BREXIT: WHAT HAPPENED? WHY? WHAT NEXT?

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1 BREXIT: WHAT HAPPENED? WHY? WHAT NEXT? By Richard Peel, published On 23 June 2016, the people of the United Kingdom voted in a referendum. The question each voter had to answer was: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? The two alternatives were called Remain and Leave (this second alternative was also known as Brexit ). The result The final opinion polls suggested that the Remain vote would be slightly bigger than the Leave vote. As the the results came in through the night, it soon became clear that the Remain vote was lower than expected, and the Leave vote was higher. In the early hours of 24 June, the result was beyond doubt: Brexit had won. 1

2 We can take a closer look at who voted what. The results of the referendum for the four countries that make up the UK were as follows: England: Remain 46.8% Leave 53.2% Scotland Remain 62% Leave 38% Northern Ireland: Remain 55.7% Leave 44.3% Wales: Remain 48.3% Leave 51.7% Whole UK: Remain 48.1% Leave 51.9% So England and Wales voted to leave, while Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain. On this count, the result was a 2-2 draw. However, England has by far the largest population of the four countries, and the final overall result was a clear victory for Brexit. 2

3 Age This table indicates how different age groups across the whole of the UK voted. Parties The two large parties in the UK are the Conservative party and the Labour party. Both parties were split down the middle by this referendum. The following table suggests who voted what: Conservative party supporters Labour party supporters Voted Remain A: business-oriented people, who work in towns or cities C: middle-class, liberal-minded people Voted Leave B: a majority of mainstream conservative supporters; they often live in the country or in small towns D: a majority of the core Labour working class in towns and cities 3

4 What of the smaller parties? The Liberal Democrats voted solidly for Remain The Scottish National Party voted strongly for Remain United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) supporters, obviously, voted for Leave Why did Brexit win? The Brexit campaign was much more combative and energetic than the Remain campaign. It attacked clear targets. It claimed that: the EU is undemocratic the EU promotes global anti-social capitalism the EU has lots of unnecessary laws and regulations through its laws for the free movement of people, the EU lies behind massive immigration the UK Parliament has had to give up important powers to EU decision-makers; much better to leave and Take Back Control huge sums of money are sucked out of Britain by the EU, money that could be far better spent at home, on the National Health Service, for example The Remain campaign did not manage to convince people that the claims by the Brexit camp were, in their opinion, untrue or exaggerated. For example, the Remain campaign failed to get their message across that immigration from Europe was a sign of a strong economy, and that the contribution to the UK s finances from EU-immigrants far outweighs what these immigrants take from the UK. Instead, Brexit s tactics succeeded in tapping a resentment against large-scale immigration. An example of this tactic was a poster used, showing a long queue of asylum seekers with the message Breaking Point. 4

5 Ukip leader Nigel Farage in front of the Breaking Point poster Moreover, Brexit leaders suggested that the UK would be able to keep the advantages of EU membership primarily free trade access to the single European market while at the same time dropping EU laws it did not like. The Remain campaign Countless political leaders, business leaders, bankers and professors talked about what they saw as the practical advantages of staying in the EU. They went on about how remaining would leave people better off and help the economy, but there was not much passion in their message. They did not seem to realise the depth of the resentment against EUimmigrants or how impatient many people were with what they saw as excessive EU regulations and interference. The media The impact of the media was important. Britain s popular newspapers were overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit. It is not difficult to see an appeal to nationalistic pride in some of the headlines in the Sun and the Daily Mail, for example. 5

6 At the same time it must be said that the British people can be fairly cynical about what newspapers serve up. Radio and television were more balanced throughout the referendum campaign. The media, and the picture they gave of the most dynamic personalities in the campaign, undoubtedly played some role in persuading many people to vote Leave. But this can probably only account for a small chunk of the Brexit vote and not for the overall victory. Many sensible, thoughtful people, who do not read the Sun or the Daily Mail, also voted Brexit. They simply reckoned it was best for Britain: for its economy, for its way of life and for its ability to control its own affairs. Only time will tell if they were right. Consequences of the referendum The short-term political consequences of the referendum result were dramatic. Here is a timetable of some of the immediate political action on the day after the referendum: Early in the morning, Prime Minister David Cameron announces that he will resign as prime minister as soon as his ruling Conservative party has chosen a new leader. 6

7 Later that morning Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, says she will prepare for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Soon after midday, a rebellion begins among Labour MPs. Their target is their party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. (At the time of writing, this conflict has still not been resolved.) The first and third of these stories opened the door to a period of confusion, with leadership contests in both main parties. In the Conservative party the contest for leadership was lively, but did not last all that long. Two women emerged as the main candidates, Andrea Leadsom (who had supported Brexit) and Home Secretary Theresa May (who had supported Remain). When Leadsom made the curious claim that she, being a mother, was better suited to lead the country than May, who has no children, she lost support among many Conservative MPs, and she withdrew. The contest fizzled out, and the UK had its second woman prime minister. Theresa May talking outside her new home in 10 Downing Street. 7

8 The leadership struggles in the two big parties were the short-term consequences of the referendum. What happens in Scotland will be a long-term consequence. Scotland The SNP has for many years wanted Scottish independence from the rest of the UK, and fought for this in a Scottish referendum in September It lost that referendum. Now the ball has bounced right back into its side of the court. Wait a minute, the SNP is saying: we voted to remain in the EU; you people in London cannot force us out! As we have seen, the first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, lost no time in warning the government that it would not let go of the EU without a struggle, and that it would demand a new referendum on Scottish independence if it is not satisfied with the Brexit deal it gets. The game is still on. Short-term consequences for banks and business The value of the pound against both the dollar and the euro dropped sharply after the referendum, and it has not shown signs of real recovery. This makes holidays in Britain, and exported British-produced goods, cheaper, but for British people it makes foreign holidays, and imported goods, more expensive. Banks and building firms have had a shaky time, but most other companies experienced a week or so of crisis, then steadiness returned and they recovered. Uncertainty is the worst enemy of business confidence. The long-term impact of Brexit on the economy is something that the future will reveal, but most economists expect it to be damaging to the British economy. Relations with the EU Negotiations Now we come to the most difficult question of all, but it is also the key question. The word Brexit is brief and crisp. It is easy to think of the EXIT signs in airports or cinemas. If you want to go out of the airport or cinema, you follow the signs and in no time you are outside you are blinking in the bright light, maybe, but your exit was quick and painless. Not so with Brexit. Leaving the EU will be neither quick nor painless. 8

9 Nothing in British law makes a referendum binding for a government, but it is open to any government to say that it does consider the result binding. This is the line that has been taken by the new prime minister. Brexit means Brexit, Theresa May has said again and again. What she means is that the people have decided, and that the government will put their decision into effect because not to do so would be bad politics. Theresa May is a tough politician. She herself supported Remain, but now she leads the government that must negotiate Brexit. She knows how complicated these negotiations will have to be. Her goal is obviously to get specific results that are beneficial to the UK and that the Leave supporters will accept. This means the deal must not allow free entry of people from the EU, and must involve money staying in Britain. She also knows that even the most eager Brexiteer wants as many trading advantages as possible. Ideally, they want to keep access to the inner EU market. However, one thing is certain: no one in the EU is willing to let Britain pick and choose from the EU s laws and arrangements, taking what it likes and leaving what it dislikes. This would only encourage other member-states to start their own exits. Another enormous challenge is the sheer number of British laws that will have to be changed. This will take a long time, and it will probably also give opponents of Brexit new opportunities to reverse the whole process, expecially when a new general election comes along. Impact on the EU The result of the referendum on 23 June was a shock to the EU. Everyone was dismayed at the result of the referendum, although perhaps for different reasons. The only people who rejoiced were those who want their own countries to do the same. The Brexit result will function as a wake-up call to the EU. It must change. But will it become an even tighter political unit, or will it return to something more like what it used to be: a trading organisation? 9

10 Norway is a country that will follow with close interest what happens between Britain and the EU. When a large country joins Norway outside the EU club, there will be new challenges and new opportunities. Conclusion The time-scale of the negotiations, and their results, are impossible to predict now. The hard work has not begun. One thing is certain: the long-term consequences of the Brexit vote will hold lots of surprises. TASKS 1. Here are eight statements. Decide, in each case, whether they belong to someone supporting Remain or someone supporting Leave. Explain your decisions. a) Unity brings security and peace! Look at the last 100 years of history! b) Rules and regulations are made without us being able to influence them. c) We can t take any more in. There s no more room. d) The other side exaggerates the figures. Switzerland and Norway have higher numbers of EU immigrants per head of population than the UK does, and they are not even EU member countries! e) Don t listen to bankers and businessmen. Look what a mess they made in 2008! f) They waste so much money. Each month they move from Brussels to Strasbourg for a week. Think what that costs! h) Don t pull up the drawbridge! Don t look inwards! Look outwards! Share the best of our culture with the best of other cultures! 2. Place these politicians under the correct party headings: David Cameron, Nigel Farage, Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon, Jeremy Corbyn 10

11 Conservative Labour Ukip SNP 3. In the referendum for Scotland s independence in September 2014, the voting age was lowered to 16. Turnout was 84.6%. The House of Commons voted against this age limit for the EU referendum (Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrats voted for, Conservatives against). From what you have read in our article, what impact do you think a lowering of the voting-age might have had on the result of the referendum of 23 June? What is your evidence? 4. Look at the front pages of the Sun and the Daily Mail shown in the article. Explain the headlines that are related to the referendum. How do the newspapers try to catch their readers attention? 5. Find out! (a) Who did Theresa May appoint as foreign minister, and why this was a bit of a surprise? (b) The result of the leadership contest in the Labour party wil probably be known towards the end of September Find out the latest developments. (c) What is today s rate of exchange of the pound against the euro? How does this compare with what it was before 23 June? 11

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