Netflix certainly won’t be hard-pressed for conflict in their inevitable Brexit-based political drama (HBO have already cranked out a film on the subject). After dominating British public discourse for the best part of five years, it’s easy to forget why the United Kingdom opted to leave the European Union in the first place. Left unchecked, the distortions that divided the country during the Brexit process risk filling the history books, no doubt deploying an exhaustive “Brexicon” of questionably imaginative portmanteaus (that even have their own scientific paper): you’ve no doubt heard of a Brexiteer, but what about their counterparts the sore losing “Remoaner” and the obsessively Europhilic “Remaniac”? With the benefit of hindsight, I would like to revisit the following claims: no one could possibly have foreseen a Leave majority, the British are uniquely Eurosceptical and bigoted, then-prime minister David Cameron deserves all blame, and finally, the public made their decision fair and square. Only with the story straight can Brexit be put to bed for good.
The United Kingdom was never quite comfortable in its relationship with the European Union. Despite being a victor of the Second World War, the shaken British Empire was crumbling as anti-colonial sentiment stirred. By the 60’s, poor economic performance relative to continental allies saw the unfortunate label of “sick man of Europe” begin to stick (an epithet that has had a droll resurgence in light of the UK’s very own variant of coronavirus). Joining the European Economic Community (as it was then called) seemed vital to shed this cursed image. After the first two applications were vetoed by the French, De Gaulle’s resignation in 1969 mercifully allowed talks to begin the following year. By the 1st of January 1973, the Conservative government of Edward Heath had ushered the UK into the club. In 1975 the incoming Labour government of Harold Wilson held a referendum on continued membership under renegotiated terms, resulting in the approval of 67% of the general public.
By the time the Iron Lady claimed the throne in 1979, as industrial action crippled the country and inflation soared (not to mention the 1976 IMF bailout), support for the EEC had plunged to 26%. Attitudes warmed somewhat throughout the 80’s as Thatcher secured a rebate in 1984, reducing the UK’s effective contribution to the common budget. Nonetheless, the famously neoliberal prime minister practically wrote the script for future Eurosceptics in a 1988 speech: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” In 1992, the same year that the EEC was reborn as the European Union, unceremoniously crashing out of the ERM (enter conspiracy theorist favourite George Soros) ensured the UK would never partake in the single currency.
As public support for membership ebbed and flowed throughout the 90’s and 2000’s, successive governments engineered four major opt-outs for the UK from EU policy (notably from the Schengen Area), the most of any member state, testament to the British reluctance to get too embedded with the burgeoning European project.
The European Union is far from perfect. As an institution with debatable democratic credentials and a propensity for bureaucratic indulgence seeking to reform all its members in its own superior image, resistance is inevitable. The Great Recession painfully amplified these flaws and kicked off a downward trend in favourable perceptions of the EU that would last almost a decade: for all its grand idealism, Brussels had failed to protect the wealth of the European middle-class. The consequent sovereign debt crisis, by acutely afflicting certain more economically mismanaged members, tore at the very seams of the family fabric over responsibility for the bill. The austerity measures imposed on Greece compelled the country to flirt with leaving the Eurozone, a scenario first described as a Grexit in 2012.
By 2013, the share of citizens looking favourably upon the EU was down to 33% in Greece, 41% in France, 43% in the UK and 46% in Spain. Such distaste prompted the European Council on Foreign Relations to write: “It was once seen as a British disease. But Euroscepticism has now spread across the continent like a virus” (yet another unpleasant parallel to the present viral context). To make matters worse, the flow of displaced peoples fleeing conflict in the Middle East promised to test the EU’s border security and immigration policies to their limit. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s insistence upon a common, compassionate approach to the refugee crisis incensed many leaders who felt incapable of bearing such a burden. Far-right Eurosceptic parties subsequently made momentous gains in the 2014 European Parliament elections, notably with the UK Independence Party (UKIP) becoming the largest to represent the UK and the Front National taking up the mantle for France.
By the spring of 2016, with the Brexit referendum looming, the British and Germans were tied on 48% of respondents viewing the EU unfavourably, surpassed by the Spaniards at 49%, the French at 61% and the evidently still-bitter Greeks topping the charts at 71%. Furthermore, majorities in both France and Italy at the time supported holding a referendum on their EU membership. In a 2018 interview, French president Emmanuel Macron admitted the French people may well also have voted to leave (for which the scientific term is “Frexit”), adding: “You always take a risk when you ask in a referendum yes or no on a very complicated subject.”
The implication that the British people were uniquely foolish, wrapping their closeted racism in an ambiguous interpretation of sovereignty driven by an inflated sense of nostalgic grandeur is entirely unfounded. Inevitably and unfortunately, the most bigoted fringes of the Eurosceptic persuasion continue to provide the most headlines, but they do not represent the very reasonable concerns shared by a great many Europeans. At the very worst the British are just as bad as the rest of Europe.
The Tories’ Gambit
The nagging voice of Eurosceptics had long been a feature of the Conservative party by the time they resumed power in 2010 (albeit on paper in coalition with the Liberal Democrats), but events had never before lined up quite so nicely in their favour. Despite orchestrating the country’s largely successful recovery from the financial crisis, the means of austerity left the Tories sorely in need of a popularity boost on their way into the 2015 general election. Answering the European Question was the answer to all their prayers. As the EU’s second largest economy and budget contributor, the UK’s sheer weight had enabled Cameron’s predecessors to negotiate special treatment in the past; as prime minister he vowed to do the same: “I will go to Brussels. I will not take no for an answer. And when it comes to free movement, I will get what Britain needs.” The Conservative manifesto promised a simple In/Out referendum once the relationship had been revisited.
The results secured the Conservative party a slim 5-seat majority in the Commons. Although their victory didn’t signify an overwhelming endorsement of leaving the EU, the performance of other parties clearly indicated which way the wind was blowing. On the one hand, the Liberal Democrats, the most EU-friendly party, were annihilated, losing 49 of their 57 seats. On the other hand, Nigel Farage’s unapologetically Europhobic UKIP captured 12.6% of the electorate, making them the third most popular party in the land (as much as the Liberal Democrats and SNP combined). Perhaps thankfully, the first-past-the-post electoral system tempered this triumph by awarding them but two seats in parliament. In contrast, foreshadowing tensions to come, all but two constituencies in Scotland elected members of the overtly pro-European Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP).
The European Union Referendum Act was promptly introduced to the House, receiving support from both major parties (opposed only by the SNP) and making a consultative referendum on the UK’s EU membership a legal requirement before December 31st 2017. David Cameron’s deadline for renegotiating the most attractive deal possible was set. In February 2016, an agreement was reached allowing for subtle restrictions on the free movement of people, and notably a vague but symbolic exemption from the principle of an “ever closer union”. The changes were approved by the president of the European Council and all member states, and would come into force if and only when the UK chose Remain. Immediately thereafter, the government set the referendum date for June 23rd and firmly backed staying within the EU.
Our Foulest Hour
The referendum campaign rapidly degenerated into one of British politics’ darkest hours. All too certain of a comfortable victory, David Cameron’s Remain camp contented itself with dismissing the whims of those who favoured Leave, hopeful that the British public would simply “do the right thing”. Many voters weren’t even clear on the government’s official position, partially due to Labour’s own ambivalence on the matter. The case for guaranteed economic security within the EU was largely drowned out by calls for taking back control of the UK’s borders and decision-making powers. After testing the waters on both sides, then-outgoing Mayor of London Boris Johnson soon became the animate face of the Leave camp, controversially citing as justification: “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods”. Leading the charge, political strategist Dominic Cummings (the very same who would later become Boris’s chief advisor and headache) directed the Vote Leave campaigning organisation, determined to win by all means necessary.
Never before had the United Kingdom been quite so divided. The nations’ newspapers picked sides and left no holds barred (hardly surprising, given that the Daily Mail had described the EU as the “Fourth Reich” way back in 2013). Based on anonymous sources alone, The Sun newspaper alleged that the Queen herself backed Brexit, before being ordered to issue a retraction. Even the devotedly impartial BBC reportedly portrayed the EU in a more negative light than Bashar Al-Assad and Xi Jinping throughout 2015. Aiding the drawing of battle lines among the British public, dubious analytics firm Cambridge Analytica worked behind the scenes to drum up support for the Leave campaign and UKIP. Although the government declined to investigate, multiple reports also suggested that Russian operatives interfered in the campaign.
Of all the hollow promises and blatant lies in support of Brexit, none proved quite as effective at capturing public attention as the now-infamous big red bus. Upon its side read the claim that the UK sends £350 million per week to the EU, money that could instead be spent on the NHS. As was widely reported at the time, the figure ignores the UK’s rebate and EU payments back to the British public sector. Little did it matter that the real figure was closer to £200 million, or that this money couldn’t simply be redirected to the NHS at the flick of a switch, the message was true “in spirit”. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Hopefully, sufficient evidence has been provided to counterbalance some of the more melodramatic claims that may unduly be stuck in minds. Firstly, the question of the UK’s membership had been hanging over the political class for decades, as a country culturally, historically and geographically apart from the Continent with strong worldly ties to the USA and Commonwealth. Secondly, the European Union is a deeply flawed organisation that has failed the tests it has faced in the eyes of many, and almost all member states have come down with severe bouts of Euroscepticism over the years. Thirdly, the idea that David Cameron “climbed to the top of the tree and then proceeded to set it on fire” isn’t entirely justified. The former prime minister certainly deserves criticism for allowing the temperature to be raised on the European Question, for failing to negotiate a desirable new deal (or at least for not advertising it as such during the campaign), for refusing to allow the Civil Service to prepare for a Leave outcome, and for abandoning ship just as it was headed for the rocks. However, placing all the blame at his feet is unfair given that pressure from the public thrust the UK’s membership into the Overton window, pressure from his own party to neutralise the threat of UKIP forced his hand in parliament, the vast majority of the Commons backed the legal provision for a referendum, and the opposing side campaigned on a cornucopia of false assertions and emotive rhetoric. Finally, the majority of the British people are neither racist nor naive, and regardless of their personal reasons for choosing Leave, there was significant manipulation and misinformation during the campaign designed to guarantee that outcome.
Now that that’s settled, shall we move on?