11 July 2017

Brexit: Why Britain voted to leave the European Union

Harold D Clarke, Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley
2017, Cambridge University Press, 272 pages,

Reviewer: Vicky Pryce, former joint Head, Government Economic Service

Any book on Brexit and the consequences of the referendum vote written before the election of June 8 is bound to be out of date already. And this one is no exception. Already the political landscape has changed markedly, and not in the way this book predicted: yes, Brexit has brought about instability but of a different kind. Instead of Brexit ‘destabilising, ‘What is already a fragmenting and shaky party system,’ it has led to the biggest combined vote of 84% between the two dominant parties in the election of June 8, the largest share of the vote that they have enjoyed in decades. Eurosceptics abandoned UKIP to move back to the two main parties, as did Remainers, shunning the Lib Dems who are still viewed as toxic by many following their period in coalition with David Cameron’s Tories.

Neither is Scotland likely to vote for independence in a hurry again following the losses the SNP sustained in the selection even though they remain the largest party in Holyrood. And rather than UKIP benefiting from, “The expected failure of many Labour MPs in the Midlands and the north to heed the existence of substantial pro-Brexit support,”  the truth is that in Labour constituencies the opposite happened. UKIP candidates were humiliated with Just 1.78% of the national vote going to them in the general election.

But the question of why people voted for Brexit remains fascinating. Lots of assertions have been made but without the actual data to back them. And here is a book that attempts to do just that in as scientific a way as possible. The authors were helped by a series of surveys, some following the voting intentions of people during the referendum campaign assisted by specific research with UKIP voters. The data analysis also allowed them to conclude tentatively that if those who should have voted but didn’t had done so in the end Remain might have won, although that still was debatable given the usual margin of error as people don’t always vote the way they report their intentions. Interestingly people’s responses suggest that if Boris Johnson had come out in favour of remain that might have tipped the balance for staying in the EU.

What else do we learn? That UKIP voters are not that different from the nation as a whole. They were concerned about ‘rapacious banks, corporate greed, economic inequality and social injustice’ and feel they have been economically ‘left behind’. Why, though, they should have equated that with a desire to leave Europe remains a mystery – except of course that they were able to vent their frustration by voting against the ‘establishment’ by a godsend of a referendum which gave them this opportunity. And the UKIP supporters were helped by many other dissatisfied people and by an army of voters who had retained a resentment and hostility towards migration for decades before the referendum itself. It wasn’t necessarily an anti-European feeling but more against migration of any kind, including from Africa and Asia and more recently from the Middle East, which they saw Europe as allowing if not actively encouraging in vast numbers.

But what the survey work and analysis also tells us is that it was not just one thing in particular that swung the vote in favour of Leave. People’s attitude to EU membership since 2004 seemed to be directly linked to their perceptions of how well the government of the day was doing in areas such as immigration but also on the economy and in areas such as the NHS. And this went side by side with anxiety about perceived loss of economic control to Brussels, playing into UKIP’s hands. And on the other side the pro- EU Lib Dems had lost their allure and power to convince, as they had been severely punished in the 2015 general elections for going into coalition with the Conservatives since the 2010.

Is there a way back, and if not can we predict the future from these results? I fear not. As if the surprise referendum result was not enough, the snap election has turned received wisdom, including that expressed in this book on its head yet again. The future is as uncertain as it has ever been. Welcome to the new norm that is Brexit Britain!