2016 was an eventful year in domestic and global politics. One of the biggest shocks was Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, in what has been dubbed “Brexit”.
The referendum reached its climax in the summer of 2016 - during which we saw the country vote to leave the EU, a Prime Minister resign, and Nigel Farage step down as UKIP leader (again).
Here is a look back at the dramatic campaign and its effects, which will undoubtedly consume British politics for years to come.
"The choice is in your hands - but my recommendation is clear. I believe that Britain will be safer, stronger and better off by remaining in a reformed European Union."
It was with this statement on 20th February 2016, that David Cameron announced the UK would stage a referendum on its membership of the EU on June 23rd. From that moment, MPs of all colours split into Leave and Remain camps. Much of the focus fell on Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, who despite an “agonisingly difficult” decision, chose to campaign for Leave, saying:
“I want a better deal for the people of this country, to save them money and to take control. That is really what this is all about.”
Boris was the big hitter that the Leave side needed. Almost all other high-ranking politicians were backing Remain, and Boris lent an aura of credibility that might otherwise have been lacking. Indeed, Johnson was the star of the show for the anti-EU brigade, as he toured the country with ally (though soon to be nemesis) Michael Gove.
During the campaign, both sides made some strongly worded and equally dubious promises. Gove himself confidently declared that people were fed up of experts, after a string of economists and financial institutions revealed a heavy price for Brexit. Perhaps the most notorious promise was made by the Leave side, who insinuated that Britain’s contribution to the EU budget would be redirected into the NHS. The day after the vote, Nigel Farage rolled back on this promise – saying it would never happen.
On the Remain side, David Cameron, George Osborne and Sadiq Khan were the leading campaigners. Remainers chose to play on the financial uncertainty of Brexit, with then Chancellor Osborne suggesting that families could be up to £4,300 worse off following a vote to leave. There was also the threat of a “punishment budget” if Britain voted to leave the EU, whereby the government would be forced to recoup lost revenues through higher taxes.
As the war between the two sides intensified, immigration increasingly came to the fore as a decisive issue. The Leave campaign cited the government’s inability to control the numbers of people entering the country, while the Remain camp attempted to draw to light the economic benefits of free movement.
The whole debate culminated on Thursday 23rd June, when the country was asked to cast its vote. Although polls indicated a late swing towards Leave, most commentators still expected a vote to stay in the EU. Even Nigel Farage had seemingly conceded defeat.
These expectations were dashed fairly early on polling night, when North East constituencies such as Newcastle and Sunderland came down far more heavily in favour of Leave than was expected.
As night turned into the early hours, more and more counts declared Leave victories. At around 4.30am the result was beyond doubt and the BBC was able to declare the UK had decided to leave the European Union. The result came despite Scotland and London voting convincingly for Remain. Nigel Farage described the day as the UK’s “independence day”, while even Boris Johnson looked shell-shocked.
Many political observers have sought to explain why exactly the UK took such a momentous decision. The structural reasons are obviously extensive and complex – almost certainly involving the cultural and economic demise of Britain’s former industrial towns, and the era of mass migration under New Labour.
But, in terms of the campaigns, the Remain side focused too heavily on the potential negative consequences of leaving the EU. It is a step too far to say that Gove was right – that the public is fed up of experts. That said, the electorate certainly realised that the economic doom-mongering of Cameron and co. was merely a projection of an unknown future; nothing is guaranteed.
In relation to immigration, bureaucracy, economics and sovereignty, the Leave camp had answers – even if they were at times vague and idealistic. In contrast, when asked what a reformed EU would look like, Remainers could only point to the threadbare offering that Cameron had secured from the EU.
As we all know, the referendum was ultimately Cameron’s downfall, as Theresa May stepped up to take his place in 10 Downing Street. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage has stepped back from frontline domestic politics – instead angling for a spot in Donald Trump’s inner sanctum. The UK has not yet triggered Article 50, and indeed this process has stalled after Gina Miller successfully won a case forcing May to take the process through Parliament. However, it seems highly likely that Article 50 will still be invoked by March 2017.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, the Liberal Democrats have been one of the main beneficiaries of Brexit. They’re using the issue to mobilise the anger of all those who voted for Britain to remain in the EU – using it as a launch pad for an unlikely electoral comeback. This strategy earned the party a huge vote swing in the Witney by-election, and helped the party to win the Richmond by-election – overturning Zac Goldsmith’s large majority. The same cannot be said for Labour, however. The party is struggling to form a coherent strategy or approach to negotiations, with mixed messages coming from different figures within the party.
The Conservatives have pledged to outline their plans before the triggering of Article 50, but it is unclear exactly how detailed their strategy will be. Indeed, Labour isn’t the only party delivering mixed messages. The government has outlined multiple different desired outcomes from discussions with the EU, leaving the country only certain on one thing: that “Brexit means Brexit.”
Regardless of the details, the UK will be triggering Article 50 in 2017, which will begin a long process of negotiation before our official withdrawal from the EU. Currently, it remains unclear what the UK will actually look like after Brexit, what the country will receive from negotiations, and if any deal is even possible that will be agreeable for the UK and 27 other nations.
2016 has been an eventful year. It seems likely that 2017 will be very similar.