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BREXIT: something of a political earthquake on June 23, 2016

Against expectations, a majority of British voters expressed a desire to leave the


European Union (EU), the association of 27 member states to which Britain had
belonged since 1973. As the first country to vote leave the EU, Britain has set a
startling precedent, and various departments and organizations are now running to
catch up.}

The vote for ‘Brexit’ (a popular portmanteau or ‘word merger’ of ‘British’ and ‘Exit’) is a
remarkably revealing moment in British history, and is an instructive opportunity to look
at modern British life, the issue of federalism and closer relations between countries,
and to try to unpick just why the British public voted as they did.

The Background

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, first promised a referendum on Britain’s
membership of the EU in 2013. Although he himself, and many of his closest
colleagues, are pro-European and would have preferred simply a renegotiated
relationship with the EU, the ruling Conservative party, of which he was leader, had
been riddled with division and infighting over the European question for decades.
Cameron saw the offer of an in/out referendum as way to calm the euro-skeptic wing
of his party and remove a painful political irritant.

Britain’s Problems with the EU

Geographically speaking, Britain appears to be on the edge of the continent, separated


from the remainder of the EU by the English Channel and North Sea. The only other
EU members which are islands are Cyprus and Malta. This is significant, and reflects a
long-standing sense in which the British have stood within Europe but apart from it in
important ways. Britain was the only combatant nation in Europe not occupied by Nazi
Germany, and even today, this and other historical strands set Britain apart from her
European allies. There has been a long history of euro-skepticism which feeds off
perceived major differences in character and lifestyle, as well as centuries-old disputes
over sovereignty, fishing rights, ancient battles, royal accession, and other (sometimes
apparently trivial) cultural matters.
The Modern British Outlook

Some people had become frustrated with the EU. It was seen
as monolithic, unresponsive, and above all bureaucratic. The public wondered just
what meaningful and positive contributions the EU had made to British life.

The referendum was, in many ways, adjudication on the rule of David Cameron as
Prime Minister. His controversial and deeply unpopular cuts to public services - a policy
known as ‘austerity’ - alienated and infuriated the working class in particular. They
believed that these cuts fomented inequality and denied opportunities to those living in
impoverished areas. Some of the most vehement ‘Leave’ votes were cast in areas
blighted by industrial decline, unemployment and poor education.

A central complaint was immigration. In many ways, Britain is a place of


contradictions. Alongside cherished values of tolerance and openness, there are
concerns that Britain is changing faster than its population would like, and that migrants
have failed to integrate. Many of Britain’s major cities have seen very visible and
wrenching changes in demographics as migrants from the Commonwealth of ex-
Empire nations, first the Indian sub-continent and Caribbean, Africa and Asia, and later
also from the EU, fundamentally altered the optics of the British high street. New
languages are spoken and new cultural trends practiced, all while older ‘British’
traditions are on the wane.

Many ‘Leave’ voters have angrily refuted allegations of racism, though the rhetoric of
the Leave campaign deliberately targeted those who believed Britain already hosted
too many migrants.

The Campaign

The very definition of ‘hard-fought’, the campaign by both sides to influence voter
opinion in the lead-up to the referendum dominated the media, as well as private
conversations and even church services. The ‘Leave’ campaign, headed most visibly
by the Conservative MP (and flamboyantly colorful character) Boris Johnson, made
extensive use of statistics and appeals to the emotions, assuring British voters that the
UK could flourish once the shackles of EU membership were released. The ‘Remain’
campaign, lead by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, listed the benefits of EU
membership, but failed to make a lasting emotional connection, or to convince voters
that the EU could play a positive role in their lives.
The Vote

Here’s the basic breakdown:

72.2% of all registered voters participated. This is close to a record turnout for a British
election of any kind.

51.89% voted to leave the EU but only 48.11% voted to remain (0.08% of votes were
spoiled or blank)

An analysis of the vote itself is very revealing. By a surprising majority, England voted
to leave the EU, as did Wales. However, Northern Ireland and Scotland did not, and
this immediately prompted fears of a constitutional crisis. Scotland had voted to remain
part of the UK as recently as two years prior, rejecting calls for independence, and this
debate was swiftly renewed after the EU referendum. It is now considered “highly
likely”, in the words of Scottish Nationalist politician Nicola Sturgeon, that Scotland will
be given a second opportunity to vote on leaving the UK, so that it can remain part of
the EU in the post-Brexit world.

The Impact

It was anticipated by pollsters, politicians, media figures, and virtually everyone


in the days before the referendum that the UK would vote to Remain. As it
became obvious that the British public was voting to Leave, the political implications
were swift. David Cameron, his vision for remaining within Europe now in tatters,
resigned and was replaced by Theresa May. A new government department was set
up to make Brexit arrangements, and a two-year clock began on negotiations with the
EU to extricate the UK from treaties, trade agreements and other trappings of its
EU membership.