British Politics and Brexit 101: The Fallout – Britain Divided
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:
British Politics and Brexit 101: Before the Referendum – A Public Wedded to Brexit?
British Politics and Brexit 101: The Referendum Campaign – A Question of Europe?
British Politics and Brexit 101: The Fallout – Britain Divided
British Politics and Brexit 101: The Disunited Kingdom – Brexit and the Nations
British Politics and Brexit 101: Political Realignment
British Politics and Brexit 101: A Country in Crisis – The Future
The nation woke up to the referendum results on the 24th of June 2016, amid a mixture of shock, excitement, wariness, joy, sadness, anger, triumphalism, hope, despair and disbelief. The country had voted to Leave the European Union. Proportionally, the referendum result represented the narrowest of margins: 51.89% had voted to Leave and 48.11% to Remain (Bonacchi, 2022). Nevertheless, this had been the largest British democratic exercise since the 1992 General Election, with a turnout of 72.2%. In numerical terms, 33.5 million people had delivered their votes, with 17.4 million people voting to Leave and 16.1 million voting to Remain (Sampson, 2017). Regardless of allegiance, it was clear to everyone that the consequences of this vote would be profound, and people would have to quickly get used to the term ‘Brexit‘. Within hours of the result David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister, stating his belief that as someone who campaigned for Remain, he would be unsuited to lead a country seeking Brexit (Glencross, 2018). This provided an early signal of the constitutional problems to come as a largely pro-Remain Parliament was charged with the implementation of a leaving process that they believed to be harmful, yet that the country had voted in favour of (Weale, 2018). Meanwhile, society was awakening to the fact that they were living in a country with a new and definitive division right down the middle: those in favour of Brexit and those against it. This fracture was not just one of political identity, but seemingly one of the people’s fundamental readings of society and the wider world. The referendum campaign had been acrimonious, and it was clear these tensions would endure.
This article will analyse the immediate societal and political fallout of the Brexit referendum. This will begin with an analysis of the demographics and political allegiances of those who voted for Brexit and Remain, to pinpoint the significance and meaning of this political and societal fracture. Here it will be shown how age and education were the clearest signifiers of the likelihood to vote for or against Brexit. Nevertheless, the vote also showed correlations regarding urban-rural, class, regional and national divides. However, it will ultimately be shown how social attitudes cut through these demographic factors as the most important societal division, with the electoral rupture primarily between those at ease with the cultural effects of globalisation, and those who feel the effects of globalisation have been an overall negative. This divide, whilst having parallels in many other societies, was given a stark and enduring outlet by the binary and high-stakes choice of the Brexit referendum. The article will then outline some of the immediate political developments in the aftermath of the referendum to show how Parliamentary politics was thrown into disarray, with increasing references to the will of the people providing fundamental challenges to Britain‘s constitutional system of representative democracy. The recriminations and ambiguities of the referendum campaign and political debate ultimately reflected in the wider public debate, with people's attitudes hardening around these new faultlines.
A Nation Divided – Who Voted Leave and Remain?
No sooner had the referendum results come through than did politicians, political scientists and media commentators start scrambling for explanations and narratives to make sense of Brexit and Britain‘s new political divide. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the vote was that, with such a closely won referendum, the Leave vote cut through many traditional demographic electoral groupings (Sampson, 2017). Unusual among elections, there was almost no differentiation between the male and female vote (Sampson, 2017). Furthermore, the majority of the White population voted Leave, but despite the Leave campaign‘s strong anti-immigration focus, so too did 33% of Asian and 27% of Black voters (Sampson, 2017). Of traditional party-political groupings, 58% of Conservative voters chose to Leave, but so too did 37% of Labour, 36% of Scottish National Party and 32% of Liberal Democrat voters despite those parties‘ Remain stances — showing significant internal divisions under these parties‘ umbrellas (Sampson, 2017). Only UKIP with 95% in favour of Leave, and Greens with 80% in favour of Remain, showed a broader consensus (Moore, 2016). Ultimately, people’s choices to Leave or Remain were often individual and complex, with families and communities cut down the middle, defying easy or neat explanations.
Nevertheless, some correlations in votes can be identified. Geographically, of the UK’s nations and large regions, only London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain, along with Gibraltar. Every single other region in England along with Wales voted Leave (Bonacchi, 2022). Within these wider geographical definitions, some patterns can be observed. In all, 7 of the 10 most pro-Remain areas in the UK were in London (BBC, 2021). Furthermore, at odds with the surrounding regions, many of England’s large cities including Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle voted Remain, although other large cities like Birmingham and Sheffield voted to Leave (BBC, 2021). Meanwhile, all 10 of the most pro-Leave districts were in Eastern areas of England, with many fishing communities heavily in favour of Leave (BBC, 2021). Finally, social class and income also showed some correlations, with 10% higher support for Leave amongst voters in households with income under £20,000 per year, in comparison to those over £60,000 (Sampson, 2017). Meanwhile, weaker correlations were also shown in areas with higher house prices voting more strongly for Remain, and areas with higher proportions of manual and casual workers voting for Leave (Bonacchi, 2022).
However, the most significant demographic factor was age. An overall majority of those under 45 were in favour of Remain and those over 45 supported Leave (Finlay et al., 2019). This divergence was widest at the furthest ends of the generational spectrum, with only 27% of 18-24 years olds supporting Leave, in comparison to over 60% of those over the age of 60 (Sampson, 2017). Furthermore, education played another key role, with 68% of those who were university-educated voting Remain, compared to 70% of those with only basic or no qualifications voting Leave, meanwhile those with intermediate qualifications were evenly split (Moore, 2016). With record numbers of young people entering university after New Labour’s educational reforms, growing from 1.3 million students in 2002 to almost 2 million students in 2015, this could at least partly explain the divergence in generational support — with people under 45 far more likely to hold a degree (ONS, 2016). Furthermore, with large university cities such as Liverpool having higher numbers of students, this could also partly explain why large cities voted Remain in contrast to the surrounding regions — and why even the cities that voted Brexit, such as Sheffield, did so with narrower majorities (Pattie, 2016).
As such, in broad demographic terms, Leave voters were more likely to be White, over 45 years of age, employed in manual or casual work, or else retired or unemployed, and without a university education (Bonacchi, 2022). Remain voters, meanwhile, were more likely to be under 45 years old, university educated and from higher socio-economic groups (Bonnachi, 2022). Yet, as shown, outside of these broader generalisations, demographic factors are not always a strong determiner of the likelihood to vote Leave or Remain. Many affluent voters, as well as significant numbers of minorities, also voted Leave (Andreouli & Nicholson, 2018). Instead, it is when measuring social attitudes — which can cut across these demographic and socio-economic factors — that it is possible to draw the strongest conclusions. Ultimately, social conservativism seems the strongest determiner of support for Brexit. Of those who said feminism was a force for ill, 78% voted Leave, as opposed to 38% who said feminism was a force for good (Sampson, 2017). Meanwhile, of those who said multiculturalism was a negative, 81% voted Leave (Sampson, 2017). As shown in previous chapters, this in turn heavily ties into the salience of immigration in the Brexit vote, with 88% of those stating that Britain should limit immigration also voting Leave (Sampson, 2017).
These factors have led many commentators to draw the conclusion that the Brexit vote illustrated the broad divisions between Britain‘s cosmopolitan and often city-dwelling populations, more at ease with multicultural Britain, and Britain‘s older often town-dwelling populations for whom national identity remains their most important value (Bonacchi, 2022; Morgan, 2018; Glencross, 2018; Sampson, 2017). Bonacchi (2022) breaks this broad division down still further, by investigating the demographic correlations of age combined with the fracturing of traditional party-political left-right groupings. Consequently, Bonacchi (2022) argues that on one side are those with stronger notions of the national collective, such as the old left and authoritarian nationalists, who voted for Leave. On the other side, there are those who value the primacy of individual liberalism, including the new left, cultural left and neoliberals, who voted Remain. This argument is given credence by the fact that 69% of those who cited globalisation as a force for ill voted Leave (Sampson, 2017). But perhaps the most telling statistic is that 73% of those who thought life was better now than thirty years ago backed Remain, compared to 58% of those who thought life was worse than thirty years ago backing Leave (Sampson, 2017). This would show these growing divides in identity, attitude and culture had in fact been many decades in the making, with two sides of society in parallel development, one of which had been left outside the political mainstream.
Despite these divisions, as a democratic exercise, the EU referendum was notable in that it managed to break the trend of decline in democratic participation and engagement, with 72.2% of those who voted in the Brexit referendum far above the 59.4% who voted in the 2001 General Election — which marked a historical low in British General Election turnout (Clark, 2022). Since the 1990s all the main political parties have emphasised their broad commitment to an ideologically neoliberal socio-economic system, with divisions instead forming along the lines of how best to manage this system for growth and welfare. As such, for many people, the Brexit referendum represented a rare opportunity to engage in an election with a stark choice containing fundamental differences in outcome (Glencross, 2018). As Glencross (2018) argues, such binary referendums are the perfect opportunity for populations to voice discontent. Yet, even here, the rates of electoral participation showed their own divide. In common with other elections, there was a large age divide in turnout. Around 64% of 18-24 years olds voted; far below the over 90% of those over the age of 65 who voted (Finlay et al., 2019). This lower youth turnout reflects a wider phenomenon of declining youth participation in British elections for the preceding 25 years, with various reasons deposited including an outdated voting system, political parties focusing on winning the support of an ageing population rather than younger voters, and a lack of civic education in schools (Russell et al., 2002). With the high stakes of the Brexit referendum, this youth turnout was still a large improvement on the 43% who voted in the 2015 General Election. Nevertheless, with young people overwhelmingly in favour of Remain — and considering the potential of Brexit to impact the rest of their adult lives — a higher young turnout would likely have seen a stronger Remain result (Finlay et al., 2019).
The Fallout: Politics and Society
As noted, David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister mere hours after the referendum result, stating the Leave outcome made his position untenable. This was the first in a process of confusing, rapidly evolving and often contradictory political developments as the foundations of Britain‘s representative Parliamentary Democracy were rocked by a referendum outcome that few Parliamentary representatives wanted (Weale, 2018). Among Britain‘s 650 Parliamentary constituencies, 63% returned majorities in favour of Leave (Glencross, 2018). Yet only 158 MPs supported the Leave campaign, amounting to less than 25% of Parliament (Glencross, 2018). Consequently, the Leave vote represented the wholesale disavowal of the positions of the country‘s elected representatives and a fundamental challenge to the foundations of Britain‘s system of representative democracy (Weale, 2018). The first big question facing MPs was when to enact the official procedure of the Treaty of the European Union that would begin the negotiating process of leaving the EU, known as Article 50 (Eeckhout, 2018). Yet simultaneously, despite the population‘s vote for Brexit, it was eminently clear that no consensus existed amongst Parliament or the British public for what exactly Brexit would entail (Morgan, 2018). Quite simply, nothing beyond “Leave” was on the referendum ballot. Before Article 50 could be responsibly enacted, there would first need to be a plan for what Britain was seeking from exit negotiations with the EU. In amongst this deadlock — with David Cameron resigned from the consequences of his own referendum — the country was now leaderless.
The question of what sort of Brexit the country would now be pursuing came to dominate the debate and quickly became acrimonious, woefully exposing the inadequacy of a binary referendum on such a complex issue (Glencross, 2018). The choices put forward consisted of two broad options. The first was a “Hard Brexit” involving Britain extricating itself from the bulk of the EU‘s institutions and treaties, including both the Single Market and Customs Union, and negotiating alternative arrangements (Menon, 2017). The second was a so-called “Soft Brexit” — frequently referring to a “Norway Model” — in which the UK would seek to join the EEA and EFTA to maintain close links to the Single Market (Menon, 2017). During the referendum campaign, the Leave camp had variously thrown around different and often contradictory ideas for Leaving the EU. The official Vote Leave campaign website states: “Britain will have access to the Single Market after we vote leave” (Vote Leave, 2016). Nevertheless, it also states Britain could pick and choose which aspects of the Single Market to abide by, and furthermore makes no mention of the Customs Union (Vote Leave, 2016). By contrast, Nigel Farage and the Leave. EU campaign maintained that Brexit would mean a full break from all EU institutions, including the Single Market (Bet, 2020). However, Farage also claimed in his radio show during the referendum campaign “One of the key pillars of Brexit was doing what the Norwegians do”, which would imply remaining in the Single Market (Bet, 2020, p.1). Meanwhile the Remain campaign, in trying to emphasise the worst economic effects of leaving the EU, had also seen David Cameron state: “What the British public will be voting for is to leave the EU and leave the single market” (McTague, 2016, p. 1).
Despite these obscurities, no sooner had the referendum results arrived, Brexit-supporting MPs and Leave campaigners were saying that the Brexit referendum amounted to a clear and definitive indication that the British public wanted a Hard Brexit (Philippon, 2016). This was especially true of the Conservative‘s hard-line Eurosceptic wing of MPs known as the ERG, who viewed Brexit as an opportunity for a low-regulation and low-tax Britain that could be thrown to the global markets (Philippon, 2016). Meanwhile, Remainers were arguing that such a narrowly won referendum should instead be interpreted as a Soft Brexit, which would act as a consensus-building option between Leave and Remain and simultaneously limit economic damage (Bremmer, 2016). The bitter Conservative leadership contest, seeking to choose Cameron’s successor as Prime Minister, once again saw Tory internal divisions brought back to the forefront of British politics. Theresa May — as a prior Remain campaigner — ultimately won the contest by portraying herself as an experienced politician able to lead the Brexit process, inviting both hard-line Brexiters and prior-Remainers to her cabinet, and by furthermore positioning the Conservative Party as the party of Brexit (Leigh, 2017).
With the Conservatives holding a majority of just 17 seats in Parliament, Theresa May’s first task was to appease the hard-line Eurosceptic wing of her party — who could easily block legislation — by holding a strong public stance on Brexit. This included a series of red lines she would not compromise on in negotiations with the EU, which she claimed had a clear mandate from the referendum, such as leaving the Customs Union (Leigh, 2017). May further stated in relation to EU negotiations that “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal”, thereby offering the possibility of an outcome in which Britain crashed out of the EU with no formal agreement on future British-EU relations, which hardliners believed necessary to strengthen Britain’s bargaining position (Leigh, 2017, p. 3). However, simultaneously she hoped to prevent the most extreme manifestations of Brexit that were supported by her backbenchers, by providing a more flexible and concessionary approach to negotiations (Leigh, 2017). This attempted ambiguity resulted in the now infamous and ultimately meaningless phrase “Brexit Means Brexit” — despite few people still yet knowing what Brexit was (Eeckhout, 2018, p. 165).
However, more threatening were the increasing references of hard-line Brexiters to the “will of the people”, which they claimed was nothing less than a Hard Brexit (Weale, 2018, p. 31). Not only did this amount to a winner takes all interpretation of the referendum result, marking a complete disavowal of the more than 48% of voters that opted for Remain, but this also exposed dramatic new challenges to British parliamentary democracy. As Weale (2018) argues, referendums are traditionally designed to give power to the people. Yet Britain’s entire system of representative democracy centres on party rule by an executive consisting of the Prime Minister and their chosen cabinet, who must work to maintain the consent of a majority of MPs to continue passing legislation (Weale, 2018). Failure to secure a working majority of elected representatives means a new election must be called so that the executive can continue to function. Yet now by claiming to act on behalf of the “will of the people”, the Prime Minister and executive could instead attempt to try and bypass Parliamentary legislation entirely, thereby boosting executive power at the expense of Britain’s elected representatives (Weale, 2018). With Parliament demanding to have a vote on the enactment of Article 50, Theresa May instead attempted to claim she could use the Royal Prerogative to unilaterally enact Article 50 without MPs’ consent (Weale, 2018). However, this attempt was declared unconstitutional by High Court judges. The dangerous deterioration of British political rhetoric, and the challenges to the fundamentals of constitutional accountability, were exemplified in an infamous Daily Mail headline, that displayed the judges' faces and declared them: “Enemies of the People” (Daily Mail, 2016).
This antagonistic political rhetoric added to that of the ugly referendum campaign to ultimately reflect back into the wider public debate. Despite the European Union having largely failed for forty years to stir passion amongst the British public, the issue of Brexit had suddenly been flung into the middle of a growing culture war based around identity (Atkin, 2021). Many in support of Remain had belatedly found their internationalist European identities, with the number of people stating they held European identities increasing to 20% in the aftermath of the referendum, from 15% before, and those who already held European identities holding them more strongly (Phillips et al., 2018). With views of the 48% of the Remain-voting public already dismissed amidst rhetoric of the “will of the people”, Theresa May further fanned the culture-war flames when she stated: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere” (Atkins, 2021, p. 223). Meanwhile, the number of those claiming an English identity over a British identity dramatically increased among those in favour of Brexit, with those holding an English identity in turn far more likely to view immigration as undermining British culture (Phillips et al., 2018). Most ominously, the first three months after the referendum saw a 15-25% increase in hate crimes, with the concentration of these crimes higher in Leave areas, which was accompanied by a generally heightened fear of hate crimes among non-White minorities (Carr, 2020; Nanid & Luthra, 2021). Meanwhile, the 3.5 million EU citizens living in the UK, and the 1.2 million Britons living in the EU, now found their previously settled lives thrown into one of painful uncertainty (Sumption & Walsh, 2022).
Conclusions: Battlelines Drawn
The narrowly won referendum result exposed deep societal divisions and gave them a new political outlet around which to rally, with the aftermath of the vote only leading to political and societal attitudes hardening. This division cut through many traditional demographics and political allegiances and was instead based more on fundamental societal values, marking a dramatic and emotive new political identity in British politics. Nevertheless, the generational divide was clear. Furthermore, the referendum result represented a wholesale disavowal of the pro-Remain positions of the vast majority of MPs by a substantial portion of the British population. This had profound political implications, acting to shake the fundamentals of British constitutional parliamentary democracy. Ironically, those who had previously argued that leaving the EU would protect British Parliamentary sovereignty, now instead sought to wield the referendum result as a way to bypass Parliamentary accountability. This new “will of the people” in turn fed into dangerously heightened political rhetoric, that not only challenged Parliament and other constitutional safeguards such as the judiciary, but also represented an active rejection of the 48% of the country that had voted Remain.
Theresa May as Prime Minister, even in positioning herself as the Conservative unity candidate, only served to further alienate the Remain population and opposition MPs with her “red lines” and dismissal of Remainers as “citizens of nowhere”. Rather than seeing attempts at consensus building and healing divisions, this was instead winner takes all politics, with battle lines drawn. Yet May’s challenge as Prime Minister was now to balance Parliamentary sovereignty with the will of the people, whilst simultaneously trying to build and maintain a Parliamentary consensus to engage in the complex process of exit negotiations with the EU. As shall be covered in the later article on Political Realignment, this culminated in her ill-fated decision to call a new General Election in 2017 to increase her Parliamentary majority and make her less dependent on the support of hard-line and uncompromising Conservative Eurosceptic MPs (Eeckhout, 2018). Yet, with Labour starting 20% behind in the polls, a terrible Conservative election campaign instead saw a spectacular Labour recovery, resulting in a Hung Parliament with the Conservatives losing their Parliamentary majority (Eeckhout, 2018). May’s already difficult position entering EU negotiations was now that much harder. Yet the far-reaching political, constitutional, and societal difficulties posed by the Brexit referendum did not end there. As we shall see in the next chapter, the issue of Brexit has provided a fundamental challenge to another union of nations; that of the United Kingdom.
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