Alun is a freethinking moderate on political and philosophical issues of general interest; some of his views can be found in his articles.
The Meaning of the 2016 Referendum
The date 23rd June 2016 will surely be remembered as one of the most momentous in British history since the Second World War. The British public were asked in a referendum whether they wished to remain a member of the European Union. The result of that referendum was a very narrow majority in favour of leaving the Union.
This article, which I wrote in three days in 2016, is a simplified review of what happened, and the immediate consequences. I know many in countries outside of Europe are not clear as to the key arguments, and why the UK voted 'Leave', so what I am writing is just an attempt at a basic explanation really intended for those non-Europeans and others who read my articles, but who do not know the background to this referendum. It is also an opportunity to express my views. I hope to give an entirely objective appraisal in the main body of the text, although I will give my personal leanings later in the article; that way you can assess whether or not I have indeed been objective.
For the benefit of those who are unclear about the process of this United Kingdom (UK) referendum and the terms used in this article:
The European Union (EU) is a grouping of 28 nations. It has its own parliament which legislates on many issues separate to the legislation of the 28 national governments. The headquarters - often considered the 'Capital of the EU' - is in Brussels.
There was one simple choice on the referendum ballot paper - to remain in the EU, or to leave the EU. For this reason the two campaigns were known as:
- 'Remain' - the campaign to remain in the European Union.
- 'Leave' - the campaign to leave the European Union. This campaign to get a 'British exit' from the EU was popularly known by the catchier title of 'Brexit'.
The next section gives a simplified history of the EU, and gives a clue as to the issues which brought about this referendum. It is as brief as I could make it, but it is still necessarily quite extensive.
The Background to This Vote
Although some unified bodies had already been set up in the early 1950s, it was In 1957, that the Treaty of Rome was signed by six nations to create the European Economic Community (EEC), or ‘Common Market’. The six founding nations were Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The new organisation and the other unified bodies agreed joint control on food production regulations and removed tariffs on trade between the countries. In 1973 the United Kingdom (UK) together with Denmark and Ireland joined the EEC, and in its first ever referendum in 1975, overwhelmingly confirmed its membership of what at this time was essentially an economic coalition (the clue is in the name). Also in the 1970s, the governing parliament of the community was opened to direct elections increasing the legitimacy and authority of EEC legislation.
However, as time went on the European Economic Community began to extend its influence and powers, including the introduction of new environmental protection policies and the distribution of funds to poorer regions. Greece, Spain and Portugal joined in the 1980s, and in 1986 a treaty was signed which would pave the way for free trade across all community borders. This led in 1993 to the 'four freedoms' - free movement of goods, services, people and money across the member states. This essentially is when the European Union (EU) as we know it today, came into being. The process was later consolidated in 1995 with the ‘Schengen’ agreement which would allow all EU members to cross borders without even having their passports checked. Three more nations joined that year.
Greater integration and transfer of powers to the EU was taking place including further environmental policies, as well as security and defence measures. What was considered the next logical economic step was to initiate a common currency - the euro - across all member states. Then, between 2004 and 2007, a major and significant expansion of the EU took place. Twelve of the recently liberated nations of Eastern Europe joined the EU - a move which was seen as encouraging and supporting the emergence of their fledgling democratic governments.
Almost all of these developments could by themselves be seen as beneficial, allowing freedom to trade and study in different countries of the Union, supporting disadvantaged regions, creating a massive trading block and introducing a unified approach to many global problems such as climate change. However citizens in many countries were becoming increasingly disenchanted. In the UK, it was felt by some that the EU was now taking power away from the British government in areas quite separate from the economy - areas which had never been signed up to in 1972. This was increasingly felt despite the fact that the UK had exercised the right to remain out of certain common policies, including the Schengen Agreement and the single Euro currency.
More recently still, global and European events such as the debt crisis which affected several European nations, have led to further worries. And terrorist events have raised fears about the free movement of people across borders, whilst religious extremism and war in the Middle East has led to large numbers of refugees as well as economic migrants arriving on the shores of Europe, including the shores of the English Channel. The EU has struggled to come to terms with this problem and agree a common policy. Most significantly for the UK, the Eastern European nations which had joined the EU in the early 21st century are not as wealthy as the nations of Western Europe - so because of the free movement of citizens across borders, many have chosen to come to the UK for a better standard of living.
So that in a nutshell is the history of the EU. It is clear that the authority and powers of the EU have increased over the decades in many areas besides trade and economics. The intentions throughout have been good, and in many areas beneficial. However, this centralisation of power in Brussels means that inevitably many policies which affect the UK are taken elsewhere, and the UK Government is not always able to countermand them even if they would wish to do so. Many see that as an erosion of British sovereignty. And above all, free movement worries those who believe that too many may migrate to the UK from Eastern Europe, and far too much change may occur too rapidly within our society in ways which were never wanted or foreseen.
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It was in this climate that growing resentment towards the EU began to develop in the UK. A eurosceptic party - UKIP - had been set up in 1991, and after decades in the wilderness, now began to increase in popular support. In recent general elections they attracted as much as 13% of the popular vote, and although this had not translated into parliamentary seats won, Prime Minister David Cameron decided in the face of growing disenchantment - even within his own party - to hold another referendum, a way of allowing the people to directly determine a major constitutional issue. Should we remain in the European Union, or should we leave?
The Key Points of the Debate
I think that although the issues were obviously complex, there were for most ordinary people a few issues of overriding importance.
I think the two main reasons people supported 'Remain' were:
- A feeling that as part of a very large democratic community of broadly like minded views, Britain has far more influence and more power in the world within the EU, than if we go it alone.
- Economically we benefit from free trade and free movement within the Union and we will suffer considerable trade upheaval and a short or long term economic downturn if we leave.
I think the two main reasons people supported 'Brexit' were:
- A feeling that we no longer have full sovereignty or control of our own destiny in the UK, as so many decisions are now taken in Brussels (EU headquarters).
- A desire to curb immigration, notably from Eastern Europe. Whilst we are members of the EU, any EU citizen who wishes for a better living standard, can immigrate into Britain, and we cannot prevent them from coming.
These are just two reasons but I believe they represent the main arguments in the mind of voters as they went to the polling stations.
The next five sections look at the vote, and reactions to the vote.
The Ballot Paper
|COUNTRY||TURNOUT||% LEAVE VOTE|
The Results and Analysis of the Voting Figures
The overall turnout was 72% of those eligible to vote. A simple majority, however small, was sufficient for one side to secure victory. In the event, of those who voted in the referendum:
- 51.9% voted Leave
- 48.1% voted Remain
The key figures from the four 'nations' of the United Kingdom are presented in the table. In England and Wales 53% voted Leave. In Scotland and Northern ireland, a sizeable majority voted Remain, But it should be emphasised for non-UK readers, 84% of the population lives in England, and so the relatively small majority in favour of Leave in England has a far greater influence on the end result than do the voting statistics for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The turnout figure is also presented in the Table, because it was always believed that Leave supporters would be more passionate than Remain supporters, and more likely to turn out and vote. So it seems to be - the turnout in pro-Brexit England and Wales was significantly higher than the turnout in pro-Remain Scotland and Northern Ireland. This also helped contribute to the narrow victory.
The Breakdown of the Vote
There were clear differences between different sections of the community. It is believed that young voters overwhelmingly supported Remain, whilst a majority of older voters supported Leave. And older people were more likely to turn out and vote. Graduates tended more often to vote Remain. Above all there were regional differences. Almost all of rural England, smaller towns and much of the industrial north voted Leave, whilst some of the bigger city conurbations - notably London - overwhelmingly voted Remain,. And as we have already seen, England and Wales generally had very different attitudes to those of Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Immediate Impact on a Divided Nation
The result and the breakdown of the vote described above shows how the nation was divided on this issue, and that may have very significant implications for the future both within political parties and across the United Kingdom. Quite apart from the certainty of implications for trade, free movement of citizens and much other legislation, there were seizmic effects in the first 24 hours post-referendum which amply illustrate just why this was such an extraordinarily important decision.
1) Prime Minister David Cameron announced his intention to resign before the next Conservative Party conference in October. That means a new Prime Minister will have to be elected, the mechanism being put into motion almost immediately. Mr Cameron had come out strongly in support of Remain after negotiating some concessions from the EU earlier this year.
2) Moves were undertaken in the opposition Labour Party to oust their leader Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Corbyn, like most other Labour MPs, had stated that he was pro-Remain, but he was never thought to be committed to the cause and his apparent lacklustre enthusiasm will be blamed by many pro-EU Labour MPs for the Brexit victory. On the other hand, one aspect of EU membership of which he wholeheartedly approved was free movement and increased migration - but that undoubtedly alienated many Labour supporters who voted Brexit.
3) Scotland - never an enthusiastic member of the United Kingdom - voted for Remain in all regions, and yet got the result they didn't want. The leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, Nicola Sturgeon, has already strongly indicated that she will soon call for another referendum on Scottish independence from the UK.
4) Predictably the money markets slumped on hearing the news. Most major financial institutions had supported Remain, and stock exchanges fear change and the unknown. As a result on Friday 24th, the pound dropped in value to its lowest level since 1985, before recovering slightly. The UK stock market slumped too, but recovered most of its strength by the end of the day.
These were immediate consequences of the vote on the very first day, any of which on any other day would dominate the news broadcasts. But on this day, they were mere bit-parts in the story. And since then, on Sunday 26th June, Nicola Sturgeon hinted that she might defy the Brexit vote and try to veto the UK's exit from the EU. Lack of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn has already led to eleven resignations and one sacking from his Shadow (opposition) Labour cabinet. And online petitions have been organised to try to get a second referendum on EU membership instigated. We seem to be up the proverbial creek without a paddle and no leadership to say which way we should steer.
And the Immediate Impact in Europe
Of course it was not just in the UK that reverberations were felt. There was an overwhelming sense of shock and more poignantly - sadness - in Europe. It may be that they never considered that this day would come; believing the daunting prospect of Brexit upheavals would be just too much for the UK to accept. Perhaps if they could have foreseen this vote, then further concessions would have been made to David Cameron when he tried to negotiate a better membership deal for the UK in February. Or perhaps they had given all they felt they could without compromising the whole ethos of the EU.
The immediate efffect in Europe - just as in the UK - was big falls on the European stock markets. Within 24 hours, independence movements in several nations such as France, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands indicated they would also now push for referendums to exit from the EU. Longer term, there may possibly be a domino effect if other nations do indeed seek their own referendums.
European Council president Donald Tusk said after the referendum 'this is not a moment for hysterical reactions'. Angela Merkel the German Chancellor, called the decision 'a great regret', and said Europe should remain 'composed and calm and not act hastily'. She said that it marks a turning point for Europe. French president François Hollande called it a 'sad choice. Europe cannot be like it was before'.
Many Poles work in the UK, and the Polish foreign minister described the decision as 'bad news for Europe and bad news for Poland.' And the Greek Prime Minister said 'we urgently need a new vision for Europe.'
There were positive, conciliatory messages too. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission said that he hoped for the UK 'to be a close partner of the EU in the future.' The Irish Prime Minister also said that a 'strong and close relationship will continue.' And there has been a call in Germany for a new free trade agreement to be reached with the UK as soon as possible.
The next four sections look at the campaign which led to this result. Why did Brexit win, despite overwhelming expert opinion in favour of Remain?
Brexit - Why Did It Happen?
Very few people really believed at the start of this process that the end result would be a Leave result. David Cameron clearly didn't. Even many of those who voted Brexit didn't. And yet it was never as unlikely as people thought given the closeness of the polls conducted throughout the campaign and the unpredictability of voting demographics in a referendum for which there were no precedents.
So why did it happen? It seems most likely that Brexit won due to a combination of fears over jobs due to immigration, combined with a feeling that sovereignty was being lost to Brussels. The strength of feeling on immigration was well known but was not adequately addressed by politicians of either of the two biggest parties - the Conservatives and Labour. This was partly because for many years opposition to increased immigration was equated at best with an insular, inward-looking attitude and at worst with racism or bigotry. It was almost politically incorrect even to raise the issue. That frustrated many people.
As far as sovereignty is concerned, that's not a concept which plays a major role in General Elections, so the strength of feeling that sovereignty was being eroded was seriously underestimated and only became apparent during this referendum.
But regardless of public opinion on these issues, the Remain campaign - and almost everyone else - undoubtedly thought that when the crunch came the public would still shy away from such a radical step as Brexit. Instead, it seems many saw a Leave vote as a statement of optimism in the future, a fresh start. Boris Johnson, one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign, had used the rallying call that 23rd June would be 'our Independence Day.' I think a lot of people saw it in those terms.
A View of the Campaign - Untruths, Exaggeration and Negativity
What had been the effect of weeks of intensive campaigning on the final result?
Unfortunately the campaigns of both sides only enhanced divisions which existed in the minds of people across the country. And it really became difficult to uncover a few drops of truth from amongst an ocean of half truths, exaggerations and misrepresentations. Nothing could be relied upon from either side.
To be fair to Brexit, they couldn't actually ever promise anything (even though it sometimes sounded like they did) because they were not a party of government - merely a movement to leave the EU. Nobody should have taken anything they said as a promise, but only as a statement of what could be achieved. Nonetheless, there were numerous implied commitments and scares which were blatantly false. For example fears of an early mass immigration from Turkey, which isn't even yet a member of the EU, and over-estimations of the amount of money which would be available to us after Brexit.
On the Remain side, there were perhaps fewer deceitful statements but even more irresponsible scaremongering and threats, notably the suggestion that there would have to be a 'punishment' budget after Brexit, to prevent a cataclysmic economic collapse, and even the implication that Europe would be at greater risk of war.
The result of this was that the public found it increasingly hard to know who to trust, because it was impossible to get accuracy from any of them. I suspect in the end, it did not matter what any politicians said - people stopped listening.
Of course there were neutral observers who could inform the public, and of these the best established and most influential is the BBC. I do believe that the BBC and other broadcasters did their best to provide impartial advice, but their very striving to be seen as neutral creates its own problems. The desire to give equal time to both sides in a debate means that if there are ten good arguments for one side on a particular issue, and one lesser point on the other side, the BBC will nonetheless attempt to give equal prominence to both; laudable, but not always helpful.
I think the net result was that people tended to vote either on the single issue most important to them, or on hunches and intuition. One's self-interest, and one's fear for the future or pride in the nation, were at least as important as facts.
But even allowing for the absence of reliable facts from either side, there was one other factor which should surely have favoured Remain - the sheer weight of expert authority figures in support of the EU. Why did the public ignore what most in the establishment advised? The reason I think can be found in the next section.
An Anti-Establishment Vote?
The success of Brexit may be worrying for some. Not necessarily for the vote - that depends on which side you support - but for what it may say about the disconnect between the 'establishment' and the public. All major party leaders in mainland Britain (except UKIP's leader Nigel Farage) supported Remain. Nearly all Labour MPs and a smaller majority of Conservative MPs supported Remain. The majority of significant world leaders, and also international businesses and financial institutions, supported Remain. And yet the public voted Leave. Superficially, that suggests that anti-establishmentarianism won the day.
The lack of willingness to believe these authority figures stems from a distrust of what they say and why they say it. Mistrust of what home-grown politicians said has already been mentioned, and it applied across the board. World leaders, including even Barack Obama who is much admired in the UK, were seen by many as interfering when they made their views known. As far as economic institutions are concerned, there may have been a feeling that after 40 years of membership, big business has vested interests in the EU, whilst financial institutions don't like instability and uncertainty of whatever kind. Their judgement therefore (in the public perception, I emphasise) may be clouded.
It should not be this way, and that is why I say it is worrying for some that this disconnect apparently exists. But when all is said and done we are in uncharted territory and one can only hope that the vote was not an anti-establishment protest at all, nor a sign of deep lack of trust in their integrity, but rather a simple indication that the public believed nobody could truly predict the future - not experts, not politicians, not anyone. They ignored them.
So there we have it. The public voted with a small majority in favour of Brexit, but it wasn't a clear verdict, and certainly not a verdict which was uniform across the country. It was not a verdict which had been anticipated in Europe or the corridors of power in the UK. All kinds of opinions have been expressed on why the British people took such a momentous decision. I've given my view above, as to why the weight of expert opinion was ignored, and why many voted Brexit. But in the next two sections I will give my own opinion (hope I haven't made it too obvious so far!) about whether the decision was the right one, and give a view of the future together with an appeal for calm.