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21 Jun 2021

Politics and Society

This Reflecting on Brexit piece is part of our #EUref5yrsOn series. 

The idea that none of us know-all academics saw what was coming has hardened into one of the truisms of the 2016 Referendum – so much so that I’d almost come to believe it myself.

It was with some trepidation, then, that I embarked upon re-reading and reflecting on what I’d written some six months before it took place, not least because the one thing I did recall about it was that, after declaring that predicting the result was ‘the mug’s game to end all mug’s games’, I’d taken a punt anyway and concluded that Remain would probably win.

So, I don’t mind admitting that it came as a huge relief to realise upon reflection that what I’d written contained a bunch of qualifications and caveats that only an absurdly generous editor like Anand Menon would allow anyone to get away with.

First and foremost, my prediction that Brits would ‘ultimately vote – albeit by a much narrower margin than they did in 1975 – to remain in the EU’ turned out only to be a ‘[g]un-to-head … best guess’ rather than a confident assertion.

Moreover – and, I suspect, like many of my ivory-tower ilk – I did appear not only to have had at least some inkling that the result could go the other way but also some ideas as to why that might turn out to be the case.

For a start, I suggested it would ‘be worth paying very close attention to how big the turnout looks like being’, noting that, although ‘[w]ell-heeled, well-educated people tend to vote more than those who aren’t so lucky, which should be good for the in campaign’, we needed to bear in mind that ‘the old vote in far greater numbers than the young…, which should be good for Leave.’

Much as I’d love a retrospective pat on the back for that, however, I confess I don’t deserve one.

For one thing, I boldly declared that ‘if the proportion of those going to the polls comes anywhere near the 64.5% it reached in 1975, most psephologists would be surprised.’

For another, even if I had guessed that turnout on the day would, in fact, reach 72.2%, I know that I wouldn’t have gone on to suggest that such a figure would mean that far more so-called ‘left-behind’ voters were casting a ballot than most observers were predicting.

As it turned out, getting those voters, who didn’t normally vote, to the polling station – and getting them there without the Remain campaign realising they could be so effectively mobilised – was Dominic Cummings’ great genius.

Moving swiftly on, I’d give myself a little more credit for, first, suggesting that David Cameron’s renegotiation wasn’t going to prove particularly useful for the Remain campaign.

I’d give myself a little more credit, second, for pointing out that, when it came to Nigel Farage, in an era where sticking two fingers up at the despised and disconnected ‘political class’ is deemed perfectly legitimate, even perhaps as a public service, UKIP’s leader is arguably nowhere near as poisonous to the anti-European cause as Enoch Powell or, on the other side of the ideological fence, Tony Benn were to its 1970s equivalent.

Another potential contrast between the 1975 and 2016 referendums to which I managed to point was the attitude of the business community: this time around, I predicted – correctly, as it turned out – it would be significantly less united and assertive about staying in Europe.

Fortunately for me (although unfortunately if you’re a passionate Remainer), I also noted that Her Majesty’s Opposition under Jeremy Corbyn was likely to be a lot less wholehearted a campaigner for the pro-European cause than it was (those were the days!) under Margaret Thatcher.

My luck then ran temporarily dry when (based on the political science literature, mind!), I brought up both status quo bias and the fact that referendums often proved something of an education for voters as factors in Remain’s favour: after all, we’d been EU members for over forty years and being better-informed about the EU tended to go hand-in-hand with being more supportive of it.

In the event, a lot of voters didn’t actually think much of the status quo and the referendum didn’t exactly turn out to be the school for democracy some might have hoped for.

Things took a turn for the better (or at least the more accurate), however, when I suggested that ‘the success of the out campaign may well hinge upon the extent to which it can, without tipping over into the toxicity that might alienate many moderate voters, make the referendum a plebiscite on how many foreigners this country can afford to take in.’

That this was precisely what happened was down in no small part to the fact that Leave’s argument on immigration was rendered respectable (if hardly honest, especially when it came to tales of Turkey’s imminent accession) by mainstream Conservative politicians.

Admittedly, I was premature in suggesting that one of those Tories who might become a convert to Leave would be the then Home Secretary Theresa May, who could then, I reckoned, ‘put herself forward in the event…that Cameron and Osborne resign in the wake of defeat in the referendum.’

Yet ultimately I can, I guess, claim to have got the most important campaign development of all pretty much right by warning that ‘[t]he real danger, though, is – as perhaps it’s always been – Boris.’

Although I noted the then Mayor of London was ‘more risk-averse (and more willing to bide his time) than many realise’, I nonetheless wondered whether he ‘might be persuaded to throw proverbial caution to the winds’, and finished by declaring that ‘if he does press the Brexit button, all bets could be off.’

Prediction, then, is a mug’s game and, by indulging in it and by calling the result of the referendum wrong, I naturally made a mug of myself. But being asked to look back on what I wrote turns out, on balance, to have been more of a catharsis than a complete embarrassment.

If only that were always the case!

By Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and former deputy director of UK in a Changing Europe.


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