Why did Brexit happen?

15 Apr 2017

Understanding what Brexit means might have seemed like a pre-requisite to voting to stay or leave.  


On reflection, it now seems that it was always going to be difficult to work out facts from myths during the fever of the Brexit referendum campaign.


Nevertheless, the United Kingdom has, either by design or accident backed itself, and everyone in Europe, into a corner.


The question is, why?  The narrative themes that seemed to gain prominence during the referendum campaign focused on diverting money to the NHS, desire to regain Britain’s sovereignty, and the need to protect Britain from unrestrained immigration. Each of these challenges is a valid cause for concern, but, during the referendum campaign, while much was spoken about each, there were precious few facts.


It is easy to become overwhelmed with the sheer breadth of issues and challenges facing the world. In such an uncertain political landscape people always seek certainty and retreat to old ways of doing things. This allows many leaders to utter platitudes and hide behind vague assertions, like ‘Make America great again’,  or ‘Take back control’, when, in fact, the need for openness and clarity has never been greater.


The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report by Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath makes for an interesting read when trying to understand why Brexit happened. The Report suggests that the poorest households with incomes of less than £20,000 per year were much more likely to support leaving the EU than were the wealthiest households. Similarly, those who are unemployed or in low skilled and manual occupations were also more likely to vote to Leave. Those who felt themselves particularly ‘English’ were also more likely to vote to Leave.


A thorough reading of the Rowntree report leads one inevitably to the conclusion that the vote to leave the EU was in no small part driven by groups who feel excluded and impoverished.


No-one should be surprised by this. Throughout Europe, just as in Britain, there are large sections of society who are being left behind Europe's staggering economic progression. When one adds in the dilemmas associated with the large influx of immigrants and refugees, it is little surprise that some sections of society take the opportunity to make a protest vote.


If the findings in the Rowntree Foundation Report are accurate, then at least in part the European Union lost the Brexit vote because of a systemic and historical failure to ensure that no sections of society were left behind in the drive for European unity.


If the European Union is to avoid future potential shocks like Brexit, it must take steps urgently to address this alarming oversight.


Social and economic isolation are not inventions of the European Union; they have existed long before the EU became a reality. It is interesting though to ponder how exactly British politicians dealt with this issue in the run-up to the referendum vote. If one looks at the key themes that were allowed to emerge during the referendum debate (especially sovereignty, the NHS, and immigration), it is not hard to figure out that they were the issues most likely to resonate the loudest with the very groups identified in the Rowntree Foundation Report.


So, when Vote Leave spoke of taking back Britain’s sovereignty and coupling that with getting back Britain’s money from Europe to spend on the NHS, the combined impact was always going to be very hard to counter. 


Voters were mobilised to vote to Leave based on reclaiming British sovereignty, gaining more finances for the NHS, and generally improving the lot for those less fortunate. This is not dissimilar to the approach taken by Donald Trump in his election campaign where he seemed to primarily appeal to those people who might consider themselves disenfranchised and left behind.


One can't help wondering what might happen if they are to be disappointed yet again.



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