Why Britain voted Leave: Brexit explained to non-Brits

My non-British friends often ask me why Britain voted to leave the European Union. Some are Europeans themselves, the vast majority of whom feel sad and bewildered by Britain’s departure. Others are American or Asian, who don’t know much about the EU beyond its primary function as a facilitator of trade, and so would like a proper explanation of Brexit. So here are what I believe to be the most significant causes of the vote to leave. I make no secret of my views- my friends know I’m a passionate pro-European- but I’ll try to be impartial for the purposes of this article:

  1. Britain’s long-term Euroscepticism. Britain wasn’t one of the founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community, as the organisation was then known. The country later joined the European Economic Community, but only after what appeared to be a severe economic malaise. The UK’s relationship with Europe has always been transactional; its benefits outweigh the costs.  Most of the Continent has a historical emotional attachment to European integration as the answer to the extreme nationalism that caused both world wars, imperialism and Depression-era protectionism. Britain had the benefit of the English Channel, protected by the world’s best navy. The lesson it learnt from WW2 was one of British superiority and fighting spirit, not the benefits of international co-operation. The lack of ideological zeal for the EU in Britain, even during the Blair years, cannot be understated.
  2. The effectiveness of the Leave campaign. When the referendum campaign was first announced, most people believed Remain would win by a comfortable margin. It had the support of most of the established political parties, businesses, academics, economists and the trade unions. It also had the lion’s share of celebrity endorsements, particularly those from the creative arts. Leave had the support of a minority of Conservative MPs, a minor party called the UK Independence Party, a few right-wing think tanks and some newspapers. But Leave had some key advantages. It ran a media-savvy campaign, with eye-catching slogans, targeted social media adverts and slick marketing. It had some eloquent and charismatic figures, most notably Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. More importantly, the Leave campaign used the discontent felt by many Britons to its advantage. It promised change, and characterised Remain as a tired establishment uninterested in the lives of ordinary people. This populist narrative turned Remain’s endorsement-heavy campaign from being an asset to a liability.
  3. The nature of Britain’s economic recovery. Pre-Brexit Britain was often trumpeted as an economic success story. Unlike much of Europe, the country had got its deficit under control. Unemployment was comparatively low, and inflation well below the developed world average. The post-2010 austerity measures and reduction of the public sector workforce didn’t cause a recession or increase unemployment, as the private sector grew to compensate. However, beneath the headline figures was an economy severely underperforming. Wage stagnation was the worst in the developed world except for Greece. Austerity had starved public services of funds, particularly in local government, the legal system and welfare. The country was also experiencing increasing spatial inequality, as London and the university towns boomed while post-industrial towns and coastal communities suffered. Economic discontent wasn’t the most important cause of the vote to Leave. But given the narrowness of the result, it could’ve made the difference between staying in and leaving.
  4. The failures of the EU. One of the most potent arguments in favour of Leave was that the EU had failed to provide the kind of political stability and economic prosperity it promised. The EU seemed paralysed when faced with the migration crisis, the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis or the crisis in Ukraine. To many, the EU was both too powerful and not powerful enough: sufficiently consequential to be a supranational imposition on nation-state sovereignty, while too weak to respond to challenges decisively and sufficiently. Eurosceptics successfully argued that freed from the EU’s lethargic and irresponsive structure, the UK could make a success of going alone.
  5. An excessively negative Remain campaign. To the unending frustration of Remain campaigners, Vote Leave labelled any warnings against leaving the EU as ‘Project Fear.’ This obviously isn’t a proper argument. But it contains an element of truth- the Remain campaign was too negative. It focused too much on the drawbacks of Brexit, when the precise consequences of leaving were impossible to quantify. Rather Remain should’ve emphasised the achievements of the EU: why it was founded in the first place and how Britain should use its place in the EU to build a better future. The most obvious example of this was Remain’s failure to defend Freedom of Movement. In an age of disillusionment, negative campaigning doesn’t work when people feel they have nothing to lose.
  6. A broader dissatisfaction with globalisation. Brexit didn’t happen in isolation- it has to be seen as part of a trend sweeping the rest of the world. Globalisation is increasingly divisive. For its proponents, it has increased prosperity, facilitated democracy and enhanced human freedom. But its critics cite the increasing income inequality between the global elites and the rest of the world. They regard the supranational institutions that oversee globalisation, including the EU, as out of touch, undemocratic and uncaring. Authoritarian opponents of globalisation resent the socially liberal culture and increasing migration that seems to accompany it. Free trade, the cornerstone of globalisation, has displaced jobs and caused whole industries to go into terminal decline. Britain, like most countries, has managed globalisation poorly. The consequence here was leaving the EU.
  7. Divisions within the Conservative Party. Ever since the Thatcher years, the European question has proved to be the Conservative Party’s Achilles’ Heel. Conservative Eurosceptics were first empowered by Thatcher’s Bruges speech, which generally supported the EU but explicitly opposed what she saw as the group’s socialist and federalist tendencies. A small number of Conservative MPs then rebelled against Prime Minister Major and voted against the Maastricht Treaty. Ongoing Conservative infighting over Europe was one of the reasons why David Cameron called the referendum. The Conservative Party then declared itself neutral during the campaign, so as not to upset its Eurosceptic faction. The party’s base is now overwhelmingly anti-EU. Any aspiring future Conservative leader will have to be Eurosceptic, something which makes rejoining the EU quite unlikely.

One Comment

  1. Excellent survey! I would add two comments: With the exception of The Guardian, the Press has been complaining, loudly and vulgarly, about the EU for decades. Every little thing has been blamed on the EU, quite unreasonably and sometimes without a shred of evidence. This constant drip, drip has affected the readers of The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. Enter a conversation about the EU and you have trotted out to you the latest horror stories about the EU, mostly exaggerated at best.

    The other factor in all this is the deep dissatisfaction, I think fully justified, of the people living and working outside London and the South East. The old industries disappeared but nothing has been done to revive the old industrial areas whsre the industrial revolution began. In the North East taxis, mostly empty, seem to be the only thing that moves, My mother came from the North East and I have relatives there. The resentment against London and the government is startling.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.