Why did Britain vote to leave the European Union?

Some six months after the referendum vote it is now possible to stand back and analyze the results in detail and discern what mattered to voters who made the historic decision to leave the European Union.  Was the vote to leave the EU motivated primarily by instrumental considerations summarized by measures of perceived costs and benefits of EU membership?

How much did perceptions of risks of leaving or staying make a difference to the decision?  Were voters driven strongly by anxiety over perceived threats from immigration arising from the free movement of EU nationals into Britain?  What were the roles of prominent politicians, such as David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, in motivating people to vote, either to remain or to leave?  Survey research supported by the UK in a Changing Europe Programme allows us to assess how these and other factors influenced the referendum vote.

Several years ago Hooghe and Marks (2005) provided a succinct summary of research findings relating to public attitudes towards European integration in their paper: ‘Calculation, Community and Cues’.  Calculations refer to the costs and benefits of integration, which vary according to who are seen as ‘winners or losers’ in this process.

Community considerations are closely linked to national identities and the ‘fear of outsiders’ with people who subscribe to a more exclusive national identity or who feel threatened by mass immigration being significantly more Eurosceptic than those who have more inclusive identities, such as feeling ‘British’ and ‘European’.

Cues (what psychologists call ‘heuristics’) provide cognitive and emotional short cuts that voters use to form opinions about the EU without having detailed expertise on the subject.  Prominent cues include advice from party leaders and other prominent politicians as well as the positions on the referendum advocated by political parties and voters’ general ideological predispositions.

Cost-benefit calculations about European integration take different forms.  People with high status occupations who are affluent and well educated tend to benefit from lower trade barriers and the increased geographical mobility of labour brought about by European integration.  In contrast, low status individuals with poorly paid occupations and few educational qualifications find themselves in competition with similarly low-skilled labour from other EU countries.

Studies also indicate that people’s judgements about the state of the national economy have become increasingly important for explaining their reactions to the EU since the 2008 financial meltdown and ensuing Eurozone crisis.  Analyses of our survey data show that assessments of the economic benefits and costs of EU membership loomed large in voters’ decisions.  Respondents who emphasized the national and personal economic costs of leaving the EU voted overwhelmingly to remain.

Regarding community, our survey data showed that if people believed that leaving the EU would reduce immigration and help to protect Britain from terrorism they were very likely vote for Brexit.  In contrast, evidence on national identities is mixed.  Having a Scottish identity encouraged individuals to cast their ballots to remain, but English and Welsh identities did not have a direct influence on the vote.  In part, this was because public attitudes towards EU membership are very volatile as can be observed in Figure 1.

This ongoing large-scale volatility clearly presents a problem for explaining attitudes to the EU with a factor like national identity.  Identity is anchored by deep-rooted cultural and historical forces and survey evidence suggests it tends to be quite stable.  In contrast, ‘fear of the other’ can change quickly, particularly if it is linked to a sudden crisis, for example over refugees in Europe or increases in migration due to the free movement of EU nationals.

The sharp movement in public attitudes towards disapproving membership after the 2010 general election was associated with the Eurozone crisis and the flood of refugees arriving in Europe from Africa and the Middle East.  These considerations imply that the balance of EU attitudes, especially in a highly charged referendum context, will depend more on immediate political issues, policy concerns and elite cues than on deeply rooted historical identities.

Another important component of the referendum decision concerns perceptions of risks associated with leaving the European Union. We measured perceived risks associated with exiting the EU with survey question that asked respondents to indicate their attitudes on an 11-point scale where a zero score meant no significant risk and ten denoted a high level of risk.  Analyses using this scale showed that risk perceptions had a highly significant effect on referendum voting with those seeing greater risks opting strongly to remain in the EU.

In addition, there were sizable direct and indirect effects associated with voters’ images of various leaders of the Remain and Leave campaigns, including UKIP Leader Nigel Farage, former London mayor Boris Johnson, Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn.  If people thought highly of David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn they were likely to vote Remain, with Cameron’s effect being considerably stronger than Corbyn’s.

In addition, those who thought highly of Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage were very likely to vote to Leave.  Although the effects of the images of the two leading figures in the Leave campaign were about the same, most voters had considerably more positive feelings about Boris and this enhanced his impact on producing a Leave majority.

Partisan cues also were significant predictors of referendum voting, but these effects were weaker and largely worked indirectly by helping to shape cost-benefit evaluations and risk assessments. The relative weakness of partisan cues is not surprising given that the Conservatives were deeply divided about leaving the EU and Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn did not push his party to campaign vigorously to stay.

Other forces operated further back in the causal chain, with negative attitudes towards immigration magnifying the perceived costs of EU membership and the attendant risks of doing so.  Perceptions of the erosion of economic sovereignty and national identity if the UK were to remain in the EU had similar effects.  Controlling for all of these factors, age mattered as well, with younger people being more likely to emphasize the risks of Brexit.

In sum, although numerous factors were at work, the major factors driving referendum voting decisions were cost-benefit calculations, perceived risks of leaving or staying in the EU and cues associated with the images of political leaders and parties.  Of course, not everyone cast a ballot (turnout was 72.2%) and survey evidence on the attitudes of non-voters suggests that if they were included in the totals then 50.3% of the entire electorate favoured remaining in the EU.  Taking into account sampling uncertainty in the survey data, the odds of a Remain majority if everyone had voted were approximately 2 to 1—a Remain decision would have been likely but not a sure thing.

Finally, the timing of the referendum likely played a role in explaining the outcome.  As discussed, support for EU membership has been quite volatile—which leaves the tantalizing possibility that if the referendum had not been postponed for a year after the 2015 general election or if it had been held a year later, the result might have been different.

Written by Harold Clarke, School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences University of Texas at Dallas. Professor Matthew Goodwin, senior fellow UK in a Changing Europe and Paul Whiteley, Department of Government University of Essex

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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  • ninoinoz

    “Taking into account sampling uncertainty in the survey data, the odds of a Remain majority if everyone had voted were approximately 2 to 1—a Remain decision would have been likely but not a sure thing.

    Finally, the timing of the referendum likely played a role in explaining the outcome. As discussed, support for EU membership has been quite volatile—which leaves the tantalizing possibility that if the referendum had not been postponed for a year after the 2015 general election or if it had been held a year later, the result might have been different.”

    And the 2016 award for straw-clutching goes to…

  • James Mackie

    Most continental European countries control the movements of migrants, including EU migrants, and their access to services by having issuing ID cards to all residents and a national register administered largely at the municipal level.

    While ID cards have always been taboo in the UK, maybe UK voters would be more likely to accept migrants if they felt the government and local authorities could monitor where migrants were living and what services they used in this way.

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