Brexit, the British exit from the European Union has taken Britain (and the world) at storm. On the 23rd of June, if one were to ask Wall Street or the MP’s at Westminster they would have told you “Remain” would win. I, myself as a British Citizen with friends and family taking part in the referendum vote, never imagined we would break away from the EU. But on June 24th Britain awoke changed forever. 48.1 % of the country voted remain and 51.9% of the country voted leave. So, what happened? Why did Britain vote to leave?
The British public was outraged at the manner the “Remain” camp conducted their campaign. The British PM David Cameron and George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, were often accused of leading a campaign based on fear. Indeed, Cameron often did not focus on emphasizing the benefits that EU brought; cheaper airline flights, travel across Europe, and access to EU funds. Instead, the British PM and his supporters were accused of using hyperbole and rhetoric to convince the public. David Cameron tried to spin this slogan by stating that he was running “Project Fact” not “Project Fear”.
He attempted to convince the public that a recession would be an inevitable consequence of Brexit using professional opinions. The Institute of Fiscal Studies and the National Institute for Economic and Social Policy showed Brexit would create a black hole of up to 40 billion pounds in U.K. public finances by 2020. The Treasury issued a 200-page analysis in April warning that the average household would be £4,300 a year worse off. It also forecast a fall in the nation’s income as measured in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This formed part of the problem.
The “Leave Campaign” insinuated that the government was attempting to confuse the general public by passing off predictive forecasts as facts. Objectively, it can be said that it is a government’s duty to take a side and present as much authoritative information as possible to the public. Yet, this was hardly persuasive for the most ardent supporters of the Leave Campaign. Why?
Demographic breakdown of the vote
To understand why David Cameron’s campaign of facts failed, it is instrumental to look at the demographics of the vote. The Remain camp’s strongholds were urbanized areas like London and the majority of Scotland. Furthermore, it had been largely the younger generation which had voted for the Remain campaign. Yet the “Leave Campaign” had consisted of the over 50 + demographic. Considering that the over 50 + category consisted of the baby boomers, this means a significantly large proportion of the population. Many of older generation are still reminiscent of the time before Britain joined the EU and view the EU as a reason for some of UK’s economic burdens. This was evident by the persuasive national bus campaign “£350 m for the NHS”, which insinuated that the funds UK contributed to the EU by Britain could be used to fund NHS.
But the “Leave Camp” also consisted of the working class. They were not persuaded by talks of facts and figures. They were more concerned with the real life issues they faced; unemployment, overcrowding and general worsening of living conditions. Thus, in places such as Great Yarmouth (71%), Castle Point in Essex (73%), and Redcar and Cleveland (66%) people predominately voted out. The working class saw no reason to believe in the “elitist” Westminster MPs, who seemed to ignore them. They did not blame lower living standards on the ramifications of a double dip recession earlier on in the decade. They did not blame the government’s subsequent attempts to lessen the budget deficit of UK. They blamed it on the UK’s supposed lack of ability to make decisions independently.
A matter at heart of the “Leave Campaign” was the apparent “threat” to independence that the European Union was to the UK. Britain is historically known as having had one of the most expansive empires in modern history and as a global economic player. However, many in British public have felt the EU has been a threat to the sovereignty of the UK. The idea of UK having to enforce EU directives has not been met with enthusiasm. To the older generation of Britain, the issue is not merely about having to follow certain rules such as safety and health regulations. They take issue with the very institution creating the rules. Many believe that the EU is “undemocratic” or there is a certain “democratic deficit” and the representatives are not directly accountable to the public.
The “Leave” campaign took advantage of this ill-feeling, constantly stating that as long as UK is in the EU and following their directives, they could not flexibly make decisions. They also highlighted that some EU regulations are borderline bureaucratic and create red tape which may unnecessarily hinder UK’s trading options. One example talked about in the media was the Commission Regulation (EC) 2257/94. In particular, its Annex I which requires that bananas be “free from malformation or abnormal curvature of the fingers”. It means that bananas must be straight. But the very nature of EU regulation and the means of British enforcement had been greatly misconstrued by the British public. EU law is enforceable only through secondary legislation made by the British Parliament and it can choose to alter the degree of enforcement. Yet in the eyes of some in the public, EU membership means no independence.
EU opened the door too wide for migrants?
Undoubtedly it is a longstanding issue whether the EU is democratic. But this doesn’t explain how a divided vote between Remain and Leave Camps ultimately led to Brexit. However, as the days pass it became clear that the issue of migrants was the pivotal factor. Free movement of labour with the other 27 member states was mandatory as an EU member. Net migration into the UK this last decade peaked at 330,000 and many saw the EU policies as the reason. It is interesting to note that the non- EU migration into UK actually was higher than EU migration. Nevertheless, Pro-Brexit supporters have an issue more with the type of migration than the volume. Net migration is vital to Britain as the dependency ratio has increased dramatically in UK. Britain needs tax income from these migrant workers.
Pro-Brexit supporters also have been concerned about the economic and social ramifications of allowing net migration from the EU. EU migrants are allowed to enter to the UK regardless of whether they have secured steady job prospects. This has to an extent translated to a drain on work benefits given to immigrants. Many voters add that the immigrants have strained public services and made the job market much more difficult. Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London claimed that “uncontrolled immigration is forcing down wages for British workers”. The new wave of immigrants of the EU open door policy sparked social tensions and intensified controversy.
Rational fear or mere xenophobia?
An underlying issue, missed by mainstream media, was the fear that Eastern European migrants were leading to higher crime rates and clashing cultures. Is this xenophobia? Possibly. In 2014, for example, Nigel Farage of UKIP warned of a “Romanian crime wave“. He has proposed a law that would allow British employers to discriminate against non-Brits in hiring, calling for “British jobs for British workers”. What is clear is that immigration has been a driving force in the Brexit vote. The leave campaign could not adequately suggest how they would solve the immigration concerns of the public. The damaging consequences of the fear of immigration is reflected by newspapers such as The Telegraph. They suggested that the immigration had become the most pressing concern for the average Briton even before the NHS issue.
Ultimately Brexit has not been a decision based on logic. But that of uncertainty and fear tactics, not by the Remain Camp but the Leave Campaign. Now, only time will make apparent the impact of Brexit on the UK.