The EU referendum and why the Brexiteers won

During the lead up to the UK referendum I was the firmest Bremainer amongst my peers. I still am. The benefits seemed obvious and I saw it as part of my broader belief that the world is better off when regions grow closer together rather than move further apart. Every business leader, world leader and official body seemed to be telling us that remaining in the EU was the right thing to do and although various prominent names endorsed the leave campaign, those of a greater significance were for remain. The common sense vote seemed to be for this. I am hugely patriotic but also believe in belonging to the larger collective. I am Welsh yet in a broader sense also British, and in a yet broader sense again I am European. This goes beyond geography and into personal identity. Thus my vote was always clear to me.

Less clear was how the British public was really thinking. Whilst the polls were close, bookmakers had the implied odds of leaving at around 25% on the evening before the referendum. The vote to break our existing ties with our European cousins surprised the bookmakers, financial market professionals, myself and many friends and colleagues here in London. However, many of those that live here are not fully aware of the issues facing those outside of it. Some might have some grasp of regional statistics including immigration, employment and housing but few have first hand experience of attitudes towards immigration, governance and sovereignty and how voters feel their lives have been directly impacted by the decisions of politicians regarding Europe. I feel that there was a disconnect between the way the remain argument was framed and the experiences of those who voted to leave. Many politicians and business leaders, living in a cocooned world, will not have had experiences like voters have, never having visited many of the places in the UK that voted to leave let alone having lived in them. Government can phrase the arguments in statistical terms, GDP and trade agreements but this means nothing compared to the personal experiences of voters.

Those working in big business in London may believe that remaining in the EU is better for their personal career paths and quality of life, but for those who live in places that voted to leave, such as Salford, Wigan and Bolton, the bigger-picture arguments paled in comparison to the experience of rapid changes to their local cultures and job markets. The feeling of a lack of control must have also driven voting behaviour. Certainly David Cameron’s settlement agreement with the EU back in February did not make us feel like we were in the driving seat and a distrust of politicians and a feeling of a growing rich-poor divide probably led many to vote against the status quo.

Arguments for remain were made by the Prime Minister, the President of the United States, the IMF and the Bank of England and various letters arguing to remain were signed by business leaders, healthcare professionals, scientists, university leaders and senior members of the security services and armed forces. After all of this it seems strange that we still voted to leave. However the leavers also had prominent names on their side too and had their own letter from business leaders to the Telegraph newspaper. But the number and quality of signatories did not seem to match up to the remainers. Why did the force of the remain advocates not carry enough weight to influence the eventual outcome? I don’t believe that as Michael Gove said “people in this country have had enough of experts” but people have had enough of rich people preferring a society that benefits them regardless of others.

Although there are nuances, the reasons for the outcome are not that complex. Of the 12 regions that voted, only three voted to remain: London, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Part of the rationale is that these regions have benefited strongly from trade with the EU. More insular regions have not. Devolved powers also help feelings of autonomy that the voters have whilst other regions feel forgotten by Whitehall and unseen by Europe. Older voters and the less qualified and lower earning wanted to leave whilst the younger, better educated and higher earning wanted to stay. Those that feel integrated wanted to stay whilst those that are threatened by the outside forces of Brussels voted accordingly. The government and the EU were complacent in neglecting a large proportion of voters, whilst newspapers with a wider distribution got behind the leave campaign, undoubtedly helping its momentum. As a wake up call, this was one that was justified it’s just unfortunate that this was one where the politicians had overslept.