The UK and Europe

Why it was not alright on the EU referendum night

Tim Oliver / Oct 2016

Photo: Shutterstock


In June 2015 E!Sharp published a piece by Tim Oliver setting out 15 questions which raised doubts as to whether the UK’s EU referendum might not result in the remain vote that many in the UK and EU hoped and many also assumed would be the eventual outcome. Four months on from Britain’s vote to leave the EU he looks back to those fifteen questions in order to reflect on what happened and why.

Do you believe pollsters any longer? The question was asked in the aftermath of both the 2015 general election and Scotland’s independence referendum, neither of which – especially the general election – had been pollsters finest hour. Pollsters had rightly warned of a tight referendum race, but generally pointed to Remain prevailing. The betting markets echoed this, with betting on a Remain result still strong until late into the night itself. While the post-mortem was nothing compared to that after the general election, questions were once again asked about whether pollsters are able to reach large swathes of British voters.

Will Cameron secure a renegotiation? He did, and while for those who work in and study the EU the renegotiation was not insubstantial, it was not the radical reform of the UK-EU relationship or of the EU more broadly that he had set out to achieve. It did, however, set down guidelines for future reforms that might have proved lucrative. As his advisors have noted, he expanded a vast amount of time pursuing a renegotiation in the hope it could give him the necessary credit to win the vote.

Will the British people believe Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’? They did not. Polls had indicated that a renegotiation, like that secured before Britain’s 1975 referendum, would boost the chances of winning a referendum as happened in 1975. But a range of voices in the Conservative party ridiculed the renegotiation, with the press being unrelenting in its criticisms. Both came as a shock to Cameron and his advisers, which points to how little they had considered the likely opposition they would face. Opposition, as we discuss further below, that Cameron himself had encouraged in previous years. The outcome was the renegotiation being quickly forgotten despite the time and effort that went into it on the UK and EU sides.

Is Cameron the best Prime Minister to win an ‘in’ vote? At the start of the campaign he was still considered an asset but as the campaign wore on the Leave campaign was able to offer something akin to a government in waiting in the form of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Cameron’s brand, and that of the Chancellor George Osborne, declined. As leaders who represented the ‘status-quo’ they were tainted by austerity and their own personal; backgrounds helped provoke feelings of a distant elite.

Who will run the most shambolic campaign? Neither side was immune from splits and mistakes. In the end it was the various Leave campaigns that were better able to capture the public mood in capturing hearts more than minds. In part that was because of the two different sides to the campaign. The official Leave campaign – Vote Leave – brought with it a degree of respectability that reached beyond the alternative UKIP-led ‘’, but with the latter providing a valuable set of supporters in working class, economically depressed areas of the UK.

Who will be better at selling an unknown? Despite the warnings by the Remain campaign that the Leave campaigns were unable to offer a viable plan for leaving, large swathes of the British people appeared indifferent to this. Instead, as so often in referendums, other matters came to the fore with the issue of Europe competing with a range of issues.

Who can win hearts and minds? The Remain campaign focused largely on the economics of Brexit, noting that large numbers of British voters worried about this side of Brexit. However, the Leave campaign was able to focus on issues that connected to far more people, not least of which were immigration, identity politics, community, and national solidarity – especially the future of the NHS – and sovereignty. As analysts of UKIP’s rise have long argued, Euroscepticism has to be seen in terms of angst about changing identities, communities and feelings of alienation. Even if these are imagined or exaggerated, the referendum provided the opportunity for them to define the way people voted on a single issue.

Can the ‘in’ campaign bank on the business community? Big business largely supported the Remain camp, but this was always cautious and lacked the weight it had in the 1975 vote. An effective campaign from small and medium sized enterprises – the core of the UK economy – never really materialised for the Remain camp. The financial institutions of the City of London were not going to carry as much weight as they might have liked. This was not only because of the financial crisis of 2008. It was also because they were closely associated with the globalised, distant and increasingly alien metropolis of London.

Will the media support an ‘in’ vote? The British press was largely opposed to continued membership, with many Conservative leaning newspapers attacking Cameron’s renegotiation at the start. This continued a longstanding tendency in the British press towards Eurosceptic opinions with only a small counterweight in the form of pro-European messages. Broadcasters were required to be even-handed in their coverage, meaning that even when something – on either side – was factually wrong or dubious, they were still required to give it equal billing. Online the campaign was largely won by the Leave campaign, a reflection of how across the Western world it has been insurgent and populist parties and groups that have been more effective at utilising the potential of new media.

Will the British people be patronised? The ‘Remain’ side was able to draw on warnings from the likes of President Obama, the IMF, the Bank of England and many others in Britain and abroad. However, this did sometimes come across as patronising. So too was David Cameron’s own approach. Making the case for the EU was extremely difficult because this was the first time many voters had heard a pro-European message, one that did not fit with the established tone of British politics. Cameron could not spend years attacking the EU and threatening to walk out of the EU during the renegotiations only to then turn to the British people during the campaign and argue EU membership was a matter of war and peace. People were not convinced by this inconsistent approach. As you sow, so shall you reap.

Will the referendum really be about Europe? The referendum became a way in which voters expressed their feelings about a range of matters connected – in varying ways – to the issue of the EU membership, not least immigration and identity politics. It was also a way ‘left behind’ voters to make clear their anger at the direction of the country and how they felt they had been forgotten about by mainstream parties and areas such as London which were succeeding in the globalisation race.

Will Scotland be a factor? The vote for ‘Leave’ won in every region of England except London. Polling had long shown that the more a voter identified with being English the more likely they were to be Eurosceptic and the reverse the same for those who identify as British. Arguing that Brexit might break-up the UK did not therefore act as a sufficiently strong disincentive to the large number of people in England who were more concerned with English nationalism than the future of Britain.

Will European events sink a referendum? The ongoing crises in the Eurozone, Schengen and tensions with Russia made it difficult to sell the EU in the positive light that it had been in 1975. The EU no longer appeared as the future it once was.

Who gets to vote? A sizeable pro-EU body of voters was excluded by the decision to exclude 16 and 17 year olds from the vote, EU citizens living in the UK (but not the citizens of Commonwealth states such as Nigeria or Australia) and not update legislation in time that would have extended the number of Brits overseas who could vote. Including them, however, would have been difficult legally and politically with any vote in parliament likely to have been fraught. The turnout – 72% - showed that the debate had captured the imagination of the British people, although whether they were voting on the issue of Europe is another matter.

Will it settle the issue? Had the result been a narrow one for Remain then there would almost certainly be demands for a second referendum, just as there have been calls for a second vote to double-check the choice to leave. Legislative and political barriers mean there will not be a second referendum or, in all likelihood, a general election to check or reverse the decision. That does not mean there will not be further votes. Parliament – the Commons and (often forgotten) the House of Lords – will have to vote Brexit into law. The government’s small majority means by-elections will present pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics chances to continue the argument. That the rest of the EU will at some stage get to vote on the exit deal was, until recently, largely overlooked in the UK’s debate. What the twenty seven EU member states and the European Parliament are likely to vote for, however, remains one of the biggest unknowns of Brexit.

Tim Oliver

Tim Oliver

October 2016

About this author ︎►

Related content