British Politics and Brexit 101: The Referendum Campaign - A Question of Europe?
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
As shown in the last chapter, interest in the European Union was largely marginal amongst the British public since its ascension to the European Economic Community in the 1970s. However, it remained the committed focus of Eurosceptic Conservatives, UKIP and the tabloid press, with Euroscepticism often dictating the political debate on Europe. The expansion of the EU in 2004 became a watershed moment in Eurosceptic discourse, as it was able to successfully equate EU freedom of movement with wider public concerns on UK immigration policy. Despite a continued lack of public interest in the EU, Eurosceptic actors were ultimately able to exploit the UK’s deep underlying political-socio-economic resentments and structural inequalities to gain an increasing foothold in British politics from 2012 onwards, particularly in ex-industrial communities amidst the policies of austerity and the decline in public services and welfare spending. With this foothold established, the pro-EU Conservative leader David Cameron promised a tougher line on Europe in the lead-up to the 2015 General Election to appease both the Eurosceptic wing of his party who might block legislation, try to force him from power, or else defect to UKIP, as well as to prevent Eurosceptic Conservative voters switching their electoral support to UKIP.
This article will explore the Brexit referendum itself. First, it will show how the 2015 General Election led to an unexpected Conservative majority, resulting in David Cameron having to reluctantly meet his own Eurosceptic promises that he had expected to be tempered by a coalition government. It will then outline the details and terms of the Brexit referendum itself, to illustrate its unclear constitutional position. Finally, the article will investigate the two campaigns for Leave and Remain. This will show how the Remain campaign pursued a strictly economic cost-benefit analysis, which warned of the dangers of leaving the EU but lacked any attempts to put forward a positive and emotionally compelling defence of European Union membership. By contrast, the Leave campaign pursued an effective three-pronged strategy that sought to appeal to identity and emotion, combined with simplified cost-benefit messaging focused on immigration and the National Health Service.
2015 General Election: Setting the Scene for the Brexit Referendum
The 2015 General Election ended in a Conservative majority, despite practically all the polls and political commentators predicting the election would end with no one single party securing a majority of seats (Hughes, 2015). The UK’s First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system is traditionally designed to deliver Parliamentary majorities, in an electoral landscape historically dominated by two main political parties (Weale, 2018). Yet the increasing dispersal of votes to parties outside of Labour and Conservative has added a certain unpredictability to this system, which meant the 2010 election resulted in Britain’s first government coalition since the 1970s. Such a coalition was Conservative-led, with the outwardly pro-EU Liberal Democrats as a junior partner (Hughes, 2015). However, the Liberal Democrats electoral support rapidly declined as part of the coalition, due to their backing of austerity and in particular the trebling of university tuition fees in 2012, despite the party campaigning on an electoral promise to do the opposite and abolish them completely (Hughes, 2015). Simultaneously, the nationalist parties of Plaid Cymru in Wales, and especially the Scottish National Party, continued to gain ground on broadly centre-left tickets (Hughes, 2015). Meanwhile, in England, the Green Party was picking up disaffected left-wing voters and, as noted in the previous chapter, UKIP was gaining support in ex-industrial communities (Hughes, 2015).
This new multiparty scene meant that yet another coalition government was widely expected (Hughes, 2015). Consequently, both the Labour and Conservative parties ran their election campaigns predicated on the assumption that one of them would be the head of a new governing coalition which would require them to compromise on some of their policies (Bonacchi, 2022). For the Conservatives, who expected to form another coalition with the much-weakened pro-EU Liberal Democrats, David Cameron saw an opportunity to heal internal party divisions by appeasing his party’s vociferous Eurosceptic wing, as well as combat the rise of UKIP, by promising a much tougher line on Europe (Glencross, 2018). This saw Cameron pledge that if his party won the 2015 election he would renegotiate the unilateral return of political powers from the EU, and hold a referendum on EU membership should that fail — with the expectation that coalition partners would block such a move (Bonacchi, 2022).
That this decision was driven by internal party considerations rather than electoral politics is evidenced by the fact that, even in 2015, only 11% of the public was citing the EU as one of their top electoral issues, ranking in seventh place as an issue of concern (Ipsos, 2015). Instead, the economy (31%), immigration (30%) and healthcare (29%) remained people’s top priorities (Ipsos, 2015). Nevertheless, the election saw the Conservatives win a surprise majority of Parliamentary seats, with 36.8% of the votes (Electoral Commission, 2015). Although UKIP increased their votes from a 3.1% share in 2010 to 12.6% in 2015 — representing some 3.8 million votes — FPTP meant they failed to gain a single parliamentary seat (Electoral Commission, 2015). Nevertheless, they had already succeeded in forcing David Cameron’s hand. An EU referendum was now on the cards, with legislation passed in 2015 and backed by most major parties to set a legal framework to hold a future vote on the issue. David Cameron thus set about attempting to negotiate British concessions from the EU, including the return of certain border controls in violation of freedom of movement (Glencross, 2018). Yet ultimately these negotiations were doomed to fail, with the EU unlikely to unilaterally return powers to the UK in violation of one of the Single Markets fundamental principles, with such favouritism towards a single member state in violation of EU consensus decision making. Instead, the negotiations ended in February 2016 with a few minor concessions that were never going to be accepted by Conservative Eurosceptics, with the announcement made that an EU membership referendum would proceed that June (Glencross, 2018).
By April 2016, the Electoral Commission had decided on the question of the referendum: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”. In response, voters would be given two options: “Leave the European Union” or “Remain a member of the European Union” (Bonnachi, 2022). Simultaneously, the Electoral Commission decided on the official campaigns. “Britain Stronger in Europe” was designated as the official Remain Campaign, while “Vote Leave” was to be the official Leave Campaign (Bonnachi, 2022). Furthermore, many other organisations operated unofficial side campaigns, most significantly the “Leave EU” campaign backed by Nigel Farage and UKIP (Bonnachi, 2022). With Britain having no formal tradition or structure for holding referendums, the constitutional terms legislating referendums were on an ad hoc basis (Weale, 2018). Indeed, this was only the third nationwide referendum to be held in British history, after the 1975 EEC referendum, and one in 2011 on changing the voting system (Weale, 2018). Accordingly, the EU vote was officially billed as an “advisory referendum” to gauge the public opinion of the nation, with no legally binding mechanisms or obligations on Parliament for enforcing the result (Weale, 2018).
Ultimately the referendum question had nothing to say on how Remain or Leave would play out, giving two simplistic choices with the potential for incredibly complex consequences (Morgan, 2018). Furthermore, no minimum voter turnout or majority was required for the referendum to be considered decisively won, as is common in countries such as Ireland in which referendums are built into their constitutions (Weale, 2018). Such measures are designed to avoid the potential for ambiguity in deciding the result, in which for example a 51 - 49% majority for such a consequential decision could be considered insufficient evidence of the decisive will of the people (Weale, 2018). Furthermore, it was also left unclear how a referendum expressing a popular mandate would function alongside the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty (Glencross, 2018). With MPs overwhelmingly in favour of EU membership, a Leave outcome would thus situate Parliament in the difficult position of enforcing the consequences of a popular mandate that they disagree with. Regardless of these uncertainties, the two campaigns were now to begin in earnest, with the referendum in full motion.
The Remain Campaign: “Stronger In”
After forty years of EU membership and integration, the majority of the British political, business, academic, professional, broadsheet & broadcast media establishment were in favour of the European Union (Glencross, 2018). Indeed, Cameron announced in February 2016 that the British Government would officially be recommending that people vote to Remain, with 23 out of 30 cabinet ministers in favour of Remain, albeit with individual members of government allowed to campaign for Leave (Bonacchi, 2022). Such was the overwhelming endorsement of the political class that almost every single political party with sitting MPs backed Remain, with the only exceptions being UKIP and the Loyalist DUP in Northern Ireland backing Leave, and the Conservatives officially remaining neutral (Bonacchi, 2022). Accordingly, of 637 sitting MPs, 479 of them supported EU membership, with the great majority of Leave MPs stemming from the Conservative backbenches (Bonacchi, 2022). Furthermore, much of the British banking sector and major businesses, including 78% of members of the Centre for British Industry, supported Remaining in the EU (CBI, 2016). Meanwhile, polling showed over 70% of British scientists, economists and lawyers supported Remaining in the EU (Booth, 2016; Cadman & Giles, 2016; Cressey, 2016). Internationally, many world leaders aside from those in Europe — including Barack Obama and Ji Xingping — publicly expressed support for British EU membership (Glencross, 2018). With establishment backing so overwhelming, it is perhaps little surprise that most observers expected Remain to win (Glencross, 2018).
To argue the case for Remain, ’Britain Stronger in Europe’ opted for a primarily economic cost-benefit analysis of European Union membership to win people over, utilising the slogan “Stronger In” (Bonacchi, 2022). This was based on the assumption that once the economic positives in the EU were put on the table, combined with the threat of the potential costs of leaving, people would naturally vote in favour of Remain (Glencross, 2018). Indeed, this was a somewhat similar strategy to that employed in the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, which focused on the potential economic costs of Scotland leaving the UK, with much of those costs ironically based on the possibility of Scotland losing access to the EU in the case of independence (Bonacchi, 2022). Likewise, it proved easier for Remain to make the negative economic case for remaining in Europe, in the form of emphasising the potential costs of leaving, than it was to make a positive economic case (Glencross, 2018). Firstly, this is because Cameron had started off on a negative footing in 2015, in which he had launched negotiations with the EU on the pretext that Britain was getting a bad deal from Europe — rather than arguing in favour of Britain’s existing advantageous position in the EU which already included major concessions such as opt-outs of policies like the Euro (Bonacchi, 2022). As such he publicly stated he required EU concessions to sell the EU as a good deal to the British people. Indeed, polls conducted in 2015 showed that clear majorities would vote to Remain in the EU if Cameron was successful in renegotiating terms (Ipsos, 2016). Yet, when these concessions were not forthcoming, Cameron was forced in February 2016 to switch track to begin arguing that Britain actually was getting a good deal out of EU membership.
Secondly, as shown in the previous chapter, despite forty years of European membership, over 80% of British people expressed limited knowledge of EU institutions or policies (Eurobarometer, 2011). This made it hard to put a positive case forward for the often-complex technical benefits associated with the EU, about which people knew little and in which they had shown little interest (Morgan, 2018). Thirdly, after forty years of integration, definitive or simplified statistical measurements of the economic benefits of being in the EU — e.g., how many jobs were dependent on EU free trade — were hard to accurately estimate (Morgan, 2018). Consequently, the Remain campaign increasingly fell back on emphasising negative theoretical economic forecasts of Britain leaving Europe, increasingly claiming the costs would be more and more ruinous as the campaign went on — such as instant recession or food shortages — allowing Vote Leave to dismiss these claims as “Project Fear” (Morgan, 2018). Yet, as Bonacchi (2022) argues, with such overwhelming establishment backing the economic argument in favour of the EU was won early in the referendum campaign. As a result, with months of campaigning left, people had already made up their minds on whether or not to trust the economic forecasts early on, leaving room for other issues to emerge to the forefront of debate as the campaign progressed, outside of economic cost-benefit analysis. It was here that “Stronger In” displayed its key weakness.
Ultimately, “Stronger In” failed to make a positive emotional or identity-based case for Britain’s future in Europe. In some ways, this reflected Britain’s attitudes towards Europe over the previous forty years even by those in favour of membership, in which the EU was seen primarily as a bargaining forum of economic and political trade-offs, rather than a vehicle for international unity, peace and common democratic values (Geddes, 2013). Nevertheless, Britain’s substantial young, urban, educated and cosmopolitan population had long been at ease with internationalism, globalisation and multiculturalism and displayed generally more positive attitudes to Europe (Clements, 2009). Yet such arguments, that could emotionally appeal to this identity, were largely side-lined by practical cost-benefit analysis. Even the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose internationalist and anti-austerity credentials had led him to the party leadership amidst a wave of enthusiasm from Britain’s young cosmopolitan population in the aftermath of the 2015 election, failed to put forward this emotional case (Duncan, 2019). Corbyn represented Labour’s most left-wing leader for thirty years, yet he drew his political roots from the 1970s Bennite school that suspiciously viewed the EC/EU as a capitalist big-business institution (Duncan, 2019). Consequently, rather than drawing on and directing the enthusiasm of his substantial grassroots support to make an internationalist case for the EU, he put forward a lukewarm case for Remain that focused on jobs, workers’ rights and consumers’ rights (Duncan, 2019). Instead, it was the Leave campaign that was able to combine simplified cost/benefit arguments with emotional appeals to identity.
The Leave Campaign: “Take Back Control”
Considering the overwhelming establishment support for remaining in the EU, the Leave Campaign from the very beginning positioned itself as a political outsider. Nevertheless, it was still able to draw on the support of some prominent names, not least Boris Johnson — who had switched from a pro-Remain position only months earlier — along with other relevant political figures such as Nigel Farage and Michael Gove, and business ones such as James Dyson (Bonacchi, 2022). The European Research Group — a pressure group formed from committed Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers — served as Vote Leave’s most prominent political faction, who had long argued for Britain to become a low-tax and low-regulation economy, combined with nostalgic references to strengthening relations with the Commonwealth (Sampson, 2017). These prominent right-wing free marketer voices were also joined by a minority of old left Labour MPs, such as Dennis Skinner, who ran separate campaigns arguing against the EU on anti-corporatist grounds (Duncan, 2019). Heading Vote Leave was Dominic Cummings, a political strategist with radical ideas for reforming the British state and civil service (Morgan, 2018). Nevertheless, it was realised that to sell Leave to the British public, alternative arguments would be needed (Morgan, 2018). In doing so, the Leave Campaign posited a three-pronged strategy appealing to cultural, economic and political issues that sought to address people’s feelings of disenfranchisement and disillusionment (Bonacchi, 2022).
The first part of this strategy, and underpinning the entire campaign, was the slogan: “Take Back Control” (Bonnachi, 2022, pp. 81-82). Right-wing Eurosceptic discourse from the very beginning of Britain’s EEC ascension, and especially after Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech, sought to emphasise British Parliamentary sovereignty and the loss of political and economic power to Brussels, with Eurosceptics frequently deriding the European Commission as “unelected bureaucrats“ (Smith, 2016, p. 1). This rhetoric was able to draw on the British public’s lack of knowledge of EU institutions, such as the elected European Parliament. Accordingly, “Take Back Control” was the simplified demand to bring British decision-making back into British hands. Yet, in doing so, this appealed not only to a sense of British political identity being restored but also to those communities who felt they had been left behind by globalisation (Sampson, 2017). As shown in the previous chapter, these communities included — but were not limited to — once thriving ex-industrial communities thrown to the global markets and decimated under Thatcher’s 1980s economic reforms. Meanwhile, the New Labour years had signified the beginning of large-scale immigration which quickly sprung to the top of the British public's chief concerns. Ultimately the sense for many people was that the era of EC/EU membership from the 1970s onwards coincided with drastic change and national decline for Britain (Wellings, 2010). Whilst the Remain campaign emphasised the threat of crisis if Britain was to leave the EU, the Leave campaign instead sought to appeal to the many people who felt the country was already in crisis, with leaving the EU and “Taking Back Control” representing the solution to existing troubles.
The second prong of this strategy sought to appeal to the underlying anti-immigration sentiment that had formed the bedrock of Eurosceptic discourse since 2004 (Cerna & Wietholtz, 2011). As shown in the previous chapter, although the EU continued to rank low in people’s electoral priorities, from 2001 onwards the issue of immigration had consistently appeared among people’s top three concerns (Cerna & Wietholtz, 2011). The European Migrant Crisis, coupled with the expansion of EU freedom of movement to Bulgaria and Romania, had seen the tabloid media engage in a sustained anti-immigrant narrative in the years preceding the referendum that linked even non-EU migration to EU freedom of movement (Startin, 2015). As such, it was easy to expand this narrative into the Brexit campaign. Whilst the Remain campaign’s economic forecasts became increasingly bleak, so too did the Leave campaign’s promotion of a migration crisis. This culminated in the infamous claim that Turkey was about to join the EU, opening EU freedom of movement to a further potential 76 million people (Cop, 2019). Both Boris Johnson — who had previously been a proponent of Turkish EU membership — and Nigel Farage parroted this claim, despite Turkish EU membership negotiations having stalled (Cop, 2019). In effect, this attempt to stoke fear of future waves of mass migration was threatening the further loss of control that might result from continued EU membership.
The final pillar of this strategy sought to emphasise a highly simplified and inaccurate cost-benefit assessment of British financial contributions to the EU (Glencross, 2018). This included the claim that Britain contributed £18 billion in direct payments to the EU annually, amounting to £350 million a week, based on a simplified EU formula of 1% of GDP contributions (HM Treasury, 2019). However, this ignored Britain’s significant rebate that had been granted to the UK as an EU concession since the 1980s and, in reality, British contributions in 2018 before exiting the EU amounted to £12.9 billion, of which the EU put £4 billion back into UK spending (HM Treasury, 2018). Nevertheless, the direct costs in terms of payments to the EU were easier to emphasise by the Leave campaign, compared to the more uncertain and hypothetical Remain figures of how much EU membership was worth to the British economy and treasury (Bonacchi, 2022). This in turn culminated in yet another infamous Leave claim, that £350 million a week would be saved in EU contributions that could instead be spent on the NHS — again helping Britain “Take Back Control” of its own spending (Fezer, 2019). Actually, British EU contributions were closer to £181 million a week (Fezer, 2019). Regardless, with public services creaking after years of austerity, this proved a simple and effective message to cut through to the British public by tying the negative effects of defunded services back into EU membership — with the NHS a particularly prised British national institution, with healthcare regularly cited as one of the public’s top national concerns (Ipsos, 2015).
Conclusions: Division, Leave Momentum and Shock Victory
Ultimately, the Brexit campaign continued to gain ground with the polls closing in approaching the referendum date. In an ominous sign of just how divisive the rhetoric of the campaign had become, the nation was shocked by the assassination of British MP Joe Cox by a far-right terrorist on 16th June 2016, who opposed Cox’s pro-immigration and asylum policies (Holden, 2016). This was the first murder of a sitting British MP since the 1990 Provisional IRA assassination of MP Ian Gow. A three-day national suspension of campaigning followed this horrific incident, with observers warning that the fever pitch of campaigning discourse, in particular in relation to immigration, increased the potential for violence (Holden, 2016). However, soon the campaigns were back into full and acrimonious swing in the run-up to the 23rd June referendum date. The aggregate of polls taken on the day of the referendum suggested there would be a narrow 52 - 48 Remain victory (Sampson, 2017). Yet, as the night rolled on, it became increasingly clear that Leave was on course to win — with the result instead a narrow 52 - 48 victory for Leave, with the highest voter turnout of any national election since 1992 (Sampson, 2017). The nation and much of the international community were left reeling, with the consequences of such a momentous decision beginning to sink in. Yet, as shown, it was in some ways an accident that the United Kingdom ended up in this position. David Cameron's reckless gamble on Britain’s future was ultimately meant to appease a minority of Conservative Eurosceptic backbenchers.
Nevertheless, the dedicated commitment of the small number of political Eurosceptic agitators over the decades, combined with their tabloid media backers, was able to effectively exploit the underlying and increasing grievances of the British population. The resulting referendum lacked many important constitutional parameters on a referendum topic that the British knew little about, with most of the Remain establishment seemingly banking on a win for the status quo; meanwhile, the possibility of a Leave win had the potential for dramatic and unknown constitutional consequences (Weale, 2018). This assuredness of the political establishment was ultimately reflected in the poor Remain campaign, which did not see necessary to appeal to voters beyond cold cost-benefit economic calculations. By contrast, the Leave campaign was able to effectively exploit people's concerns on immigration and healthcare, and combine this with powerful emotional appeals to British identity and feelings of powerlessness resulting from globalisation.
Both campaigns engaged in disingenuous and underhanded tactics, whether that be the Remain campaign’s exaggerated predictions of immediate economic implosion should Britain vote to leave the EU, or else the dishonest and exaggerated claims from the Leave campaign concerning British EU contributions, NHS funding, and the potential ascension of Turkey to the EU. Nevertheless, the Leave campaign proved the far more effective of the two. The British population ultimately voted against the position held by the vast majority of Parliament and most of the political, economic, cultural and intellectual establishment, despite the overwhelmingly negative economic forecasts (Glencross, 2018). As shall be discovered in the next chapters, the implications of this decision would be profound.
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Cerna, L. & Wieth