Why Did Britain Vote to Leave the EU?
James Aber and Lee Jones
11 June 2018
Since 17.4 million Britons voted to leave the EU in June 2016, they have been persistently slandered as dupes, xenophobes or worse. This only reveals the hysterical elitism of some Remainers, who are accustomed to getting their own way and are horrified that, for the first time in decades, ordinary people might have a decisive say in how Britain is governed. It also reveals a reluctance to properly understand and come to terms with the reasons why people voted as they did. Leave voters were no worse informed than Remain voters and, while concerned over immigration, they are not, by and large, intolerant of foreigners. They were primarily driven by hunger for political change, after decades when the political elite had scorned and ignored most ordinary people.
“They were conned”
Perhaps the most persistent Remainer canard is that Leave voters, being relatively uneducated, were easily duped by the Leave campaign’s falsehoods and slogans, like the notorious “£350m for the NHS” on the side of a bus. This claim is baseless.
Research by the Electoral Reform Society shows that voters were actually deeply sceptical about the claims of politicians on all sides, reflecting general distrust of the political class. Most politicians had no significant effect on voters, or even drove people in the opposite direction to their intentions. Almost half of all voters believed that both campaigns were mostly lying, and consequently they drew on a very wide variety of sources when making their minds up. Overall, the evidence suggests that voters were highly sceptical, weighed diverse sources carefully, and took their responsibilities as citizens quite seriously.
Critics of the Leave campaign’s “£350m for the NHS” slogan also conveniently overlook the Remain campaign’s own exaggerated claims about the economic disaster that a Brexit vote would immediately unleash. The instantaneous downturn would be so severe, Chancellor George Obsorne warned, that £30bn of public service cuts would be needed to deal with the resultant fiscal crisis. Nothing remotely like this has occurred, though doom-laden predictions continue. Sterling fell in value but has since recovered, employment levels and foreign direct investment has remained strong, and there are even signs of moderate wage increases.
Ironically, exit polls suggest that Remain voters were far more influenced by these economic arguments than Leave voters.
The top two reasons motivating Remainers, by far, related to economic risk (43%) and the single market (31%). That is, they had been thoroughly convinced by “Project Fear”, which has turned out to be completely unfounded. Conversely, the top reasons for Leave voters are totally disconnected from any supposed fiscal boost from leaving the EU: they are all about sovereignty (49% and 13%), and immigration control (33%). Only 6% said their top reason was that the UK would be better off economically outside of the EU. So, if anyone was “duped” by dodgy economic predictions, it was Remain voters.
Although both campaigns were abysmal – “Project Fear” versus right-wing anti-immigration rhetoric – they did nonetheless offer voters a clear choice: avoid the risk of economic losses by remaining; or take the risk, and secure sovereignty gains by leaving. The majority of citizens opted for the sovereignty gains.
“They are racist/ xenophobic”
The Leave vote is also misunderstood as a racist backlash against immigrants. This perception was produced in part by the anti-immigration Leave campaign; voters’ own identification of immigration as being a top reason for supporting Leave; and by a brief post-referendum spike in hate crimes. However, the often unhinged commentary around this ignores a secular decline in racism and fails to distinguish between a desire for immigration controls and hostility to migrants per se.
Racism is difficult to measure, but by all the standard international metrics, Britain is one of the most open and tolerant countries on Earth. The World Values Survey finds that Britain is more racially tolerant than most European societies. The British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey finds that only 1 percent of Britons describe themselves as “very” racially prejudiced. A further 25 percent describe themselves as “a little” prejudiced, but this vague category highlights the problem of measurement through self-reporting.
As for immigration, as of 2014, only 7 and 16 percent of Britons thought it important that immigrants should be white or Christian, respectively, down from 11 and 19 percent in 2002. The BSA found attitudes towards non-white immigration actually improved from 2002-14, as did feelings about immigration more generally. This liberalising trend has continued since the EU referendum. In a poll immediately after the vote, 84 percent of Britons felt that EU citizens resident in Britain should be allowed to stay, including 77% of Leave voters. The European Commission ranks Britain third in Europe, narrowly behind Sweden and Denmark, “in saying that they would be happy to have an immigrant as a neighbour, colleague, friend or family relation”. Its Eurobarometer survey finds that Britons are generally more welcoming to immigrants than the average European.
None of this is to deny the existence of racist attitudes or anti-immigration sentiment. Beyond the headline data, Leave voters were almost twice as likely to describe themselves as a “little” racially prejudiced than Remain voters (34% versus 18%). And anti-immigration attitudes are far higher among particular groups of voters, notably those who are older, more socio-economically deprived, and less educated. Such voters also tended to support Brexit.
However, their scepticism about immigration relates far less to race than concerns about immigrants’ capacity to integrate into British society and whether they have skills the country needs; indeed, these concerns are becoming more important just as race is becoming less so.
This gets us closer to what actually happened in June 2016, because it reveals how most people in Britain experience the European Union. For working class voters, the EU is not the source of an attractive international identity and lifestyle that it is for the middle classes. Rather it is a source of cheap, unskilled labour to fill the low wage jobs that make up the large bulk of available employment in the regions.
“Taking back control”
Concern about immigration is a lightning rod for wider dissatisfaction with the British ruling class and its way of governing Britain over the past three decades. Immigration policy exemplifies the unrepresentative and unaccountable character of government in the European Union.
While 33% of Leave voters gave as their main motivation that Brexit would allow the UK to control immigration, this came a distant second to the 49% who cited “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. These concerns clearly intersect. As shown above, voters’ concerns about immigration do not imply unreconstructed racism but rather a desire to regulate migration, such that British culture is maintained and low-skilled immigration is reduced.
The difficulty is that, for the 15 or so years preceding the referendum, British political elites have insisted that this is impossible, citing the EU’s principle of free movement of labour. This reflects the way that European politicians have deliberately used the EU to “lock in” neoliberal policies at the continental level, presenting them to their domestic electorates as unchallengeable. This allows them to pursue their own preferences regardless of public opinion by outsourcing responsibility and evading accountability. In reality, successive British governments have deliberately chosen to embrace of mass immigration as part of a flawed economic policy that suppresses wage growth and pursues growth largely on the basis of population increases. So committed to this path was the Labour government (1997-2010) that it even waived temporary restrictions on migration from newer, poorer EU accession countries that were permitted under EU law. This was deliberately promoted by the (independent) governor of the Bank of England to “lower wage growth and control inflation”.
This has had a particularly strong impact on those least well placed to adapt to the influx of 4.3 million immigrants from 1997-2016, i.e. people in low-skill, low-paid employment, heavily reliant on state support in housing, healthcare and education. This group – whose welfare and empowerment the left once saw as its key concern – has suffered most under three decades of neoliberal economic policy, while those with education, skills and capital have benefited, helping to generate levels of inequality not seen since the 19th century. It is hardly surprising that the Brexit vote correlated with cultural and educational markers of these “losers” and “winners” from European integration.
Successive governments’ inflexibility over immigration is simply a subset of their attitude towards economic governance more generally. The doctrine that “There Is No Alternative” to marketization, free trade and globalization has gripped parties of all stripes, leaving them unable to offer any meaningful solution to the grievances of those “left behind”. Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s denunciation of a traditional Labour voter as a “bigoted woman” for expressing concern about immigration simply expresses a wider contempt for working class communities who cannot “get with the programme”. After 2009, the situation worsened as all sides embraced austerity. The electorate was told “There Is No Alternative” to degrading the public support on which many poorer households relied, yet, simultaneously, “There Is No Alternative” to mass immigration, which intensifies competition for dwindling resources.
Seen from this perspective, the Leave vote was not simply an ignorant, racist backlash against immigration. Rather, it was a backlash against a political establishment that had steadfastly ignored the interests and concerns of ordinary voters for three decades. This explains why so many Leave voters nonetheless oppose racism and want current EU residents to remain in Britain. They are not, by and large, hostile to migrants as individuals. They are hostile towards a rigid political elite that endlessly tells them “There Is No Alternative” to a downward spiral in their fortunes.
The slogan “take back control” resonated so widely because it spoke to a deep sense of powerlessness and marginalisation. This experience is rooted in the defeat of the labour movement in the 1980s and the subsequent abandonment of the working class by the entire political establishment which now has little understanding of its experience It is not surprising that, when this establishment lined up to defend the EU, with only a handful of Tory dissenters, many voters decided to give the elite a bloody nose.
The immigration question is also part of a wider cultural gulf between the governing class, and its metropolitan supporters, and the majority of British citizens. Most ordinary voters retain traditional commitments to locality, community and to family life, their lives bound up with the friendship and family networks of particular places. About 60 per cent of Britons live within 20 miles of where they lived when they were 14. It is also at the local and the national levels that most citizens can wield any influence, and from which they draw their political resources. The political class seems to have lost any understanding of or indeed sympathy for this experience. This is why so many Remain campaigners misunderstand the Leave vote. European citizenship, which seems so attractive an idea to the metropolitan middle classes, is next to meaningless for most citizens. National citizenship, which seems a quaint parochial attachment to many in the elite, remains vital to the interests of working class voters.
 Electoral Reform Society, It’s Good to Talk: Doing Referendums Differently after the EU Vote, September 2016, p. 30.
 “Sterling hits $1.40 for first time since Brexit vote”, The Guardian, 24 January 2018; “UK landed record foreign investment in year of Brexit vote”, Reuters, 1 December 2017; “UK earnings growing at fastest rate in more than two years”, The Guardian, 21 March 2018.
 Lord Ashcroft, “How the United Kingdom Voted on Thursday… And Why”, 24 June 2016.
 “A Fascinating Map of the World’s Most and Least Racially Tolerant Countries”, Washington Post, 15 May 2013.
 NatCen and Runnymede Trust, Racial Prejudice in Britain Today, September 2017, p. 7.
 NatCen, British Social Attitudes 34, 2016, p. 135.
 NatCen, British Social Attitudes 34, 2016, pp. 131-33.
 Robert Ford, “There’s a Remarkable Change in the Air – Our Hostility to Migrants is on the Retreat”, The Guardian, 19 May 2018.
 “EU Nationals Should Be Allowed To Stay After Brexit, Remain And Leave Campaigners Say”, Huffington Post, 3 July 2016.
 “Europeans Remain Welcoming to Immigrants”, Economist, 19 April 2018.
 “Integration of immigrants in the European Union” Special Eurobarometer 469, 2018, pp. T2, T19.
 NatCen and Runnymede Trust, Racial Prejudice, p. 8.
 NatCen, British Social Attitudes 34, p. 140.
 NatCen, British Social Attitudes 34, p. 135.
 Lord Ashcroft, “How the United Kingdom Voted”.
 “Former Bank Governor ‘Encouraged Eastern European Immigration’”, The Guardian, 24 November 2017.
 Lord Ashcroft, “How the United Kingdom Voted”.
 Ludi Simpson and Nissa Finney, “How Mobile Are Immigrants After arriving in the UK?” in Stephanie L. McFall (ed.) Understanding Society: Findings 2012 (Colchester: Institute for Social and Economic Research, 2012), p. 20.
About the Authors
James Aber is a writer based in London, currently undertaking a doctorate in Politics at the University of Oxford. Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London.
This work represents the views of the authors only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.