The UK’s vote to leave the EU in the referendum of 2016 was the result of a constellation of unique factors, that came together on one day that saw more British people vote than in any previous election. Many people were surprised by the result – but that’s because solely focusing on the campaign cannot explain why 17.4 million people wanted to leave the EU.
A look back at the history of Britain’s relationship with Europe, then linking that to the campaign, is much more instructive. The UK’s absence at the creation of the European Community in the 1950s, the economic and political contortions required to enter in 1973 on non-negotiable terms, and the lack of explanation of the benefits to the British people of the integration that followed, all led to Brexit.
In 2014, Dominic Cummings, who was to become Vote Leave’s campaign director, conducted some focus groups to assess attitudes to a possible IN/OUT Referendum from floating voters. The analysis he produced was never published, but my co-author Jason Farrell obtained a copy of what became a blueprint for the Vote Leave campaign.
Here are some quotes from the members of the public who took part in these focus groups:
Man in North Warwickshire – “If Cameron’s so weak that he can’t get control of immigration – then I’m OUT”
Woman in Hendon – “If we leave the EU we will save a fortune and we can spend that on the NHS or TAX cuts”
Man in Thurrock – “We’ve lost control – because of Europe.”
In this 19-page report from June 2014, “control” is mentioned 37 times. “Take back control” appears five times – and, as we know, that phrase would become the slogan of the campaign.
In the report’s conclusion, Cummings insisted that in the referendum it would be important for the ‘Out’ campaign not to take specific positions on any issues, as this would only split vote. Instead, he argued, the ‘Out’ campaign should simply say “whether you think X or Y about Z, the most important thing is that we take back control of Z.”
Over a year later, with only a matter of months remaining before the expected date of the referendum vote, the Remain campaign were conducting focus groups of their own, containing people who were undecided about which way they would vote. What they heard was disturbing. People with no affiliation to either camp struggled to think of a single benefit to remaining in the EU. But they could immediately muster up all of the core arguments for leaving.
All that StrongerIn had to go on was a nagging concern about the effect on the economy. So they decided the only option, rather than a massive pro-EU public education campaign, was what became ‘Project Fear Mk III’ (the first two being the Scottish Referendum ‘No’ campaign and the Conservatives’ 2015 General Election campaign). Remain had to concede there wasn’t time to change entrenched downbeat perceptions about the EU.
The key difference between the two campaigns was that Vote Leave’s slogans weren’t made up by politicians or advertising gurus – they came out of the mouths of people. The slogans were tested on focus groups, yes, but also derived from them. Remain weren’t getting this information from the people so their campaign slogans had to come from PR firms and civil servants.
‘Take back control’, be it of borders, sovereignty or money, was thus extremely powerful. But when was that control lost?
Perhaps it was in 1950, when Britain refused to join negotiations to create the European Coal and Steel Community. Then, in 1955, Britain sent Russell Bretherton to a meeting of Foreign Ministers set up create the European Community, with strict instructions not to agree to anything. He certainly thought the UK were missing a great opportunity to shape proceedings.
Later, in the early 1960s, Harold Macmillan ignored JFK’s suggestion that Britain should join the EC and try to change it from the inside. Instead, the UK tried to change it from the outside – an approach twice rejected by President Charles de Gaulle, who was determined that new entrants put Europe first.
Then, when Britain joined in 1973, without a referendum, it had to contort itself economically and politically to swallow all of the arrangements made between the original six members (CAP, CFP, Budget, pre-eminence of the ECJ). The negotiations were described by the man who led them as ‘accidental and secondary’, such was the limited room for manoeuvre.
In the referendum of 1975, the ‘Yes’ campaign had ten times the money and all of the newspaper support, there was no mention of political and monetary union, and the only mention of sovereignty was to note that Britain had a national veto over any laws and regulations it didn’t like. Many people voted ‘Yes’ in 1975 then Leave in 2016, claiming they had been deceived when we joined and now wanted to correct their mistake.
What happened in the next 42 years was that the European Community integrated into the ‘ever-closer union’ hoped for in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. During that time, not a single senior political leader explained to, or tried to persuade, the British people that this integration was in their interests. Not even Tony Blair, the most Europhile PM since Heath, was prepared to level with his electorate on Europe, nor seek any kind of mandate for the massive influx of immigration of Eastern Europeans in 2004.
This may have had benefits for the UK as a whole, but it also had localized impacts on wages and access to public services that were not planned for, or mitigated, by the Government that had allowed it to happen. Many people felt left behind by the political class as globalization marched forward, and many of those people were persuaded that the referendum would give them a once-in-a-lifetime voice.
Over the next ten years there were a series of crises – the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis, the migration crisis – which convinced voters that the sovereignty of the nation state provided a sort of security blanket against the contagion that these problems spread in a borderless world.
Although there will always be arguments over whether it is correlation or cause, European integration brought peace to a region blighted by centuries of war. The price of Britain’s victories during that time was that it never took the time, nor was led, to appreciate this achievement. The EU was presented in pragmatic economic terms, without the political vision. Thus, the Remain campaign was left tongue-tied and the Leave campaign with an easier course to victory than many expected.
Futhermore, the Remain campaign itself was led by the incumbent Prime Minister (who had a long record of Euroscepticism) and the Chancellor, not able to rely on an enthusiastic opposition leader and not able to hide behind a popular figure able to unite different groups of voters. This offered an unexpected chance to also make it a referendum on how the country was being run.
David Cameron didn’t realise it at the time, but history had pointed a gun at his head, the bullets were live, and all he had to do for Britain to vote to Leave was pull the trigger.
By Paul Goldsmith, politics and economics teacher at Latymer Upper School in London. He co-authored, How to Lose a Referendum: The Definitive Story of Why the UK Voted for Brexit with Sky News senior political correspondent Jason Farrell. He blogs frequently at www.pjgoldsmith.com.