A contingent, conservative vote against the status quo

Dr Helen Parr
Senior Lecturer in International Relations – SPIRE

Thursday 7 July 2016

This is an irreversible crisis of political making. It did not have to happen like this, and that it has is the result of political misjudgements, the most important of which was David Cameron’s view that he could win an ‘in-out’ referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. He picked a time when it was easy to believe that membership of the EU ‘shackled Britain to a corpse’, and when the EU itself was tainted by the Greek debt crisis and failure to deal with the human catastrophe on its own borders.

He picked a time (although he could not have known it in January 2013) when he effectively had no serious political opposition. The referendum campaign was, for those in positions of political power defending the status quo, an extended period of highly publicised criticism and challenge. Mr. Cameron had nobody else to soak up the flak. The case for staying in depended chiefly upon him and he could not, in the end, convince the public that things will be worse outside.

It is obvious that the referendum result exposes divisions within the United Kingdom. Now that Britain has voted to leave the EU, there is less to keep Scotland as part of the Union. A majority of Scottish voters may well prefer a division between England and Scotland than a division between Scotland and the EU. The result has reopened divides in Ireland, divides that it took decades to heal. A border poll on a united Ireland? A re-securitised border between North and South?

It is blindingly evident too that the referendum result must lead to some kind of formal division that did not previously exist between the EU and Britain. Many EU nationals who live here now feel they may not be allowed to stay. Many British people fear that they may no longer be permitted freely to live, work and study in the countries of our nearest neighbours. The result has led to a rise in reports of racist abuse, suggesting too that, for some, it has legitimised divides between those perceived to be British nationals and those regarded as other.

Why did the poll return a leave vote? Had there been no campaign, it is likely that the UK population would have voted to stay. The public has never been particularly enthusiastic about Britain’s membership of the EEC/EU, but nor has it been hostile. There was no great public push to leave the EU. But there have always been Eurosceptic politicians and, in 2006, UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage saw that EU membership could be linked with voters’ concerns – ripened by the 2004 accession of the Eastern European countries – about rapid immigration. Farage transformed the temper of the debate in the UK. However, there would not have been a referendum without Euroscepticism in the Conservative party. Since the late 1980s, and the demise of Mrs. Thatcher, the Party has been in battle over what it means to be a modern Conservative, and membership of the EU has been one key part of that.

The leave campaign, then, was an uncomfortable and contradictory alliance, and UKIP’s calls to control immigration were only one element – albeit a very vocal element – of it. On the Conservative side were the ‘hello worlders’, who believe in the primacy of markets and want less EU and more globalisation, less state, less regulation and more economic flexibility; the deep Eurosceptics who have always been profoundly troubled by perceived loss of parliamentary sovereignty; the softer Eurosceptics who increasingly believe that the EU holds Britain’s economy back; old-fashioned Tories who often hold a nostalgic view of Great Britain as it once was, an imperial power and a wartime giant; and politicians who judged that in a climate of growing Euroscepticism in the Conservative party, they would gain more on the ‘leave’ side of the fence. On Labour’s side, some MPs see the EU as too much market and too little accountability and others on the left believe the current EU is a toxic blend of neo-liberal economics and punitive austerity.

The available polling analyses also suggest a contingent blend that came together to overturn the status quo. People in social categories C2 and DE (unskilled manual, unemployed) were more likely to vote to leave, with 64% of each category seeking exit. But, if Lord Ashcroft’s analyses of polling data are correct, 51% of category C1 (junior managerial, professional or administrative) also voted leave, and this is a larger group, at 27% of the population. Added to that, it is not as if the highest social categories were immune to the lure of Brexit. 43% of categories AB (professional, managerial), also comprising 27% of the population, voted to leave.

Conservative voters were more likely to vote leave (58%) than Labour (37%) or Liberal Democrat voters (30%). It might be thought quite surprising that 30% of people inclined to vote Liberal Democrat chose to cast a ballot to leave, when their Party is so strongly attached to membership of the EU (but then again, 4% of UKIP voters voted to remain).

Young people – indeed, people born after 1973, when Britain joined the then EEC – were more likely to vote to remain. 73% of people aged 18-24, 62% of 25-34s, 52% of 35-44s voted to remain as opposed to 44% of 45-54, 43% of 55-64 and 40% of those over 65. According to 2014 population statistics, there are fewer young people in the population: around 11.6m 65+s, and around 5.9m 18-24s. The turnout of under 25s appears to have been higher than first thought (64%), but the turnout of people 65 and over was higher still, (90%). That means that numerically, it is highly likely that more people over 65 voted to stay than people under 25.

This was an avoidable crisis. Its proximate cause was complacent politics that did not foresee the result. But it was also the expression of long-standing discontents. It was rooted in deep-seated antipathies to governance from the EU. The opportunity to voice those views came together with social disaffection stemming from the de-industrialisation of Britain and the rapid pace of social and technological change since the 1980s. Those concerns were given purchase because of contemporary anxieties caused by the poor recent performance of the Eurozone and EU, austerity and the rise in immigration from Eastern European countries. The result was clear, because that was the nature of the question, but it was also close.

It was a campaign in which the traditional orders of politics were overturned. The leave campaign openly debunked ‘scaremongering’ about what might happen to Britain’s economy in the event of a decision to leave. People from all walks of life felt that they could disbelieve those warnings. The remain campaign could not match the leave campaign on the question of immigration, and it was the issue of immigration that gave ‘leave’ its vigorous and sometimes mendacious momentum.

However, the most popular reason for leave voters to vote leave was not immigration (33%), but sovereignty, loosely translated that ‘decisions about the UK should be made in the UK’ (49%). The crucial thing, therefore, was not racist and unreachable voters, but the way in which immigration was locked to sovereignty, and the way in which sovereignty was meshed into questions of national identity – ‘our country’ back. Remain did not effectively address the fact that the free movement of people gave the UK, by itself, no way to control immigration from EU countries should it so wish; and that always gave ground to the ‘leave’ case.

Leavers also exhibited queasiness about societal liberalism and pessimism about the future. 80% of respondents voting leave said that immigration was a ‘force for ill’ in society. 78% said the same about feminism. 61% of ‘leavers’ said that they expected life to be worse for their children. Theirs was vote nostalgic for a Britain of how they imagine it was more than 40 years ago.

The ‘leave’ vote was also taken against the advice and recommendations of the political, academic, economic, financial and international mainstream. That is unprecedented. In some ways, the leave vote could be seen as a paradoxical rebellion of English identity – slewing off the perceived predictability and distance of Westminster politics – but often voted for by people who almost certainly do not want the United Kingdom to break up.

It could also be seen as a failing of ‘first past the post’ politics. The attraction of ‘winner takes it all’, and the idea that in office, the party of government is able to act in a sovereign way, is seductive to those who lead political parties. In a system of proportional representation, in which the voting choices of many might have been better reflected in parliamentary seats, and in which political parties might be able to form groupings that convince more voters of their sincerity, a referendum and a vote to leave would surely have been less likely.

At the same time, voters have not been induced to believe that a place in the EU strengthened Britain’s identity and enabled Britain to influence in the EU and globally. It shows just how much political and social cultures in the UK have failed, over many years, to mainstream ‘Europe’, have failed to persuade people that Britain must be European to its core. Many voters have not accepted that a place in the EU secured Britain’s prosperity and influence – or have not been assured that prosperity and influence mattered enough to vote to stay.

This crisis could have been avoided. It might, in even slightly different political circumstances, have gone the other way. At the same time, it has crystallised issues that lie deep, and the outcome does not provide a route into the future.


Dr Helen Parr is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Keele University. Her research focuses on contemporary British history and British foreign policy, particularly towards the European Community in the 1960s and 1970s. She has published widely in these areas, and is currently working on a history of the Falklands War. More on Helen’s research can be found here


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