Britain Bows Out : The 2016 EU Referendum

By Dr Amelia Hadfield, Director of the Centre for European Studies, Canterbury Christ Church University

It’s a clear result. But a divided outcome. In the early hours of today, the sparring of the last four months, and the uncertainty of the campaigns finally came to an end, and the results are clear. Following months of campaigning, English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish citizens have voted that the UK, as an EU Member State, will leave the EU.

Picture2How did this happen? The “Leave” campaign worked to gradually dominate the key arguments, generally grouped into the categories of legislation control, political direction, economic cost/benefit, trade partners, and border security. Of this menu of disenchantment, arguments confirmed British misgivings that the mass of EU regulations and directives have been imposed by unaccountable Brussels bureaucrats and permitted by an out of touch British political elite. The Remain campaign ultimately struggled to show how shared powers worked in Britain’s interest, the strength of the EU’s internal market, or the benefits of its trading clout. Instead, votes and victory for ‘decent, ordinary people’ revolving around the concept of repatriated powers, rights and even dignity emerged as the more potent message. The Conservative Party remained badly divided throughout, allowing senior Tory figures including Justice Minister Michael Gove and former mayor of London Boris Johnson to present images of a referendum based on “Britain’s independence day” in key debates.

The rest of the political terrain remained fragmented, with Labour largely quiescent and unable to make the arguments regarding the benefits of social Europe either clear or persuasive. Into the gap moved Tory insurgents, UKIP and the Leave campaign and variants, the latter led by Nigel Farage and Chris Grayling respectively, transforming political arguments about regaining British autonomy into cultural demands about retaining English identity. Arguments about borders, and specifically uncontrolled migration were seized upon by Brexit voters, who largely regard the freedom of movement guaranteed by the EU as a major threat to British society. Positive messages were very much in absence in the campaign. The Remain campaign revolved around a slew of British and international experts warning of the political and economic fallout of a Brexit, while the Leave campaign portrayed Britain as negatively impacted by Brussels, and depicted the EU itself in a range unflattering images, the only positive glimmer being a new, EU-free Britain operating independently on a range of issues regionally and internationally.

Perhaps the signs were read a fortnight ago, with the first poll suggesting that the Brexit side were pulling – and staying – ahead of the Remain side. Some voters appeared to have a strong grasp of the issues, but a very tough time in actually coming to a decision. Others were keen on sticking to the ‘out’ mantra from the very start. The crucial ‘undecided’ tranches – as high as 20% in some areas appear to have been swayed largely by regional affiliation.

Although no exit poll was forthcoming due to the unusual nature of the referendum, the voting pattern was clear almost from the outset. First, the turnout across the UK was generally steady at a muscular 70% in most regions, and in others as high as 80%. The swathe of Brexit votes in English regions that poured in from 1am onwards was impressive in terms of their sheer numbers, and in terms of the strength of their margin. Individual votes count in a referendum, unlike in general elections where only determine who wins the individual constituency. Second, the regional divisions were highly evident: Scotland, Northern Ireland and London clearly favoured Remain, whilst the vast majority of the English regions, and – surprisingly for some – Wales, voted overwhelmingly for Brexit.

Watching the ‘leave’ numbers rise in population terms moved from small jumps to enormous leaps, and by 4am, the Leave campaign was a solid 462,907. It felt like the tide had turned. UKIP leader Nigel Farage moved from suggesting that Remain had squeaked a victory to prophesying a new dawn for Britain. Broadcasting themes around the world began to switch from the outcome being very close to a clear 52/48 split in England, with the Pound tumbling to its lowest level since 1985, and the FTSE looking increasingly volatile. By 5am, BBC forecasts were unmistakable: ‘UK votes to leave’.

MPs suggested that Cameron would be out before breakfast. Early news suggested that events may not move that swiftly, and that Prime Minister David Cameron, might remain in post, win or lose, “leading, not leaving” Britain (made clear in a letter signed by 84 MPs, including Boris Johnson). In the end, however, in the face of a swift decline in credibility and leadership capital, in the morning Cameron announced he would step down in October. He will attend next week’s summit in Brussels, but has stated categorically that a new Prime Minister will be in place by the October 2016 Conservative party conference. A Tory leadership battle will now commence, temporarily bypassing the fundamental question of negotiating an exit from the EU, and the particular application of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

More broadly, the ‘To Do’ list is threefold. First, for the UK, negotiating the terms of exit with its EU partners, though still as an EU Member State for the two-year withdrawal period. Second, whilst it undertakes this agenda, dealing with the regional turmoil within the UK of Brexit, particularly within Scotland and its quest for a second referendum, the relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, itself a Member State, as well as the enormous political and social rifts caused by a 52% having voted leave, but with an enormously disaffected 48% who have been ‘left’ behind. Third, for the EU, coming to grips with the political turmoil, and economic upheaval of the loss of the UK, a partner since 1975 will be an enormous challenge. Its budget, its borders, its core public and foreign policies, including its newly constructed Global Strategy (due 24th June) are all going to be significantly affected.

We are heading into unknown territory. The most important, most immediate need is knowledge; of the UK, of the European Union, of the relations between the two, and the UK’s location in the wider world. Britain will remain firmly within the ambit of Europe, a firm partner with – if not of – Europe, as Churchill himself suggested, for years to come. Here at Canterbury Christ Church University, with our range of modules on European, British and international modules, and our various activities engaging the local university community, that is exactly our philosophy, and will remain so. Britain may separate from the EU, but its society, and its youth in particular, are still heir to Europe’s culture, values and destiny. For undergraduate and graduate students, for staff and our local community alike therefore, it is vital to continue the teaching, training and outreach program of the Centre for European Studies. So, keep a weather eye on the horizon: we’ll be organising key events throughout 2016, starting with our brand new MSc suite, with modules in Politics, International Relations, and European Politics, where expertise is needed now more than ever.

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