Brexit and Europe

I wrote this for a German journal specialising in Southeast European affairs. It appeared with two other articles in a section entitled ‘Dossier’.

Abstract. The Brexit vote was not simply a rejection of the European Union but also of a politics based on calculated self-interest or reasoned idealism. I outline how the referendum came about, provides crucial background information, and analyses its results. The reasons for the success of the Leave campaign are concisely presented, including the role of parties other than the Labour and Tory parties and that of the media in promoting, instead of critically assessing, a campaign characterized by exaggerated, even false claims. In considering the future, I focus on the UK/EU relationship and the internal constitutional crisis the Brexit vote has created and the dangers these pose for (further) de-stabilisation both of Britain and Europe.


John Breuilly is Emeritus Professor of Nationalism and Ethnicity at the London School of Economics.


Introductory remarks

It is interesting to read the other two pieces in this ‘Dossier’ on problems confronting the European Union in Southeastern Europe in light of the referendum campaign in the United Kingdom which culminated on 23 June in a majority vote to leave the EU. It is telling that these problems in that part of Europe played no role whatsoever in the referendum debate with one great exception, when the leader of UKIP (UK Independence Party), Nigel Farage, unveiled a large poster of Syrian refugees waiting at the Slovenian border.[1] In one sense this was irrelevant to the referendum because Britain has disassociated itself from the efforts of the EU to deal with refugees. In another sense it was very relevant because Farage calculated, probably rightly, that much of the British public lump together the free movement of EU citizens within the EU with pressure from non-EU refugees to enter western Europe. This was emblematic of the centrality of fear and ignorance in the campaign, and not just from those campaigning for Leave. The Brexit vote was not simply against the EU but the rejection of a politics based on calculated self-interest or reasoned idealism. How did this come about and what does it augur for the future?

Why Did We Have the Referendum?

Prime Minister David Cameron had a precedent for using a referendum on EU membership to deal with a party political problem. Two years after the UK had become a member of the European Economic Community, Prime Minister Harold Wilson had done this in 1975, achieving a solid majority in favour of Remain.[2] In 2016, Cameron’s dual difficulty was an internal threat from Eurosceptics and an external threat from UKIP. The first had plagued the premiership of John Major from 1992 to 1997 and contributed to choosing three successive Eurosceptics as Conservative party leaders (William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard). Cameron’s election in 2005 as a ‘moderniser’ in the Tony Blair image revived this Eurosceptic problem. The UKIP threat is more recent. Founded in 1993 it was a splinter group on the far right which performed well in European Parliament elections in 2004 and 2009 but fell back afterwards. It then began a surge in local elections in 2011, European elections in 2014, and the General Election of 2015.[3] It threatened to take Conservative and Labour seats and two Conservative MPs defected to UKIP. The referendum commitment was designed to please Tory Eurosceptics and reverse the shift towards UKIP.

Cameron did not think the commitment would matter. In 2010 he failed to win a majority, went into coalition with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, abandoned the commitment and blamed it on them. Opinion polls predicted a similar result in the 2015 election, with either Labour or Conservatives having a relative majority and being forced to agreements with another party or parties. By winning an unexpected absolute majority Cameron had to deliver on his commitment.

Even then the expectation was he would win the referendum, as Wilson had done in 1975. The majority of the Conservative and Labour parties supported EU membership; so did the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party (SNP). UKIP failed to win a seat in 2015. The ‘Establishment’—a term used to describe the economic, political, and cultural elites which are thought to dominate British public life—was pro-EU. What went wrong with this calculation?

Why Did the Leave Campaign Succeed?

There were three significant components to the Leave campaign. UKIP, even though failing to win a seat in 2015, attracted many votes, had developed rank-and-file activists, organisation and visibility across the country, and possessed a dynamic and attractive leader in Nigel Farage. Its focus was almost entirely on reducing immigration. However, it was not overtly racist and anti-semitic like the British National Party (which went into terminal decline after 2010) and, unlike most far right parties, not protectionist. Indeed, it trumpeted the case for global free trade and low taxes as the way forward once freedom from the EU was obtained.

This made it easy to form a tacit alliance with the second component, Tory Eurosceptics, who included militant free traders like Liam Fox, whom the new prime minister, Theresa May, subsequently appointed Secretary of State for International Trade. Significant figures in the Cabinet, notably Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith, played leading roles in the Leave movement. Above all, Boris Johnson came out for Leave. This was a surprise because he had no record of serious Euroscepticism, even if as Brussels and then leader correspondent of the Daily Telegraph he had mocked the EU. Indeed, having been London Mayor from 2008 to 2016 he supported a mobile labour market, financial and other pro-EU business interests and a multicultural society. He was, however, Britain’s most popular politician.

The third component was the media. The British press is controlled by very few people, most of whom are hostile to EU membership. Of the quality press The Guardian and The Financial Times (the other pro-EU newspaper, The Independent, recently ceased to be published as a full, hard copy newspaper) were for Remain; The Times and The Daily Telegraph supported Leave. Of the tabloid press only one, The Daily Mirror, supported Remain while The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, and The Sun were for Leave. Furthermore, these newspapers—not subject to the control from an independent press commission which had been recommended in the Leveson Report[4]—lumped together refugees with EU immigrants in lurid headlines and pictures, made misleading, even downright untrue statements and were only occasionally required to print a correction and apology in an inside page. Finally, the most important single medium, the BBC, under attack from the government and desperate to appear ‘neutral’, did not challenge gross lies and exaggerations but simply reported them in a ‘balanced’ way.

Meanwhile the Remain campaign had problems. It was divided between a governmental element focused on Cameron and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, a cross-party campaign and a Labour campaign. Most media coverage was on Cameron and Osborne. They were inhibited by their own commitment to reducing immigration and by claiming, during negotiations with the EU on key concessions supposed to make it possible for Cameron to recommend a Yes vote, that leaving the EU was a reasonable option. Cameron also—expecting to win and wishing to avoid post-referendum intra-party bloodshed—restrained the Remain campaign from attacking his Tory Leave opponents, even allowing those in the Cabinet to stay, thereby subverting the principle of collective responsibility. The Leave leaders felt under no such restraint, adding their emotional attacks upon the Remain cause to that of Farage. Meanwhile, the internal problems of the Labour party, now led by a former Eurosceptic, Jeremy Corbyn, meant that its Remain campaign was lukewarm and poorly covered in the media.

The campaign was dominated by a few personalities: on the Leave side Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson; on the Remain side David Cameron and George Osborne. All of these politicians were given to making exaggerated, even false claims in support of their position and against their opponents without these being subject to media or political critiques. One of such claims was exhibited on the side of the Leave campaign bus, that is that the EU cost the UK £ 350 million per week, which even Leave leaders admitted excluded grants of at least £ 100 million returning from the EU. A referendum, in contrast to a General Election, encourages such polarised demagogy by virtue of its focus on a single question to be answered ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.

Nevertheless, most still expected Remain to win, if narrowly, and this was so even as the first few results were being announced. Its case had been endorsed by most ‘experts’, including some 50 Nobel Prize economists, and institutions such as the Confederation of British Industry, most trade unions, the Bank of England, the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). All predicted negative economic consequences, starting with sterling devaluation. They also rejected claims by the Leave campaign that one could negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU while restricting immigation. Why did 52% of those who voted reject or ignore such arguments?

In broad terms England and Wales, with the major exception of London and parts of the South-East, had majorities for Leave, while Scotland and Northern Ireland had majorities for Remain. Older voters, those without university degrees and white voters were more inclined to Leave than younger, more highly educated and ethnic minority voters. What also mattered was how many in these different categories voted. The most authoritative survey to date reckons that about 65% of registered voters in the 18–24 age group voted compared to 90% of those in the 65+ group.[5] Given that a lower percentage of young people register to vote, the discrepancy is actually larger. The proportion of those voting (72% of all registered voters) had jumped enormously compared to General Elections but so had these differences.

The educational criterion is crucial as it is an indicator of income level and socio-economic position and can be linked to regional differences. The electorate in the Leave regions are poorer, less highly educated, more white and older than in the Remain regions, at least in England and Wales. The populations in such regions receive more in state benefits than they pay in tax; the opposite applies to the Remain regions.[6] Many Leave voters live in areas hardest hit by the long term industrial decline of Britain and the short term effects of the 2008 crash and the austerity programme implemented by the Cameron administrations of 2010–2015 and 2015–2016. Even if most are not unemployed, many are in low-wage, dead-end, insecure jobs.

In one sense it is ‘irrational’ for such people to vote for a policy which will probably produce further austerity and unemployment. However, they have been neglected by recent Labour and Tory governments in a ‘first past the post’ constituency electoral system which encourages a focus on winning the ‘floating voter’ in the marginal constituencies.[7] The two main parties were less concerned about losing core voters like the children of former industrial workers (Labour) and from the traditional professions and the small business sector (Conservative) because they expected nevertheless to win the constituencies in which those people lived. Now, however, UKIP appealed to such voters, blaming their woes on immigration, while the Tory Leave leaders added a more respectable concern with ‘sovereignty’ and ‘democracy’. In a referendum one could ignore all other issues and the divisions within the major parties meant there was no party lead on how to vote.

So the regions which leant towards Leave had more older, less well educated, poorer and white voters. They were voting against the aforementioned ‘Establishment’ which had treated them badly, and for once their votes mattered. It also appears that Leave voters felt more passionately about the issue and thus their levels of voting outstripped the Remain voters. Finally, there was a distrust of, even hostility to, ‘experts’ seen as biased, fallible and part of the ‘Establishment’. Michael Gove in a TV debate even went as far to suggest that he was more confident he was right because all the experts disagreed with him. And Nigel Farage even claimed he would resume smoking as he distrusts medical experts too! In any case, leaving aside outright lies, it is difficult for most people to understand the complex ways evidence is collected and analysed to provide predictions about likely economic or other trends. Where there is little trust in expertise, one tends to believe the predictions which correspond to one’s own preferences.

If region mattered, so did milieu, something which electoral analysis based on categorical variables such as age, income, education and class cannot capture. [8]Travelling round the country it was clear when one was in ‘Leave country’; all the posters said so. On social media many intending to vote Leave claimed they did not know anyone who was going to vote Remain, and vice versa. Rather than encouraging broad debate between different opinions social media like Facebook reinforced attitudes. This is compounded by the algorithms used by Google and other search engines which base their suggestions on sites to visit on the frequency with which one has already visited similar sites. The mass media served as a selective source of ‘new’ material to justify and rationalise existing opinion.

Since the referendum, some Leave voters have said that theirs was a protest vote which they thought safe to make because they believed Remain would win. Others have said that they now realise they made a ‘mistake’ by ignoring or rejecting arguments about a devalued pound, reduced investment etc. One must not take such arguments about ‘irrational’ Leave votes too far. If one thinks that immigration levels are too high and must be controlled (and in areas with many low-wage UK citizens, the failure to invest in infrastructure can mean locally such immigration is a net burden, even if in macro-economic terms it is a net benefit), then the Leave vote makes sense. If one thinks the EU is unresponsive to popular opinion or that decisions over trade and immigration should be made in Westminster, then a Leave vote makes sense. It would be wrong for Remain supporters to conclude that they monopolise reason and to treat the reasoning, and implicitly also the problems, of Leave voters with contempt or indifference. Such attitudes—simply failing to listen to the arguments of one’s opponents—bedevilled the campaign and are politically foolish; they are of a piece with many elite attitudes expressed towards poorer people, communities and regions.


Where Do We Go From Here?

I focus on just two issues: the UK/EU relationship and the internal constitutional crisis the vote has created. Clearly there are other questions, yet these two relate perhaps most clearly, if implicitly, to the challenges Europe faces elsewhere, as the other two contributions to this ‘Dossier’ show.

The UK/EU relationship has been much written about. Can the UK afford to give up free trade agreements with the EU? If not, what must it concede on freedom of movement and payments to the EU? Might we end up with a similar situation as before in terms of EU financial contributions and lack of control of EU immigration, only now without the benefits of membership? Would not many Leave supporters reject such an agreement as a betrayal of their vote? Yet can any government, especially a Tory government, ignore the interests of big business and finance, the leading universities and the London-centric dynamo which dominates economy, polity and culture? One wonders if Theresa May’s decision to give the three key posts —on Brexit (David Davis), international trade (Liam Fox) and foreign affairs (Boris Johnson)—to Leave leaders is to ensure that they cannot sit on the sidelines and disclaim responsibility for whatever bad solutions are found for these intractable problems.

Arguably even more profound is the constitutional crisis which the UK confronts. In a recent article Martin Loughlin has identified four ‘constitutions’ in the UK.[9] There is the British or more accurately English constitution based on the supremacy of the Crown-in-Parliament, which applies also to Wales which has been thoroughly integrated into England since the 16th century. In practice, this constitution is of the party or parties holding a majority in the House of Commons. The executive is based on that majority and the judiciary has to recognise the supremacy of statute law. The administration is highly centralised; the subunits of counties and boroughs have never had the significance of US states or German Länder.

Then there is the Scottish constitution. This was relatively unimportant until the last third of the 20th century, even if the 1707 Act of Union, which united the formerly separate kingdoms of England and of Scotland to constitute Great Britain, preserved a distinct legal, education and church establishment in the two entities. The same is true of Northern Ireland which had a peculiar local one party state from 1923 until 1998 but one firmly bound to the Union. As long as Britain had an empire, a two party system (with the exception of Ulster), a Protestant majority and an industrial manufacturing economy which bound together centres like Belfast, Glasgow, Liverpool and Cardiff, such differences were trivial, especially if Britain did not belong to any supra-state institution which significantly limited the power of Westminster.[10]

However, the loss of empire, the decline of Protestantism and the decay of industrial manufacturing provided the conditions for a new politics. First was the rise of Scottish nationalism, with a constitutional debate gaining momentum in the 1970s, and eventually leading to the extensive devolution of power to a Scottish parliament in 1998 which has created a distinct constitution in 2002. Second is Northern Ireland with the 1998 Good Friday agreement, involving participation of another sovereign state (Eire) and a power-sharing executive. This devolutionary process, by the way, was a result of referenda organised by the government of Tony Blair in an effort to fulfil a promise he had made during his electoral campaign.

These three constitutions were always in tension but Brexit has intensified that. How can Scotland stay in the EU and the UK at the same time? If not, it is clear that majority sentiment in Scotland now supports independence and EU membership. How can the role of Eire in the affairs of Ulster, closely linked to free movement across the Ulster/Eire border, be preserved if Britain is outside the EU while Eire remains a member? That these dangers barely figured in the Leave campaign in England and Wales shows just how insular was that campaign.[11]

Finally Loughlin identifies a fourth constitution which he calls the ‘cosmopolitan’ constitution of the EU. Here parliament is unimportant; instead a powerful non-elected executive is responsible for proposing many and drafting all laws, and judicial decision making is central to government.[12] People count more as interests and consumers than as citizens. This is a constitution to which many UK elites are wedded and which matters in places like London. That constitution has been rejected. Any attempt to reintroduce it surreptitiously by negotiating a trade agreement with the EU which retains freedom of movement, payment of a fee and keeping considerable power with the EU Commission and Court will create major problems. Loughlin suggests the radical solution of a federal UK with an English parliament based in London and a British parliament, vested with powers over key issues such as defence and the currency, perhaps based in Manchester. It would address many fundamental problems but one cannot see it happening.

British politicians, famous for their ‘pragmatism’ (hailed as a good thing but often a euphemism for anti-intellectualism and the refusal to analyse new situations in new ways) will probably try to restore the status quo ante but without the formality of EU membership.[13] I think this answer will be rejected by many Leave supporters in England and Wales and will not satisfy the distinct constitutional interests of Scotland and Northern Ireland. It will only work if one or both of the major parties (or some new political force) address the real problems of those left-behind regions. These are not due to immigration or EU membership and cannot be solved by vacuous appeals to ‘identity’, ‘freedom’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘taking back control’. Rather they require ditching austerity policies, redistributing income in a more equal way, reversing the trend toward privatisations which hit the poor and middling groups (e.g. in housing, health and transport), investing in crucial infrastructure (affordable housing, a transport system which is not centred on London, apprenticeships), stimulating new kinds of manufacturing and seeking alliances with similar political forces within the EU. In my view, only a rejuvenated Labour Party could take us in that direction and that currently looks as unlikely as having a caring and competent Tory government.




[1] Hostile responses to immigrants from EU member states in that region, especially Romania and Bulgaria, is another matter.

[2] For a short summary of the first referendum cf. the BBC ‘On this Day’ archive for 6 June 1975,

[3] On the rise of UKIP see Robert Ford / Matthew Goodwin, Revolt on the Right. Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, London 2014.

[4] A judicial public inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the British media prompted by the phone hacking scandal around News of the World, chaired by Lord Justice Sir Brian Henry Leveson. In November 2012, the inquiry published the Leveson Report, including recommendations for a new, independent, body to replace the existing Press Complaints Commission. Prime Minister Cameron, who had established the inquiry, welcomed its findings, but declined to enact the requisite legislation. See the inquiry’s official site, http:/

[5] Michael Bruter et al., EU Referendum Turnout Among Young People ‘Twice As High As First Thought’, Claims Research, Huffington Post, 9 July 2016, also Toby Helm, Poll Reveals Young Remain Voters Reduced to Tears by Brexit Result, The Observer, 2 July 2016,

[6] See John Lanchester, Brexit Blues, London Review of Books 38, no. 15, 28 July 2016,

[7] However, Labour and Tory are not identical. From 1999 until 2008 the Labour governments of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair reduced childhood poverty, increased real spending on the National Health Service and made a fundamental contribution to family welfare with its Sure Start programme. That was forgotten by 2010 and has been reversed since then.

[8] Eric Kaufmann has also argued that individual social attitudes and related personality types matter, though as with milieu this is not something that can be properly analysed just with electoral data organised anonymously by district.


[9] Martin Loughlin, The End of Avoidance, London Review of Books 38, no. 15, 28 July 2016,

[10] The key historiographic text is Linda Colley, Britons. Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, London 2003.

[11] The plea for a Remain vote in relation to Northern Ireland which featured a TV broadcast by John Major and Tony Blair was probably counterproductive, especially given Blair’s toxic reputation due to the invasion of Iraq.

[12] Nevertheless, the key institution has always been the Council of Ministers which is itself based on the governments of the member states.

[13] For a possible ‘pro-European Leave’ position which might be acceptable to many Leave supporters while seeking to mitigate the effects of Brexit and to avoid the radical neoliberal policy represented by Liam Fox see Simon Hix, No More Denial. Let’s Accept the Inevitable and Fight for the Best Brexit We Can, BrexitVote Blog of the LSE, 14 July 2016,


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