How did UK end up voting to leave the European Union?
Published : 25 Jun 2016, 17:55
Britain’s self-ejection from Europe is the culmination not just of four months of heady campaigning but four decades of latent Euroscepticism, which, through good times and bad, never really went away.
Campaigners have agitated for EU withdrawal ever since the UK joined the common market in 1973. Labour’s official policy for the next decade was to quit, and a sizeable proportion of Conservatives have never been comfortable Europeans.
The issue hounded John Major’s premiership, lay dormant through the Tony Blair years before rearing its head once again as the economy turned sour at the end of the last decade.
David Cameron was keen to move his party away from “banging on about Europe” after he became leader. But once in Downing Street, he found it impossible to resist pressure from his backbenchers to call a poll as the idea of leaving the EU gained wider traction in the country with the rise of Ukip, populist rage against remote elites and discontent about immigration.
Brexit, a term coined in 2012 before becoming mainstream political currency last year, moved from being a niche obsession to a victorious, mainstream political movement.
As prime minister, Cameron tried to throw his restless Eurosceptic backbenchers enough red meat to keep them happy – like withdrawing from the centre-right federalist EPP group in the European parliament.
However, this would never be enough for the right of the Conservative party – from Iain Duncan Smith to John Redwood – who would stop at almost nothing to free the UK from what they see as rule by Brussels, even at the expense of tearing apart their party.
Cameron’s troubles began as it became clear that the 2010 intake of Tories was more Eurosceptic than the last, as they set about applying pressure for a referendum from the outset.
As early as October 2011, David Cameron realised he was facing years of trench warfare with Eurosceptic backbenchers after 81 Conservative MPs supported a referendum on Britain’s membership in the largest postwar rebellion on Europe. John Baron, the Tory MP for Basildon and Billericay in Essex, was one of the ringleaders with a letter from 100 colleagues demanding a referendum on the EU in July 2012.
Cameron thought he had scored a Margaret Thatcher-style victory when he vetoed a rise in the EU budget later that year, but the episode appeared to inflame anti-Brussels feeling. In December of that year, Boris Johnson publicly called on Cameron to attempt to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU before calling a referendum.
The prime minister finally committed to an EU vote in January 2013 with what has become known as his Bloomberg speech, promising to renegotiate and then call a referendum by the end of 2017. Those familiar with his thinking at the time say Cameron had what was, in hindsight, an overoptimistic belief that he could lance the boil of Tory Euroscepticism by making such a promise.
It was also unlikely he would ever have to call such a poll because the Conservatives did not believe they would win an overall majority and could rely on the Lib Dems to veto the plan, like they did before 2015. However, Cameron’s victory last year, partially on the back of the promise of a referendum, meant there was no turning back.
The migration factor
Polling suggests discontent with the scale of migration to the UK has been the biggest factor pushing Britons to vote out, with the contest turning into a referendum on whether people are happy to accept free movement in return for free trade.
Public unease has been fuelled by a failure to prevent immigration from piling pressure on jobs markets and public services, and a refusal by politicians to acknowledge the sheer numbers of Europeans making new homes in the UK after the EU’s expansion east in 2004 and 2007.
Cameron promised before the 2010 election to bring migration down to the tens, not hundreds, of thousands. However, his failure to live up to his promise, repeated in 2015, has undermined trust in his leadership and contributed to a sense that UK politicians are powerless to lower migration from the EU.
The leave camp tried to make the arguments for Brexit more about the economy and sovereignty than immigration, but quickly found that “taking back control” over immigration was the most resonant message. They also linked immigration to shortages of primary school places, difficulty in getting a GP appointment, and depressed wages.
Elite and aloof
The other force that welled up during the campaign was a wholehearted distaste for the thing that Brussels had become in the 40 years since Britain last voted in a referendum on its place in Europe.
The UK has never voted on being part of the EU, which was formed at the time of the Maastricht treaty in 1993 and expanded its remit from an economic community to include foreign affairs, justice and policing.
The leave camp argued that Brussels has been on a mission to expand its powers and sought further political integration, which is far removed from what the UK originally voted for. Voters appear to have decided that this was their one chance to leave a union they never particularly embraced and did not consent to in the first place.
It should not be forgotten that the referendum came at a time when populist revolts against elites were gaining momentum, from Eurosceptic parties in France, Germany, Austria and Scandinavia to Trump’s brand of Republicanism in the US. The leave campaign has throughout painted the EU and Brussels officials as a hotbed of unaccountable political elites who were not democratically voted by the British people.
Despite MEPs being elected and leaders on the EU council each having their own mandates, it has become a tenet of Euroscepticism that the union is too remote from the people it is governing. Brexit campaigners frequently cited the “five presidents” of Europe, who they claimed no one had ever heard of, and pointed out that the unelected European commission proposes laws that end up passed by the parliament.
It hardly helped that the remain campaign was steered by almost the entire political establishment, with David Cameron, George Osborne and every living UK former prime minister from Tony Blair to John Major lining up to warn that leaving would be a terrible thing.
The Ukip factor
Cameron might never have called the referendum had it not been for the rise and rise of Nigel Farage and Ukip. By January 2013, when the prime minister called the EU vote, Ukip had started to gain traction in local elections and was polling in double digits for the first time. There was a feeling that several Tory backbenchers could defect if Cameron failed to heed their calls for a plebiscite.
Even after promising the referendum, Farage managed to gain millions of votes in the 2015 election, many of them in Labour areas as well as Conservatives. His frequent media appearances also helped cement a link between immigration and the EU in the public mind, preparing the ground for leave’s successful referendum campaign long before it officially kicked off.
Too little, too late
David Cameron overplayed his hand on EU reform when he raised hopes that he might be able to curb free movement in an FT article in November 2013. He aimed high but quickly had to water down what he was seeking from other EU leaders who were not prepared to open up the fundamental principle.
Realising his error, the prime minister then tried to make the issue about limiting benefits for migrants, rather than restricting numbers. His final negotiation, announced in February, came back with a ban on migrants getting full benefits for four years after arriving with no detail about how the tapering system would work.
Cameron tried to make the best of his renegotiation, hailing it as a major success that he got the 27 other member states to agree. However, the process ended up cementing the impression that Brussels was inflexible and unwilling to make big concessions to keep Britain in the union.
Boris Johnson and Michael Gove for leave
When the two political big beasts and friends of Cameron came out for
Brexit, it gave a huge boost to the leave campaign. Brexit had previously been caricatured as an obsession of very rightwing Conservatives and Ukippers but Johnson and Gove legitimised the push for leaving the EU.
Both highly articulate and savvy media performers, they made it more of a fight between equals against Cameron and Osborne. Johnson’s personal popularity seemingly across many different sections of society may also have made a difference as he crisscrossed the country in a battlebus selling a better Britain outside of the EU.
Matters were not helped by equivocating on the part of Labour, whose leadership never looked truly comfortable campaigning with Cameron, and some of whose traditional support has drifted off towards Ukip in the belief that it will address concerns about immigration more robustly than metropolitan Labour MPs.
Source: The guardian
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