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Geoffrey Evans

Anand Menon



In writing this book, both of us have drawn on help and support from many sources.

Geoff would like to thank the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for funding the EU Referendum waves of the British Election Study (BES), and his colleagues in that study for their insights. Particular thanks to Jon Mellon, Chris Prosser and Noah Carl for their input. A special thanks also to those people in Stoke and North Staffordshire who gave him views on Brexit that were refreshingly different from those that could be found in the Senior Common Room.

Anand would also like to express his gratitude to the ESRC for trusting him with the Directorship of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative, and to Ben Miller, Phoebe Couzens and Navjyot Lehl for effectively running it while he was writing this book. He’s had the privilege of working with some of the best scholars in the business, from whom he has learnt a great deal. Special thanks in this regard to Catherine Barnard and Jonathan Portes, both leaders in their respective fields and both valued friends. They will doubtless recognise in the pages that follow many of the things they have taught me. Camilla Macdonald and Jack Glynn provided invaluable research assistance, without which this book would not have appeared before we left the European Union. Finally, Leigh Mueller was a remarkably fast and ridiculously patient copy-editor. At Polity, grateful thanks to Louise Knight, who, from the first coffee in Pret, has proved relentless in both believing in the project and insisting that the manuscript was finished (more or less) on time.

We dedicate the book to our partners, Julia and Nicola, who, after all, have had to tolerate its intrusion in their lives for far too long.

Preface: That Was a Year, That Was

The lack of referendum was poisoning British politics, and I put that right.

David Cameron, April 20171

At 4.39 a.m. on Friday 24 June 2016, David Dimbleby appeared on our television screens to announce that the people of the UK had voted to leave the European Union. The British people had rejected the advice of their political establishment, of experts both foreign and home-grown. They had confounded academics and commentators alike by rejecting the status quo and voting for change.

The result generated plenty of hyperbolic comment. And hyperbole, was, unusually, not wholly out of place. This was, after all, the first state-wide referendum in which the electorate had rejected the advice of the government. It was described by the BBC’s Andrew Marr as the ‘biggest democratic rebellion in modern British history’.2

Politicians and pundits alike were taken by surprise. Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), had conceded defeat as the polls closed. And one of us was in a BBC radio studio to hear John Redwood effectively do likewise an hour or so later. Andrew Cooper, David Cameron’s pollster, had predicted a win for the Remain camp by 10 points on the day of the vote itself. Meanwhile, financial markets had blithely ignored the possibility of Brexit. Between the polls closing and the announcement of the result, the pound fell 10 per cent against the dollar – a slide larger than those that had accompanied both the financial crisis of 2008 and sterling’s departure from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992.

That the referendum was a defining moment in the political history of the country seemed clear enough at the time. On the morning of the result, a harried political editor of one of the quality broadsheets could be heard on College Green, opposite the Palace of Westminster, breathlessly proclaiming that ‘the Prime Minister has just resigned, and it’s only the third story on our website’.

David Cameron’s departure, moreover, was soon followed by a leadership challenge against the Labour leader of the opposition and the resignation of Nigel Farage as leader of UKIP. British politics was changing.

Mr Cameron’s successor in 10 Downing Street was quick to emphasize that she saw the Referendum as the beginning, not the end, of that process of change. From her first statement as Prime Minister, Theresa May made it clear that Brexit marked a break in our politics. Standing outside her new front door on 13 July, she declared her intention to make Britain ‘a country that works for everyone’, driven by the interests of those ‘just about managing’ rather than those of the ‘privileged few’. Launching her Plan for Britain in March 2017, she was more explicit still, remarking that the ‘EU referendum result was an instruction to change the way our country works, and the people for whom it works, forever’.

It was in part her desire to bring this about that led to her ill-fated decision to call a snap General Election for 8 June 2017. We all know what happened then. After a disastrous campaign, she squandered an overwhelming lead in the polls and ended up with a minority government in place of the slim majority that had so frustrated her. The outcome illustrated all too clearly that Brexit’s political impact was far from over.

Indeed, the potentially profound long-term implications of that Referendum are now clearer – albeit still profoundly indistinct – than they were in its immediate aftermath. There were signs, in that recent election, of a real ‘Brexit effect’ on our politics: in the higher turnouts witnessed in both strongly Remain and Leave areas; in the drama of constituencies making hitherto inconceivable shifts across the political spectrum; in the final sweeping-away of the relationship between social class and party politics established in the post-war period; in the return to a two-party system seemingly so redolent of that era.

Brexit has become the issue du jour. It has dominated news coverage since the Referendum to a remarkable degree. It still dominates many a dinner-party debate (we hear). And, of course, Brexit was virtually all the Prime Minister spoke about as, on 18 April, she announced her doomed attempt to strengthen her position as Britain’s Brexit leader.

And, as the negotiations over Britain’s exit from the European Union progress, there is little reason to believe that it will cease to shape our politics. Indeed, as these negotiations continue, and as the impact of leaving the European Union starts to become apparent, Brexit might – look away now if you are squeamish – come to dominate the political agenda even more than it already does.

Unsurprisingly for such a momentous event, the Referendum has already generated an outpouring of literary endeavours. From the self-justificatory (or self-exculpatory) memoirs penned by participants, to (occasionally) more sober and dispassionate analyses of the campaign written by observers, to the rare academic work that has appeared in what, for our profession, counts as a ridiculously short space of time,3 the Brexit bookshelves are groaning already.

What the non-academic works in particular have in common is a narrow focus on a small cast of characters over a limited period of time. The decision to leave the European Union is explained in terms of the events between February and June 2016, events dominated by a few larger-than-life political figures. For these authors, all that happened on 23 June is explicable in terms of the often bitter and frequently bad-tempered interactions between the key public figures involved in the campaign itself.

To his credit, Tim Shipman – whose account of the Referendum is, in our opinion, one of the best, and certainly the most exhaustive – concedes that probably not all the answers can be found via such a narrow focus. As he puts it, there is ‘a good case that four decades of euroscepticism, coupled with the Eurozone crisis and the mass migration from the Middle East, were more important than what happened in the campaign in determining the result’.4

We agree that the drivers of what happened are indeed long-term in nature. And, as we discuss in the chapters that follow, factors such as the Eurozone and migration crises clearly impacted on attitudes towards the European Union as the Referendum approached.

We also argue, however, that Brexit cannot be explained simply in terms of these attitudes. The Referendum, and the events that have followed it, can only be understood via a grasp both of the UK’s relationship with the EU and of more general developments in British politics over the last few decades. These include the broad convergence of the main political parties over matters ranging from the economy to a raft of ‘values’ issues; the consequent lack of mainstream political outlet for those outside this narrow consensus; increasing inequality and a lack of trust in political leaders; and a volatile electorate for whom parties no longer provided the kind of authoritative guidance they had at the time of the referendum of 1975.

None of these transformations concerned the EU per se, but they provided the context for a Referendum in which so many voted against the explicit advice of leaders, parties and experts. It is hard to underestimate the significance of a poll in which the majority of voters rejected the status quo in favour of an unknowable future.

And so our focus in this book is different from that adopted by most of the accounts published to date. This is not to say that the campaign was irrelevant, or that the roles of David Cameron, or Nigel Farage, or Boris Johnson were insignificant. Rather, our point is that the seeds of Britain’s decision were sown over a far longer period.

Space constraints mean we must be selective about what we cover. There are some big issues that we cannot deal with in a short book like this. Most obviously, we leave aside questions concerning the future of the United Kingdom. As far as Scotland is concerned, the June General Election abated the risk of a second independence referendum, but we are not silly enough either to discount the eventual possibility or to try to predict its outcome. And the same goes for the question of how Northern Ireland’s economy and, perhaps more importantly, its politics deal with the possible introduction of a ‘hard’ border between north and south. Nor do we have a great deal to say about the workings of the European Union itself. Brexit will doubtless impact upon the Union in myriad ways. We are not for a moment implying that these are neither interesting nor important, but they are not our focus.

In the final chapter, we consider how Brexit has already impacted upon our electoral politics and will continue to do so in months and years to come. Along the way, we express some opinions on what its impact on the country might be. But that is not our main concern. Those interested in what Brexit might mean in the years ahead could do worse than read the books by Ian Dunt and Daniel Hannan, which paint very different pictures of the UK’s post-EU future.5

This slim volume is primarily about how the shifting nature of British politics and the long-term evolution of Britain’s relations with the EU shaped the outcome of the Referendum, and what that outcome itself might mean for the future shape of our politics.

Our analysis will, we are sure, provide plenty of hostages to fortune. Many people are familiar with the conversation Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had with Richard Nixon during the latter’s visit to Beijing in 1972. When asked, so the story goes, about the impact of the French Revolution, the former is reported to have said it was ‘too early to say’. It turns out, however, that the tale is in part apocryphal. It would appear that the Chinese Premier was referring not to the events of 1789, but to those of May 1968.

Nevertheless, Zhou was lucky. He had had a full four years to mull over the meaning of what had happened in that tumultuous year. We, in contrast, are writing about events going on around us. An election was called between when chapter 3 was finished and chapter 5 was started. Events had us reassessing our argument until the submission of the final manuscript. Partly because of this, we are deliberately cautious when it comes to the future, and all too well aware that even our timid forecasts may have proven misplaced before this book hits the shelves.

All that being said, we firmly believe that this is an important and necessary undertaking. For one thing, understanding the roots of what happened in June 2016 is crucial if we are to grasp what its implications could and should be. For another, however early it may be, it is important to try to untangle what is happening to politics in our country, albeit in the knowledge that others with more time to reflect on these events will, in due course, be able to produce more considered assessments.

Britain and its politics are changing. They will change still more as the Brexit process unfolds and the full implications of leaving the European Union begin to make themselves felt. We are living through one of those rare moments when an advanced liberal democracy might be witnessing a profound and far-reaching political recalibration. Its impact will be felt in all parts of our country, our economy and our society. This is our contribution to an understanding of that change and its origins.

A final word on sources and style. Unless otherwise stated, the evidence on public opinion we deploy is drawn from the numerous surveys conducted by the British Election Survey (BES). For stylistic reasons, we have used the terms ‘United Kingdom’ and ‘Great Britain’ interchangeably, and we apologize for any offence this may cause. And, finally, while on the subject of offence, we have, very occasionally, quoted people whose language leaves something to be desired. This was not with a view to shock, but rather to give a flavour of the febrile politics of the country at this time. Neither of us, be assured, ever swears.