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Debates

The UK and Europe

Defining and delivering Brexit

Sunder Katwala / Jul 2016

Photo: Shutterstock


Britain voted to leave the European Union, by 17,410,742 votes to 16,141,241. A narrow 52% to 48% vote for Leave could easily have resulted in a 49% to 51% decision the other way around. The political consequences would have been dramatically different; the economic, political and social divides illuminated by the referendum rather similar.  

16 million votes for Remain could have been enough to deliver a narrow victory to stay in. It wasn’t – because three million more people cast a vote in the 2016 referendum than the 2015 general election; the strongest participation in a UK-wide vote since 1992. Those returning to the ballot box after two decades of not bothering voted heavily for Leave. Even those most disappointed by the result may need to acknowledge that democratic achievement.



The referendum also showed how democratic politics is divisive when the stakes are high. The vote divided Britain by class, education and region. The choice polarised those with very different views about sovereignty and identity, immigration and internationalism,  though many voters made a pragmatic choice too, about what Britain gets out of the EU for what it puts in, being less clear in the era of the Eurozone that the frustrations of the multilateral club were a price worth paying for the economic gains of the single mark.

Remain’s trump card – the economic risks of leaving – proved insufficient once it became almost the only campaign argument. ‘Trust the experts’ had triumphed in 1975 but was less effective in the less deferential Britain of 2016.  

Remain won the referendum argument when it was talking to graduate Britain - but lost the argument when it wasn’t. Those bemoaning a descent into “post-truth politics” risk missing the point. People didn’t necessarily doubt that the experts had expertise on the subjects they are experts in.  But the warnings from the International Monetary Fund, the Bank of England, the Treasury and the commanding heights of the FTSE 100 did not feel, to those struggling economically, with little sense that they had much to lose, like a compelling reason to cast their own vote for the status quo, giving Westminster and Brussels a signal to carry on with more of the same. 

Leave won the campaign argument on immigration – where Remain’s strategy was to change the subject as quickly as possible, failing to set out a clear plan to manage immigration better. 

New attitudes research from ICM for British Future, conducted immediately after the campaign, finds that Leave campaigners got it both right and wrong for the majority on immigration, striking a chord with the public when Michael Gove, Gisela Stuart and Boris Johnson were talking about the benefits of controlled and selective migration for Britain, while Nigel Farage’s controversial ‘Breaking Point’ poster will have repelled more support than it gained. 

The Leave majority does amount to a public vote of no confidence in how governments have handled immigration over the last decade. It reflects a public perception that governments did not predict or adequately prepare for the scale and pace of immigration, and proved they did not have a grip by making and breaking promises that were impossible to keep. But frustration with the performance of governments on immigration did not equate to a xenophobic or anti-migrant vote.

The post-referendum attitudes evidence is clear – strong majorities want to manage immigration and its impacts better, not slam the borders shut. 84% of people – across both Remain and Leave – think it is vital to let European nationals in Britain know that they are welcome to stay. Most people wanted immigration debated fully in the referendum – yet two-thirds of people worried about the tone that the debate took, including a majority of Leave voters.  The majority are clear too that future policies need to be about managing immigration and its pressures better, not about slamming the doors shut.

Defining and delivering Brexit is the biggest challenge faced by the British state since 1945, though Theresa May wants her government to be as focused on a One Nation agenda to tackle the social divides highlighted by the vote.  The three Brexiteeers – David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox - will argue that the choice to leave the EU does not mean that Britain is withdrawing from the world. Remain voters would want that to be true too. Those making the case for Britain remaining an outward-looking nation will need to show how the benefits can be spread across regions and classes much more strongly than at present.

Britain will leave the European Union, but what happens next is not clear. The losing tribe in the referendum now have a choice – to try to reverse Brexit or to influence it. Despite the energy of “the 48%”, none of the legal or political strategies to try to block Brexit stand up to scrutiny. Many have looked more like the early stages of the grieving process – denial and anger at the shock of defeat. There is a strong case for moving through that grieving cycle to bargaining and acceptance. The Remain tribe will almost certainly fail to prevent Brexit happening – but should not lose a significant opportunity to build new alliances across the 48% and 52% divide which might influence what Brexit now means.


Sunder Katwala

Sunder Katwala

July 2016

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