David Cameron’s fateful decision in January 2013 to call a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union culminated in a narrow vote to leave the bloc. The decision convulsed the UK and forced Cameron to resign as prime minister.
Jo Cox, the opposition Labour Party MP of a constituency in West Yorkshire, was shot and stabbed by a man with alleged links to far-rightwing extremism in the last week before Britain’s inflammatory and divisive plebiscite. The first MP to be assassinated since the IRA killed Ian Gow in 1990, Cox was a passionate advocate of the rights of refugees and a vocal supporter of Britain remaining in the EU. On the day she was killed, Nigel Farage, leader of the nationalist UK Independence Party (Ukip), unveiled a campaign poster of a long line of dark-skinned refugees and migrants and the slogan ‘Breaking Point’. As the New Yorker noted, the aesthetics of the poster echoed Nazi propaganda from the 1930s.
Cox will be remembered by many as a martyr for the belief in an open, tolerant and inclusive Britain that thrived on diversity. But that vision of a more forward-looking UK seemed to vanish like a dream as the sun rose on 24 June. A turbulent new era dawned after just over half of the voters ignored the urgent advice of most of the UK’s political, financial and cultural establishment, and the entreaties of world leaders, by opting to leave the EU after 43 years as a leading member of the bloc.
The referendum decision made obvious Britain’s long-ignored faultlines of region, class and education. It graphically illustrated many people’s distrust of informed opinion—‘experts’ became a term of snorted derision. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU—making the UK’s break-up a 50/50 proposition, according to bookmakers. British politics went into convulsions and the EU faced an existential crisis.
The vote was only a narrow win for the Leave camp—by less than 52% to 48%—and only two-thirds of the electorate had voted. But the shockwaves were felt immediately as sterling plunged to a 31-year low against the dollar, £120bn ($155bn) was wiped off leading shares as the FTSE 100 fell 8% and the wider FTSE 250, which better represents British companies, dropped by a record 11.4%. Globally, markets haemorrhaged more than $2 trillion on the Friday, the worst fall on record, CNBC reported. The credit-ratings agency Fitch joined Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s in downgrading the UK to unstable, the Financial Times reported.
Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, tried to calm fears over liquidity by making £150bn available to banks. But with sterling’s fall raising import costs, the Bank faced a dilemma over whether to raise interest rates to curb inflation or cut them to counteract the likely recession. The car manufacturing industry and the National Health Service (which relies on 55,000 medical professionals from abroad, according to the King’s Fund thinktank) wondered where they would get the skilled labour they needed if immigration was restricted, while Berlin tried to lure start-ups from London as a chill fell over the UK’s technology and banking sectors.
In the final days before the vote, many believed Jo Cox’s death had shocked voters out of their isolationist reverie. This unfounded optimism was helped by opinion polls showing a narrow lead emerging for the Remain camp but, as with the UK’s 2015 general election, the pollsters and bookmakers had called it wrong. There were, almost immediately, accounts of ‘buyer’s remorse’, dubbed ‘Bregret’, as the reality of what had happened dawned on Leave voters. One of the most spectacular was Kelvin Mackenzie, a longtime peddler of stories about the EU as former editor of the Sun. The Daily Mail, another cheerleader for Brexit, said the surge of Google searches for ‘what happens if Britain leaves EU’ a day after the vote suggested many people had not understood what was at stake.
An emotional Cameron swiftly resigned as prime minister, just a year after winning a parliamentary majority. It was a devastating end to his six years in Downing Street—a self-inflicted wound after his gamble of using a referendum as a short-term tactical manoeuvre to stop Tory votes leaking to Ukip backfired horribly.
Other political casualties followed as it became clear that the anti-EU campaign’s success had taken its own leadership by surprise, not least Boris Johnson, cheerleader-in-chief for the Leave camp, who was ‘ashen with the terror of victory’, Jonathan Freedland wrote. As the New York Times noted: ‘The movement’s leaders have often appeared as if they had not expected to win and were not prepared to cope with the consequences. Faced with the scope of the decision, they have been busy walking back promises they made during the campaign and scaling back expectations.’ Gary Younge commented in the Guardian: ‘During the campaign, our departure from the EU had many proud and pushy parents; in victory it is an orphan.’
Nigel Farage, who remains a member of the European Parliament, resigned as leader of Ukip, though the party was probably the biggest political beneficiary of Brexit. But the most spectacular career gyrations were felt by the two principal Conservative architects of the Leave campaign—Johnson, a former mayor of London, and Michael Gove, justice secretary and an ideologue of Brexit. Johnson’s hungry ambition to succeed Cameron as prime minister was thwarted immediately when Gove refused to back him and stood against his former ally. Johnson quit the race to succeed Cameron, an old rival, as head of the ruling party (and hence prime minister under the British parliamentary system) but Gove’s perceived act of betrayal did him little good as he was in turn quickly dispatched from the shortlist by his fellow Tory MPs. Andrea Leadsom, another prominent Eurosceptic, then quit in turn after a short but gaffe-strewn challenge to Theresa May, the home secretary and favourite for the top job. With only May (a quiet Remainer) left, Cameron announced he was stepping down on 13 July and she would become the 76th British prime minister. She promptly purged the cabinet of some of her predecessor’s closest allies, such as George Osborne, the chancellor of the Exchequer, but in a week of political shocks, the appointment of Johnson as foreign secretary seemed the most startling, not least because the British government’s new chief diplomat had a long history of insulting foreign leaders and a casual regard for facts in his journalism on the EU.
The hard-left leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, faced discontent in his own ranks as most of Labour’s MPs, angry at what they saw as his weak and equivocating stance during the referendum campaign, resigned en masse from the shadow cabinet in a feeble coup attempt against him. After Corbyn refused to stand down, Angela Eagle, a ‘soft-left’ figure in the party, said she would stand against him for the leadership. But with Corbyn enjoying overwhelming support among the party’s ordinary members and trade union bosses, the stand-off threatened to split the party just as Labour’s ideological divisions in the 1980s had led to centre-right MPs breaking away to form the short-lived Social Democratic Party. After another relatively unknown Labour MP, Owen Smith, also announced he would stand against Corbyn, Eagle stood down so as not to split the vote.
As recriminations erupted after the vote, many people wondered again why the prime minister had turned again to a referendum, especially so soon after the fraught Scottish independence referendum. For William Keegan in the Observer, the best explanation was that Cameron had not expected to win a majority in the 2015 election and thought the seemingly inevitable coalition with the Liberal Democrats would allow him to wriggle out of his pledge. Others, such as Matthew Parris in the Sunday Times, disparaged the very concept of using a referendum to decide such momentous issues. Clement Attlee’s reply to Winston Churchill’s suggestion of a referendum—on whether to delay elections and continue the wartime coalition in 1945—was much quoted by critics of plebiscites: ‘I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum, which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and fascism.’
Cameron had taken what the Economist called the ‘reckless decision’ to offer the referendum in 2013 to negate his critics on the Conservative’s noisy Eurosceptic wing. Their campaign to distance the UK from Brussels, or break away entirely, dated back to before the 1980s (though Euroscepticism was as much a creature of the left in the 1975 referendum on membership of the European Economic Community, as the EU then was).
As a London School of Economics analysis pointed out, there have always been many shades of opinion on Europe within the Tory party, from Europhiles such as Ken Clarke, through ‘soft’ Eurosceptics such as Cameron to ‘withdrawalists’, as represented by MPs such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, for whom the debate was all about sovereignty.
The wider Brexit entente also came from many different directions. One strand was economic wishful thinking—a rosy-eyed view that Britain had been held back from its destiny as one of the world’s great trading nations and pre-eminent financial centre by pettifogging EU bureaucrats. The corollary of this was the importance, as substitutes for the EU, of both the Commonwealth (as propounded by commentators such as Lord Howell) and the venerated ‘special relationship’ between the US and Britain, a delusion of the Atlanticists despite the 1956 Suez debacle and a shibboleth of the Thatcherite right (exemplified by the Heritage Foundation).
Desire to leave
Some specific sectors of the economy had long campaigned to leave: for example, the fishing industry was pro-Brexit even in those parts of the UK that voted Remain, such as Scotland, despite arguments that the enforcement of quotas had helped fisheries recover. Similarly, British farmers were also largely pro-Leave over issues such as regulation of pesticides and ‘set-aside’ land in spite of receiving £3bn a year in subsidies. This disconnect—that beneficiaries of the EU could also be its angriest opponents—was seen in the post-industrial towns of northern England and the Midlands, but also in counties such as Cornwall, which benefited heavily from EU grants, and comparatively prosperous regions such as East Anglia. In Wales, where a majority voted out—despite the country getting more money back from the EU than it puts in—AP quoted one woman in Pontypridd, who had voted Remain, saying somewhat despairingly of her fellow Welsh voters: ‘They say this is a chance to have a go at Cameron, to have a go at the bankers. They are voting against immigration, they are voting against the establishment.’
One of the most disturbing aspects of the referendum was how the desire to leave the EU was, for many voters, wrapped up in outright racism. This bigotry came in both a neo-Nazi hue (as with the thuggish British National Party) and the saloon-bar bigotry of Farage’s Ukip. Fears were realized when racist attacks and abuse surged 52% as the campaign reached its climax. But there was a forceful countervailing argument, too. For example, Danny Dorling, a social geographer, argued in the British Medical Journal that the unchecked widening of inequality in the UK, culminating in the Cameron government’s austerity policies, was behind the referendum result.
Nevertheless, as the dust settled after the vote, it was hard not to accept that a fundamental mistake of the Remain campaign had been the refusal to engage with the anti-immigrant arguments being trotted out on doorsteps and in the media. This blamed higher immigration into the UK after the 2004-10 accession of 12 mostly eastern European countries to the EU for pushing down wages for working-class Britons, and further straining already inadequate housing, education and health provision. While many of these claims were rebutted (by the Huffington Post and the Guardian among others), the anti-immigration narrative prevailed at an anecdotal level. In Peterborough, a city of high immigration where 61% voted Leave, the Associated Press quoted Mike Bullock saying he voted leave partly because of the loneliness he had felt as the only Englishman working in a packing factory. However, AP also suggested, this xenophobia was driven by a nostalgia among older Britons for ‘a country that never was’.
Impact in Europe
The reaction in continental Europe to the referendum result was mostly disappointed, occasionally angry but overwhelmingly negative. Calling on the British government to trigger article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, (beginning the process of UK withdrawal), Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz—presidents of the European Council, European Commission and European Parliament respectively–plus Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister and holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, announced that Britain should exit ‘as soon as possible, however painful that process may be’ and there would be ‘no renegotiation’. Juncker was scathing about the Brexiters, calling them unpatriotic quitters: ‘They are as it were retro-nationalists, they are not patriots. Patriots don’t resign when things get difficult; they stay.’
However, leaders of far-right parties across Europe applauded the vote, cheered by how Brexit had suddenly slashed the odds on similar referendums in their own countries, the Independent reported. In France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front (FN), said Britain had given Europe and the world ‘a dazzling lesson in democracy’ and in the Netherlands Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV), called for a ‘Nexit’, saying ‘the Dutch population deserves a referendum as well…the United Kingdom is leading the way to the future and liberation.’
Yet for all the encouragement felt by far-right and Eurosceptic parties, there were signs that the cataclysmic events in British politics may paradoxically have dented their support as voters on the continent began to weigh the consequences more carefully than many in Britain had. The Guardian reported that support for the anti-refugee Alternative for Germany (AfD) party had fallen by nearly 20% in Germany and that while Wilders’ party was still the most popular in the Netherlands, support had fallen to its lowest level in nine months.
Even the other big news in Britain in June and July—publication of the severely critical report of Sir John Chilcot’s seven-year inquiry into the 2003 invasion of Iraq—gave cause for another reflection on the Brexit vote. In its editorial ‘The Damnation of Tony Blair’, Le Monde noted that by taking Britain into the Bush administration’s ‘disastrous’ war to depose Saddam Hussein, the former prime minister had ‘contributed to the discredit heaped upon the political class’, which had played such a major role in the referendum. Anthony Bellanger, quoted in the Guardian, was another French commentator linking Blair’s role in the Iraq war to the erosion of trust in mainstream political leaders, as well as the chain of events that led to the Syrian war’s refugee crisis, which had done so much to destabilise Europe. ‘We could therefore say that the Brexit is the latest, but not the last, consequence of a war begun in 2003 based on the lie of a president, George Bush, and of a prime minister, Tony Blair,’ he said.
Like Blair, Cameron’s catastrophic miscalculation has left a very mixed legacy. For every socially progressive move—such as legalising same-sex marriage and maintaining the overseas aid budget as the UK struggled out of the 2008 recession—there were far more examples of how the Tories’ harsh determination to reduce the role of the state and enforce economic austerity had led to a stalled economy, stagnant wage growth, a National Health Service in crisis, rising homelessness and even Britons in work seeking help from food banks. Any positive achievements, the Economist believed, would surely be ‘dwarfed by this giant, nation-changing misstep, one guaranteed to scar the country for decades and diminish his place in the history books. He leaves office in ignominy.’
Brexit may begin the unravelling of the entire post-1945 European order. But it will not be entirely to blame. As well as lambasting the Brexiters, even passionate federalists such as Guy Verhofstadt, an MEP and former Belgian prime minister, felt moved to issue a warning about the EU’s need to reform itself, according to EU Reporter.
‘European citizens are not against Europe, they are against this Europe. A Europe that has become an expert in making legislation on the exact measures and colours of a pack of cigarettes, on the amount of water toilets flush,’ Verhofstadt said. ‘People want a Europe capable of handling the big crises we are facing today … a European border and coast guard and a European asylum and migration policy to tackle the migration crisis; a European intelligence capacity to fight terrorism.
‘Today, we are sleepwalking towards a disaster, towards another 27 referenda ending the European Union…the Union must change, or it will die.’