A guide to Brexit, part 1: how Britain voted to leave the EU

By on 30/06/2016 | Updated on 30/06/2016
A guide to Brexit, part 1: how Britain voted to leave the EU

The UK has just made a monumental decision, leaving the rest of the world amazed, nonplussed and somewhat fearful. Here, Global Government Forum unpicks the implications of the country’s referendum decision to leave the European Union (EU) – explaining how we got here, what happens next, and the likely outcomes of this unprecedented and highly disruptive move.

UK readers will probably be familiar with the issues discussed in this first text – How did the UK get here? – and may wish to skip past it to the next two parts: What’s the process for negotiating Brexit? and Who’ll run those negotiations? The first of these considers the ‘Article 50’ system that will shape a British exit, and the pressures on that process. And the second outlines the civil servants and politicians likely to manage events, explaining how a new set of national leaders will emerge and examining the potential for a general election.

Following that, Part 4 asks whether Brexit could be averted; and in the final section, part 5, we explore how exit talks are likely to develop – scoping out the potential outcomes and offering some concluding thoughts.

Given the many uncertainties around the UK’s hugely controversial decision, these are not easy questions to address. But it is possible to explain the constitutional, economic and political pressures acting on the process – and even in these strange times, they do provide a clear framework for understanding how events are likely to unfold.

Best, though, to start where we can enjoy the immense benefit of hindsight.

A half-hearted history

The UK has always been a reluctant European, begrudgingly tagging along with our Continental partners whilst keeping a wistful eye on the door. When the European Economic Community (EEC) was established in 1957, Britain preferred to found the European Free Trade Association with liminal and Alpine European nations. The benefits of EEC membership soon became incontrovertible, but the UK’s attempts to join were blocked by French premier Charles de Gaulle until 1973.

Labour prime minister Harold Wilson subsequently won a popular mandate for British membership, gathering the support of 67% of voters in a 1975 referendum – despite the opposition of many of his own members including, significantly, current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. But Britain’s participation was always more pragmatic than heartfelt, and anti-EEC feeling grew steadily within the Conservative Party and the country’s excitable, aggressive tabloid press.

Britain’s diffidence brought its rewards: to keep the UK in the fold, core EU nations conceded a membership fees ‘rebate’ and opt-outs from key programmes such as the Schengen border-free zone and Greek bail-outs. Yet by the time the Tories’ ‘Eurosceptics’ were making life difficult for their own prime minister John Major in the early ‘90s – as the EEC morphed into the EU – the endless drumbeat of Eurosceptic messages had sunk into the national consciousness.

Attitudes harden

“We’re part of Europe, but because of the rhetoric of decades, there’s an idea that things are being done to us rather than by us,” says Dave Penman, general secretary of civil service managers’ union the FDA. And Sir Paul Jenkins, who was Treasury Solicitor and the government’s chief legal adviser between 2006 and 2014, comments that “there’s this sense of democratic deficit: that government is remote because it’s in Brussels. And that’s a fundamental failing on the part of national politicians, who’ve never explained that we have enormous influence in Brussels.”

The EU’s weaknesses – its inefficiency, its inability to reform – didn’t help. And nor did the 2004 decision of Britain’s Labour government to allow full access to workers from the EU’s 10 new member states: with every other big member nation imposing ‘transitional arrangements’ to limit labour mobility, the UK saw a huge influx of workers from Eastern Europe.

Many of these migrants wound up in areas of the UK still struggling to escape a long period of deindustrialisation and economic decline: although Britain’s coalfields and industrial heartlands had finally begun to benefit from a long economic boom, they were ill-equipped to absorb new demand for housing, jobs and public services. Then came the 2008 credit crunch, to which the 2010 coalition government responded with a long period of austerity – further squeezing public services just as a double-dip recession hit the incomes of British workers.

“Economic stagnation followed by rapid immigration is a toxic combination,” points out Penman. “If people feel disenfranchised and see others who are different from them taking jobs or houses, it’s easy for them to feel angry about that.” Soon right-wing populist Nigel Farage began winning council and European Parliament seats for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), broadening the party’s base from rural and small-town ‘little Englanders’ to the industrial heartlands. Here he found ready supporters amongst working class voters who felt abandoned by the Labour Party – dominant here for decades, but more focused on crucial swing voters than its traditional heartlands.

Sir Paul Jenkins former United Kingdom Government's most senior legal official and Permanent Secretary to the Attorney General from 2006 to 2014

Sir Paul Jenkins former United Kingdom Government’s most senior legal official and Permanent Secretary to the Attorney General from 2006 to 2014

The PM throws the dice

To head off the UKIP threat, in 2013 Tory prime minister David Cameron promised to hold a referendum – helping him to victory in the 2015 general election, as UKIP and the Scottish National Party (SNP) took huge bites out of Labour’s representation. Yet whilst his pledge got him out of an electoral hole, it laid the foundation for Brexit and Cameron’s ultimate humiliation. “The David Cameron that I’ve observed is a brilliant tactician, but has no strategic thought processes at all,” comments Jenkins. “If you need a fantastic way of getting out of today’s problem, he’s your man. But if you try to explain to him that it might all go badly wrong in six months’ time, he’s not interested.”

“Did he conceive that it might all go wrong? I’ve no idea,” he adds. “But if he didn’t, he genuinely is the worst prime minister in history. It makes Lord North losing America [in 1783] look like an amateur.”

Having won his majority, Cameron attempted a ‘renegotiation’ with the EU – but the EU wouldn’t compromise its founding principles, notably free movement of labour. “The only thing that would have made any difference [to the referendum result] was if he’d shot the ‘Brexiteers’ immigration fox, and he was never going to get that,” says Jenkins.

Rage, lies and ambition

As the referendum campaign got underway, the Cameron-led Remain campaign faced what Penman calls an “incoherent rejection of the establishment. Every main political party was in favour of Remain, but they couldn’t carry their voters.” Anger at unemployment, low wages, austerity and a remote London government was channelled through this huge opportunity to give the establishment a kicking. “People in safe Labour seats in the North, who’ve probably never thought there was any point in voting, suddenly found a way that their views could be heard – and took advantage,” says Lord Turnbull, the UK’s cabinet secretary between 2002 and 2005.

Despite the potency of the Brexiteers’ line on immigration, the weakness of their arguments on trade and the economy could have handed Remain victory. But two extremely effective and high-profile Tories took the lead on the Leave side: former London mayor Boris Johnson, and justice secretary Michael Gove. And soon, the debate moved away from hard-nosed realities and into a world of emotional arguments and bare-faced lies.

Although Johnson had no track record as a Eurosceptic, he saw an opportunity to further his long-held ambition to seize the Tory leadership. “I don’t honestly believe that he believed what he was saying” during the campaign, Tory minister Anna Soubry told Channel Four News on Saturday. “But for his own interests – wanting to be prime minister – he went for Leave, because it would serve him in his leadership ambitions.” One former top civil servant lays it out even more clearly: “The [Tory] activists around the country love Boris, because they think he’s a winner,” he says. “Whereas in the Commons Boris is reviled, because they know him and think he’s a bogus shit.” Certainly, Johnson has form: he’s been sacked twice for lying – once by his editor when a newspaper reporter, and once by Tory party leader Michael Howard.

Gove also played a crucial role: a small-state ideologue, he put aside his interests in history and literature to play the anti-establishment rebel – fashioning a campaign built around what Turnbull calls “outright lies.” The format of the campaign permitted Leave campaigners to promise the world: post-Brexit, they said, the UK would enjoy both free access to the single market, and control of immigration; divert all of its EU contributions to the NHS, whilst also spending them on agriculture, infrastructure and regional subsidies; open up its markets to the world, whilst also protecting hard-pressed industries.

“Normally, incumbency is an advantage in an election,” says Turnbull. “This time, the advantage was with the challenger. Cameron had a plan, negotiated and presented, so you knew what he could achieve. The ‘Outers’ could say what they liked: ‘We’ll get this and that, and we won’t pay a price for it’.”

In this environment, the almost unanimous support for Remain amongst Britain’s senior politicians, economists and business leaders only pushed more votes towards the Leave campaign’s anti-establishment scepticism. “People in this country have had enough of experts,” said Gove on 6 June – and large chunks of the British public were determined to do exactly the opposite of what they were being told. After immigration, says Jenkins, “the second reason why Leave won was this general distrust of the establishment, the Whitehall bubble, the political class – the same thing that’s driving Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.”

Lord Turnbull was head of the UK civil service and cabinet secretary between 2002 and 2005 before being succeeded by Gus O'Donnell

Lord Turnbull was head of the UK civil service and cabinet secretary between 2002 and 2005 before being succeeded by Gus O’Donnell

The failure of Remain

So the Remain camp were dealt a poor hand; but they didn’t do much to help themselves. Labour, which has been pro-EU for decades, has been run since its 2015 defeat by Jeremy Corbyn – and his office appeared to nobble the Remain campaign, cutting Remain messages from speeches and refusing to participate in events with former Labour leaders. Onetime Labour minister Alan Johnson, who led the ‘Labour In’ campaign, has since said that Corbyn’s team was “working against the rest of the party.”

Meanwhile, David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne stuck to a ‘project fear’ message built around Brexit’s economic risks. “They overplayed their hand,” comments Jenkins, adding that former PM “Gordon Brown tried to articulate the positive case for the EU – but Cameron wouldn’t talk about those values.” And Lord Turnbull notes that the apocalyptic warnings from the Treasury came across as hyperbole: “The Remain camp wasn’t believed,” he says. “Fear was over-used, and proved in the end to be ineffective.”

On 23 June, 16.1m Britons voted to remain in the EU – but 17.4m opted to leave, providing a hard political reality that will shape the future not only of Britain, but of the European project too.

Click here to move to part 2, which examines the ‘Article 50’ system for negotiating Brexit – and the pressures on those negotiations


For up to date government news and international best practice follow us on Twitter @globegov

See also:

Is the EU referendum result a wake-up call for employers?

Olly Robbins appointed head of government’s new Brexit unit

Oliver Letwin ‘completely unsuitable’ to lead Brexit unit, says former cabinet secretary

Brexit will be ‘largest legal, legislative and bureaucratic project in British history’, says former UK Treasury Solicitor

Clash over civil service advice in EU referendum

Bank of England’s independence under threat in EU referendum row

EU issues Poland with official warning over constitutional court changes

Sir Paul Jenkins, former UK Treasury Solicitor: EU Referendum interview

Managing the EU Migration Crisis

European Parliament orders Poland’s government to reverse changes to country’s top court

A family reunification dilemma for the EU

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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