Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Dec 05, 2016
Brexit result was a shock to the system as much as the recent US election results. Hence the need for a local perspective to understand the ground realities
A local perspective on Brexit

The Brexit result was a shock to the system as much as the recent US election results. Commentators, pollsters and even leading politicians on both sides of the aisle are still unable to explain its passage but more importantly are still bewildered as to how far they were from understanding the mind-set of British voters. Just like the US elections, the outrageousness of it becoming an actuality perhaps veiled British pundits from getting a real sense of the mood of the nation, or at least the dominant pockets of British constituents.

Just as with Donald Trump’s election as President, commentators, pundits and gurus from around the world have tried to offer various explanations as to why Brexit actually happened. Yes, there are numerous videos showing simple ignorance of what Brexit meant, ranging from the classic “oh I didn't think my vote would matter” to the usual drivel of protecting domestic industry from unchecked immigration including (in one case, “Africa, Syria and Iraq”) or our personal favourite from a YouTube video talking about if England were to not qualify for the Euros next time around, people wont have to watch the tournament post-exit. But to get real answers to this very real question on why the UK left, one is required to canvass the local population. A disclaimer here would be appropriate, canvassing Brighton is not the most ideal city to get a feel for the reasons people voted out, given this city has the only Green Party Member in UK Parliament and the fact that 68 per cent voted to remain, but there are a few people around who remain steadfast on their decision to leave. Here are their reasons:

One of the most prominent narratives of the Brexit vote has been economic. In short, those who, in parts of the North and the Midlands, have seen jobs leave and never come back, while the South-East, and London in particular, has boomed. Just as in the United States, where Donald Trump surged to a victory (which he himself described as ‘Brexit, plus, plus, plus’) on the votes of blue-collar workers in the Rust Belt, the areas that voted most heavily to leave were often those that have been hollowed-out by de-industrialisation. Supporters of the economic argument are quick to regurgitate the Leave campaign brochure, which provides three main arguments.

First, it made a simple link between the lack of jobs and pay in these areas, and the influx of migrant labourers who did have jobs. Second, it told voters that leaving the EU would allow Britain to bring all the money it sent to Brussels back, so that it could be spent on, among other things, the NHS. Finally, it insisted that, free from the constraints of the EU, Britain would be able to trade with the world. Not only were these voters, who had essentially been living in recessionary conditions for the past 30 years, impervious to the threat of a post-Brexit slump, they were also given the answers to their questions. Why haven’t I got a job? Poles. Why are public services at breaking point? EU fat cats and bureaucrats. And their answers remain the same even today.

As well as economic division, Brexit has also revealed deep cultural fissures in British society. Those more affluent, middle-class voters were overwhelmingly old and white. To these voters and their less affluent counterparts, ‘Take Back Control’ promised not just political, but cultural, sovereignty, in a nation they felt had left them behind.

David Cameron had already admitted that multiculturalism didn’t work before he implored the nation to stay in the EU. Even a majority of Remain voters conceded that immigration was too high. However, what separated the Leave voters from Remain voters was the understanding of what immigration brought to the table. The absence of tangible benefits of immigration for Leave voters, especially against the clamour of losing jobs to workers entering the country, was enough to vote out.

Perhaps the most pertinent statistic from the referendum was the one which showed that, the areas where Leave won its biggest majorities, were those that had experienced the least inward migration. These were people who hadn’t experienced the benefit of, say, cheaper, better Polish builders and plumbers, who hadn’t been treated by doctors and nurses from South Asia, and hadn’t experienced the restaurants, festivals, and other accouterments that has made multiculturalism feel so exhilarating for predominantly younger, more metropolitan voters.

What does seem the clearest dividing line between Leave and Remain voters is cultural. New political battle lines have been drawn, and rather than fitting neatly into Left/Right tribes defined by economic issues, they seem to suggest the new political divide is between the socially conservative and the socially liberal.

< style="color: #163449;">The way forward

With economic aspects already beginning to put cracks in the Leave argument, a renewal of the Remain campaign is becoming more likely. As the promises of cash to the NHS disappear, the deficit grows, and access to the common market becomes so indispensable as to be worth, yes, sending money to the EU for the privilege, the hope is that voters change their mind, allowing politicians the wiggle room to, at the very least, negotiate a ‘Soft Brexit’ or, ideally, stop the process altogether. However, the cultural reason suggests an about-turn is unlikely.

The government has taken the Brexit vote as a rejection of the liberal, metropolitan elite and, in so doing, appears to have made the end of freedom of movement its priority. Given the EU has made it very clear that its ‘Four Freedoms’ are indivisible, it seems likely that a government intent on ending free movement will have to accept a Brexit agreement that severely restricts Britain’s access to the common market and the free movement of goods and services. What’s more, with new political battle lines drawn along the Leave/Remain axis, few politicians are going to want to risk their seat in Parliament by opposing Britain’s exit from the EU. Despite the Liberal Democrats victory in Thursday’s Richmond Park by-election, which was a clear victory for Remain, if those political battle lines were recreated across the country, Leave would win by a landslide.

The likelihood is that Britain will experience a period of political paralysis, as the government continues to work out a strategy, and all political issues are seen through the lens of Brexit. Despite offering answers to several British problems, the Leave vote seems only to have produced more questions. Despite recent events of the courts requiring Parliamentary consensus on actually leaving the EU or the upcoming decision to ratify that decision itself, the UK is in for a long period of divisiveness and confusion that neither side was ready for. Regardless of the final outcome, which at this point leans towards the decision, the end of free movement and the severance from so called ‘EU overlords’, will act as a brief fillip for Leave voters, giving succour to their nostalgic view of Britain’s bygone culture at home and its role as an independent global player on the world stage. Borrowing the slogan from its former colony- The US, ‘Make UK Great Again’ seems fitting at this point in time.

Prashant Kumar and Daniel Gill are Masters Students in the Global Political Economy programme at the University of Sussex, UK. 

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.