The Brexit Mess: How We Got Here & Why Leave (Part 1)

Samuel Gao


The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union on June 23rd, 2016 was decided by a margin of 3.8% in a referendum and sent shockwaves around the world. According to polls, 7 in 10 voters did not expect Britain to actually leave the European Union. Even amongst those who voted “Leave”, a majority of them did not expect their vote to count and predicted that Britain would still remain [1]. The referendum results sent investors and businesses into a spiral and markets around the world showed signs of distress: the pound sterling lost about 10% of its value and global stock indexes fell by large margins. The United Kingdom’s main stock index, the FTSE, lost about 12.5% of its value while the representative stock index for Europe, Germany’s DAX, slid by 6.8% also [2]. Global leaders were in disbelief and the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, left his post in despair within just a few months of the referendum. Now, in 2019, the UK was expected to leave the EU by March 29, 2019, but the deal it had with the European Union was voted down in Parliament by a margin of 202-432 in January, the largest margin of defeat for a governing party-sponsored bill in British Parliament history [3]. Further complications followed, including no-confidence votes for Theresa May, by her own party and by Parliament. Though she survived both, the mere fact that there were votes of no-confidence shows how people within her party and Parliament as a whole sincerely distrusts her leadership. Now, after the withdrawal bill was voted down twice more (although by smaller margins), the resignation of Theresa May, and the delay of Brexit until October, it is wildly unclear how the United Kingdom will proceed. It has been a messy few months for Britain. But how did we get here?

According to polls, the main reasons voters decided to leave were independence and control. The top reason, across all Leave voters, was that “decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. Coming in second and third were “for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders” and “remaining meant little or no choice about how the EU expanded its membership or powers.” [4] It is safe to say that citizens from the UK felt that the European Union, and its sense of cooperation, limited their freedom as a nation. The UK is like a student who is working in a group project and believes that he/she can accomplish so much more without others dictating how he/she should work. It is with this disgruntled attitude that many voters went to the polls and angrily voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. 

Politicians, for good or for bad, also had significant impacts on the decision of Brexit. David Cameron promised a referendum upon the matter during his campaign for premiership in the 2015 cycle and upheld his promise in 2016. Though Cameron fought strongly for “Remain”, other “Leave” politicians such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove seemed to own the stage. Polls found that people trusted Boris Johnson more than David Cameron on Brexit [5]. Furthermore, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is a known Eurosceptic (for context, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are both members of the Conservative Party, the main rival of the Labour Party), which gave Labour voters an unclear direction. Though as many as 96% MPs from the Labour Party actually backed the “Remain” movement, its leader’s ambiguity confused many voters.[5]

Strategy for the “Leave” campaign also seemed to be more effective. Consider this: the leading figure for “Leave” was Boris Johnson, mayor of London from 2008-2016. London is an area where the Labour Party usually carry by a comfortable margin of around 10%, but Johnson was able to win it twice. Imagine what a campaigner he is! At the same time, the “Leave” campaign also focused on the pressing issues around that time. Similar to the pitch of then-candidate Donald Trump, the “Leave” campaign expressed deep concerns about migrants that had been causing headaches in nations such as Germany. As mentioned above, immigration was the number two concern for voters, and the “Leave” campaign used tension around immigration to their full advantage. “Leave” also focused more significantly on the British economy than the “Remain” campaign, claiming that, by leaving the EU, the UK may have an additional £350 million per week for their National Health Service Program, a socialist healthcare system that is one of the most important and famous symbols of the UK governance. If that number holds true, it would mean that on average, every year, British citizens can save £252 from their contribution to the EU [6].

But the problem is… that number doesn’t hold true. Though in-gross, the average Brit contributes £252, after adjustments such as refunds, that figure comes down to around £60 [6].  In addition to misleading information, it is also believed that almost all the major news networks campaigned for Leave, including big names such as The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, and the Daily Express [5][7].

All in all, it should be clearer now why the UK took such an unexpected decision. The clever campaigning efforts added on to the preexisting skepticism and distrust between the UK and the EU (remember how UK never adopted the Euro currency?). But regardless of that, the people made their decision: leave. Ever since then, the UK has been embroiled in chaos and confusion including a general election, the biggest defeat for a government in history, and much more. 

To be continued...