started to grow in the polls, leading to 22% of the national vote in the 2013 local council elections (Fetzer, 2019). Notably, the party’s base of support had expanded into ex-industrial communities of discontented ex-Labour voters (Martin & Smith, 2014). This sudden rise soon had the Conservative Party fearing a loss of support and influence to UKIP that would endanger their chances of forming a government in the 2015 General Election (Fetzer, 2019). With Brexit the central pillar of UKIPs ambitions, Prime Minister David Cameron was under pressure from the Conservative Eurosceptic wing to pander to a tougher line on Europe. Yet, even at this stage, the general public’s interests were not focused on Europe. When asked in 2013 what people felt were the top three most important issues for the country, only around 20% cited Europe, rising to 27% for the duration of the local elections (YouGov, 2014). Accordingly, it would seem UKIP were picking up support based on a wider set of issues.

Figure 5: Byrne, P. (2014). Nigel Farage launches Ukip's European election bilboard campaign in Sheffield [Photograph].

Under the Surface: Inequality, Immigration and Disillusionment

Amidst the economic boom of the pre-2008 Financial Crash, Britain appeared a self-confident and thriving globalised economy. Yet these boom years disguised deep and fundamental societal divisions. The Thatcher years of rapid deindustrialisation, whilst the markets were instead thrown open to the global financial services industry, left a legacy of deep regional inequality and resentment. Britain’s North-South divide in economic prosperity has been noted for centuries (Bachtler, 2004). Although Britain’s industrial power had begun to wane by the 1920s, the years of the so-called Post-War consensus of Social Democracy from 1945 onwards marked a time of almost full employment, record low levels of inequality and rising living standards (Bachtler, 2004). Nevertheless, by the 1970s, British industry had become uncompetitive alongside a series of economic shocks that rocked the country. Thatcher’s solution was to let British industry sink, with the hopes of counteracting this through the growth of the services industry and technological innovation in industry (Bachtler, 2004).

Figure 6: Unknown (1984). The miners' strike 1984- 85 [Photograph].

Manufacturing employment subsequently fell 35% from 7.6 million to 4.9 million between 1972 and 1991, with most of these job losses occurring between 1979 and 1987 (Bachtler, 2004). This policy for ex-industrial communities was economically devastating, with many towns, villages, and inner cities almost entirely dependent on manufacturing and other industrial jobs. However, it was also socially and culturally devastating, with much of the identity and social fabric of these places dependent upon this employment (Beider, 2015). The result was that communities across the country were left with long-term legacies of unemployment and deep social issues, that persisted even into the boom years. Meanwhile, employment in services rose from 53% to 65% of total employment between 1971 and 1984, with these jobs particularly concentrated in London and the Southeast, as well as various regional hubs (Bachtler, 2004). The consequence was a large increase not only in inter-regional inequality, but also in intraregional inequality between those places that were once entirely industry-dependent, and the ones able to attract more mixed economies (Bachtler, 2004).

Such was the dominance of Thatcher’s legacy, that even Tony Blair’s New Labour government embraced this neoliberal economic orthodoxy for growth (Wickham-Jones, 2021). Labour sought to utilise this growth to soften the worst effects of economic and social deprivation, through increased funding for social welfare, such as tax credits and benefits payments, alongside public services — including education and the NHS — which had been left in a state of disrepair after 18 years of small-state Conservative government (Wickham-Jones, 2021). Yet the lack of structural reform meant that by 2004 the UK still had the most extreme economic disparities of any EU member state. The UK contained the EU’s richest region by GDP per capita, over three times the EU average, but it also included one of its poorest, at less than 75% of the EU average (Bachtler, 2004). Even by 2010, such regional inequalities were as deep as ever, with structural issues unaddressed and these areas instead disproportionately dependent on public sector jobs (Dalingwater, 2011). Where jobs in ex-industrial communities had been replaced by the private sector, it was often in low-paid and low-skilled work such as warehousing (Dalingwater, 2011). Furthermore, societal income inequality had also continued to grow: by 2011 the average income of the top 10% was ten times as large as the poorest 10%, above the OECD average disparity of 9.5 and far above France and Germany at 7 (OECD, 2015).

Figure 7: Mitchell, J. (2015). New study finds 4.5 million UK children living in poverty - The government abolished child poverty targets in 2015 [Photograph].

One of the most dramatic changes of the New Labour years was instead in immigration policy. From the late 1950s onwards, British policy had sought to limit growing immigration from countries of the Commonwealth, whose populations had initially been encouraged to migrate to the UK to fill post-war labour shortages, before facing often racist societal backlash (Coleman & Rowthorn, 2004). However, from 1997, the liberalisation of migration policy was considered the next logical step in the liberalisation of the economy (Cerna & Wietholtz, 2011). Labour Party think-tanks considered large-scale immigration essential to British economic development, in helping counteract an ageing population by introducing a young, energetic, entrepreneurial and taxpaying workforce, to drive growth and fund public services (Coleman & Rowthorn, 2004). Furthermore, migration was welcomed as a social and cultural asset in a modern, multicultural, and globalised Britain (Coleman & Rowthorn, 2004).

Accordingly, business groups, the mainstream broadcast media, economists, and the growing university-educated urban population broadly welcomed this immigration as economically and socially beneficial to the UK (Coleman & Rowthorn, 2004). However, one of the areas in which immigration had a negative effect was employment competition and suppression of wages and conditions in low-skilled menial employment, such as warehouse work, which now made up a significant portion of employment in deprived ex-industrial communities (Coleman & Rowthorn, 2004). Yet very little had been done to sell the wider economic or social benefits of immigration to these impoverished communities, for whom the perception of the preceding twenty years had already been one of continual and terminal decline (Coleman & Rowthorn, 2004). Indeed, immigration policy had barely been mentioned as an issue in the 1997 election despite its potential for dramatic change (Coleman & Rowthorn, 2004).

Figure 8: Woodward, F. (2019). England’s population is projected to grow 5% in the next decade [Photograph].

The result was that net immigration to the UK increased from 100,000 a year in 1997, to 250,000 a year by 2002 (Coleman & Rowthorn, 2004). After the expansion of the EU in 2004, net migration further increased to around 300,000 a year, with the total number of annual immigrants numbering around 450,000 in 2006 — of which around 30% were EU migrants and 70% Non-EU (European Commission, 2008). Accordingly, the salience of immigration as an issue rapidly rose, and by 2001 the subject was regularly cited as one of the top three most important political matters facing Britain (Cerna & Wietholtz, 2011). By 2003, between 29% to 56% of people were citing it as an important issue, compared to 10% in 1993 (Coleman & Rowthorn, 2004). By 2005, it had become a campaign issue in the General Election (Cerna & Wietholtz, 2011). Yet, with much of the business and political elite, alongside the broadcast media, largely in favour of immigration, anti-immigration concerns were often excluded from debate or even derided as a xenophobic throwback at odds with a modern multicultural Britain (Beider, 2015). This left a general divergence of opinion between the political and business class in favour of immigration, and wider public opinion which viewed immigration negatively — with 60% of people in 2005 stating they felt too many immigrants lived in the United Kingdom (Cerna & Wietholtz, 2011).

Accordingly, the issue of anti-immigrant agitation fell to the tabloid press — with parties such as UKIP able to exploit anti-immigration sentiment (Startin 2015). As noted, despite EU migrants via the Single Market only accounting for around 30% of immigrants, with the remainder entering via UK-immigration policy, these Eurosceptic agitators monopolised the anti-immigration position to increasingly link EU freedom of movement to the immigration issue as a whole (Startin, 2015). Furthermore, in claiming to speak for those who felt their concerns were ignored and left outside of political debate, UKIP was able to portray itself as a political outsider and the voice of common people, despite its right-wing libertarian economics and origins of support being wealthy Eurosceptic Tories, with Nigel Farage a privately educated ex-banker (Martin & Smith, 2014).

Figure 9: Daily Mirror; Daily Star; Daily Express (2015). UK press is the most aggressive in reporting on Europe’s ‘migrant’ crisis [Photograph].

Ultimately, the New Labour years were successful in repairing the social security net for many people after 18 years of sink-or-swim Thatcherite economics, and in greatly increasing funding for education and healthcare (Wickham-Jones, 2021). Yet the embrace of Thatcherism‘s free-market reforms as well as immigration, with less ideological divergence between the main political parties, meant elections focused on competing for the middle-class vote of the political centre, with people outside of the centre feeling politically disenfranchised (Beider, 2015). The result was that voter turnout dramatically decreased, from 77% in 1992 to 71% in 1997, to just 59% in 2005 (Clark, 2022). The 2008 Financial Crisis further served to shake the foundations that furnished Britain‘s image as a modern booming economy, and instead allowed some of these simmering underlying resentments to rise to the surface. Political disillusionment was furthered by a series of political scandals, such as the 2009 revelation that many members of Parliament were abusing their financial Parliamentary allowances (Startin, 2015). Accordingly, the 2009 Eurobarometer poll showed only 19% of respondents expressed trust in the British Parliament (Eurobarometer, 2009).

The subsequent dispersal of votes in the 2010 election resulted in Britain’s first coalition government for almost forty years, led by the Conservatives and with the Liberal Democrats — Britain’s only openly pro-EU integrationist party — as a partner. The Coalition’s solution to the economic crisis was to pursue a policy of stringent austerity — with public spending slashed or frozen across the board, aiming to save £18.9 billion in government spending by 2015 (Fetzer, 2019). This meant the welfare spending that had served to soften the worst excesses of inequality in the New Labour years was rapidly removed, with real terms of welfare spending dropping 23.4% per person between 2010-2015 (Fetzer, 2019). However, this drop was regionally imbalanced — in Britain’s richest districts this spending dropped only 6.2% per person, while in Britain’s poorer communities it dropped by 43.6% (Fetzer, 2019). As Fetzer (2019) shows, the communities that experienced the highest growth of UKIP support in 2012 and 2013 — just as austerity began to bite — directly correlated with those communities feeling the worst effects of welfare cuts. Simultaneously, the ascension of Romania and Bulgaria to EU freedom of movement in 2014, and the European Migrant Crisis, flung the immigration issue back into the spotlight (Startin 2015). The tabloid media linked the degradation of public services not to the effects of austerity — where public spending was being drastically reduced — but instead to the increased pressure on public services linked to population growth through immigration (Startin 2015).

Figure 10: Getty Images (2009). A UKIP billboard from the European elections in 2009 [Photograph].

Conclusion: Economic and Political Disillusionment

UKIP continued their dramatic rise, and in 2014 won 27.5% of the vote in the European Elections, marking the first time a party other than Labour or Conservative had won the biggest share of the vote in a national election since 1910 (Startin, 2015). In response, the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservatives began agitating for a referendum on EU membership. The defection of right-wing Eurosceptic Tory MP Douglas Carswell to UKIP, granting UKIP their first Member of Parliament, further reinforced the electoral threat that the Conservatives felt from UKIP (Startin, 2015). Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, despite being in favour of the EU, sought to appeal to the Eurosceptic wing of his party by demanding the unilateral return of political powers from the EU to the UK (Startin, 2015). He further promised that, should the EU fail to deliver these demands, the Conservatives would hold a national referendum on EU membership should they win a majority in the 2015 election (Startin, 2015). The scene was thus set for the Brexit referendum.

Yet, as shown here, the EU was of largely marginal concern to the public and was instead the reserve of a relatively small band of Conservative MPs and the rising UKIP, along with their tabloid media backers. Nevertheless, Britain’s image as a confident and modern globalised nation hid numerous glaring structural, social, and political inequalities. Many communities in Britain had felt themselves in a state of terminal decline since the shocks of Thatcherism thirty years earlier. The New Labour years had softened some of the edges of economic and social deprivation through public spending, but they in turn introduced a whole new social shock in the form of large-scale immigration. This left many communities feeling politically, economically and socially marginalised, with a drastic loss of faith in mainstream politics. The 2008 Economic Crisis brought several of these issues to a head, and the implementation of austerity began to see New Labour’s social safety net removed —- bringing the issue of economic deprivation back into the spotlight. This proved a fertile breeding ground for UKIP and the Eurosceptic tabloid media to exploit - albeit with their focus of support based on the immigration issue mixed with feelings of political, social and economic marginalisation. Accordingly, UKIP’'s anti-EU stance was a lesser factor in their political rise, yet nevertheless leaving the EU remained UKIP’s central goal, alongside that of the Conservative Parties ideologically committed Eurosceptic wing.

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