Did Brexit Mean Brexit? In depth analysis of pre #Brexit discussion on meaning of leaving the European Union.
Did Brexit Mean Brexit? – If you have been living under a rock or were on an intergalactic space mission for a decade, then you should know that 2016 was a bad year for the establishment in the west. The status quo received a mortal blow with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. These two events on both sides of the pond cemented a new international order that will overturn most of what we know about the geopolitical landscape.
On 8th March 2017, Peers in the House of Lords voted down calls for a second referendum on the terms of the final Brexit deal by 336 votes to 1311. Baroness Smith of Basildon, Labour’s leader in the Lords, stated that there had been “no significant public demand for a second referendum.” She went on to comment that there had been no significant shift in public opinion about leaving the EU.
Ever since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, there have been editorials, political speeches and sound clips stating that the will of the people should be respected, and that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is the way to go. While this is what any responsible leader of government can do (abiding by the result of a political process that was free, fair and democratic), was it really the wish of the British people to leave the European Union? Did they know what they were getting themselves into? Or was the referendum expressing something else that has been lurking underneath the surface and it was only in June 2016 that events conspired to release it from its dark, cagey prison?
It is the intention of this post to show that Brexit was motivated by a ‘white lash’ against globalization and immigration. While Brexit had its fair share of right-wing Eurosceptic politicians eager to rid themselves of Brussels, the referendum was mainly motivated by xenophobia. So, did the British people really want to leave? The short answer is no. The long answer starts below.
A short primer on Brexit. Did Brexit Mean Brexit?
Brexit is shorthand for the UK leaving the EU, since it is a portmanteau of Britain and exit. The Thursday 23rd June 2016 vote was won by the leave camp by 51.9 to 48.1%. the referendum turnout was 71.8$ with about 30 million people2 voting in the historic referendum that could change life in the UK forever.
Consequences after Brexit – Did Brexit Mean Brexit?
On the day that the vote results were released, David Cameron resigned and Theresa May took over after winning a political battle in her party on Cameron’s succession. She was against Britain leaving the EU but played a low-key role in the campaign and was thus not seen as being particularly enthusiastic about the EU. Recent opinion polls have given the Conservative Party a huge lead over Labour, and May’s signature phrase, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is popular. May has promised to trigger the two-year process of leaving the EU by the end of March, 2017.
The terms ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexit have featured prominently in public and political debates. A hard Brexit means that the UK would not budge on critical issues such as the free movement of people in order to maintain access to the EU market2. A soft Brexit would resemble Norway, which is a member of the single market but has to accept the free movement of people as a result2. However, as will be seen in this post, the British people want to see less immigration, not more.
The Prime Minister seems to be aware of this, as she has intimated that she will reduce immigration levels to below 100000 a year. In the year to September net migration was 273,000 a year, of which 165,000 were EU citizens, and 164,000 were from outside the EU the figures include a 56,000 outflow of UK citizens. That net migration figure is 49,000 lower than the year before2.
The actors behind the Brexit Stage
The leave campaign – Did Brexit Mean Brexit?
The parties and individuals behind the leave campaign included the UK Independence Party and about half the Conservative Party’s MPs including Boris Johnson and five members of the then cabinet. There were some MPs from Labour and DUP (Northern Ireland Party). Their reasons for leaving were based on the fact that they alleged the EU imposed too many rules on business, as well as wanting Britain to take back control of its borders and cutting down on immigration. This is because the EU has a basic principle of free movement. This means that as long as you are a citizen of a EU member state, you do not need a visa to travel and work in another EU state.
The Remain Campaign – Did Brexit Mean Brexit?
The remain camp was led by the then Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as 16 members of his cabinet. The Labour Party, Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats were also in favor of staying in the EU. Every living former Prime Minister also supported the ‘Remain’ camp. Their reasons for wanting to stay in the EU were that The UK got a big boost from staying in the EU in terms of trade and economic growth. The UK was also more secure and more prestigious in the EU than out of the Union.
Did the British People know what they were getting themselves into? – Did Brexit Mean Brexit?
By analyzing post-referendum data and demographic trends, it can be deduced that the public did not want a Brexit. They were more interested in cutting down on immigration and rebelling against a government that they feel has not had their interests at heart. This is part of a global lashing out against the establishment that is due to the changing trends in the world. It is the main driving force behind the rise of populism, and is about to be experienced in France, the Netherlands and Germany in upcoming elections.
As Adrian Low in a London School of Economics (LSE) blog post3 points out, the referendum was decided by 3.8% of the electorate, or about 1.3 million people. However, about 12.9 million voters did not, for one reason or the other, vote on that day. By October 2016, there had been at least 13 polls that showed a majority of UK citizens shying away from Brexit. Just before the referendum, poll predictions showed that the country wanted to remain. Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP had conceded defeat on the night of the vote, only to find out that he had won big in the end.
An Ipsos/Newsnight, 29th June 2016 poll showed that most of those who did not vote were largely going to vote remain, on a ratio of 2:1. One of the reasons why most of these 12.9 million people did not show up was that late polls had shown their side winning. It was a foregone conclusion, and post-referendum polls indicated this as well.
Percentage lead of leave or remain according to the polls post June 23rd
The Brexit result was a shock to many. Some of those who had voted leave voiced their regrets and wished they had a second chance to change their vote4.
Google Trends immediately after Brexit
In an article in the Economist, a journalist covering Tony Blair’s latest remarks on 17th of February 2017 seem to intimate that the public did not know what it was voting for. The journalist, Bagehot, writes, “… “Yes, the British people voted to leave Europe,” he acknowledged. “And I agree the will of the people should prevail. I accept that there is no widespread appetite to rethink.” Mr. Blair set out frankly, accurately and crisply the realities and contradictions that today’s political leaders prefer to sweep under the carpet, or refer to only opaquely: people did vote on Brexit “without knowledge of the full terms”; its execution will starve other public priorities, like the health service, of government capacity and cash; it will imperil the union. Voters may change their views; it is their right to do so; it is up to politicians, if they think the country is making a terrible mistake, to make that case.”5
What Brexit really was: A perfect case of Murphy’s law6 – Did Brexit Mean Brexit?
Murphy’s law: whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. Brexit happened because of a political storm that has been brewing for decades. Political infighting within the ruling party coupled with discontent over the scale of migration into the UK and the EU’s elitism and aloofness met with the renegade UKIP leadership to become the perfect political mashup to produce a new political and economic future for the UK.
David Cameron attempted to quell infighting in his party by promising to call for a referendum in his Bloomberg speech of 2013. He won the 2016 election convincingly, mainly because of his referendum promise. There was no going back. According to a Guardian article in 2017, migration was a core reason that the public wanted to address. Written by Rowena Mason6, the article states, “Public unease has been fueled by a failure to prevent immigration from piling pressure on jobs markets and public services, and a refusal by politicians to acknowledge the sheer numbers of Europeans making new homes in the UK after the EU’s expansion east in 2004 and 2007.
Cameron promised before the 2010 election to bring migration down to the tens, not hundreds of thousands. However, his failure to live up to his promise, repeated in 2015, has undermined trust in his leadership and contributed to a sense that UK politicians are powerless to lower migration from the EU.
The leave camp tried to make the arguments for Brexit more about the economy and sovereignty than immigration, but quickly found that “taking back control” over immigration was the most resonant message. They also linked immigration to shortages of primary school places, difficulty in getting a GP appointment, and depressed wages.”
What Brexit really was: The Rise of Populism – Did Brexit Mean Brexit?
“Democracy is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.” — Plato.
The rise of populism and the lean to the far right in the Western world can be attributed to anger over immigration and racial and religious intolerance. In his book, Understanding Ethnic Violence, Political Scientist Roger Petersen discusses how a group of society that is privileged begins feeling resentment when the power it held starts slipping into the hands of a group that previously had no power. In past decades and centuries, this resentment usually led to ethnic violence, and that this power shift has been largely ignored. In the book, Petersen uses this theory to explain the chaos and destruction in the Balkans in the 1990s. This theory can also help explain communal violence elsewhere in the world.
Interestingly enough, in mature societies where governments are strong and the rule of law is strictly enforced, this resentment will mutate and be channeled into elections and government policies. This is an alternative way of mitigating the loss of status and privilege and preventing the less powerful group from sharing in the spoils that the more powerful group has been enjoying for decades. Petersen remarks, “Dominance, is sought by shaping the nature of the state rather than through violence.”
Elisabeth Ivarsflaten, a professor at the University of Bergen in Norway with a focus on studying the far right, remarked, “What unites the radical right is their focus on immigration.”7 In a study paper published in 20088, she discovered that, “a person’s support for restricting immigration was “close to a perfect predictor” of one’s likelihood of voting for a far-right party.” This was a study on European politics. She concluded, “This study therefore to a large extent settles the debate about which grievances unite all populist right parties. The answer is the grievances arising from Europe’s ongoing immigration crisis.”
Conclusion – Did Brexit Mean Brexit?
From the information currently available and the current geopolitical climate, a case can be made that the British people voted for Brexit out of anger and because of loss of privilege due to increased immigration into the country. This was the match that lit the fire, and the political class rode this wave to achieve its agenda. Did the Brits know what lay in store for them after Brexit? Did Brexit mean Brexit? The answer is a resounding no.
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