Why Britain voted to leave the EU — A book review

On 23 June 2016, the British electorate has been asked to vote on the United Kingdom membership to the European Union for the second time in the post-war period. This referendum is the last example in a long list of popular consultations on EU Treaties and agreements among member states as well as on EU membership among candidate countries since 1972. However, it is the first successful attempt for a long-standing member states to withdraw from the EU. The referendum campaign took the main stage of British and European political debates and its outcome generated domestic political turmoil and literally shocked the international community. Undoubtedly, “Brexit” represents the most challenging moment in the process of European integration so far. It has opened a period of uncertainty regarding the relationship between the UK and the EU and, more in general, the future of the EU project.

The first attempt so far that draws on a wealth of aggregate- and individual-level data to investigate in a holistic fashion each of several steps that led the UK towards voting “Leave” in the referendum

The relevance of a multifaced event

Given the saliency of this event, several books have already started to focus on Brexit, exploring in particular the mounting Euroscepticism that has characterized the recent British history and represented a fertile ground for the vote for leaving the EU as well as the individuals and groups that have shaped the referendum campaign. However, the Clarke, Goodwin and Whiteley’s volume is the first attempt so far that draws on a wealth of aggregate- and individual-level data to investigate in a holistic fashion each of several steps that led the UK towards voting “Leave” in the referendum. Studying the determinants of Brexit is particularly relevant for two main reasons. First, it helps us understand better which dynamics lie at the basis of voting behavior in referendums. This kind of consultations represents the most important institution of direct democracy and governments increasingly rely on it to take decisions on various issues. Not surprisingly, European Union is the most voted on issue in the world. Second, investigating the determinants of Brexit allows scholars to study those factors that drive an actual voice manifestation of public opposition to the European integration, rather than mere attitudes.

Investigating the determinants of Brexit allows scholars to study those factors that drive an actual voice manifestation of public opposition to the European integration, rather than mere attitudes

Brexit. Why Britain voted to leave the European Union” presents several strengths that makes this volume the most relevant study aiming to investigate causes and consequences of Brexit published so far. First, the authors — Harold, D. Clarke, Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley — are all experts and leading scholars in British politics and electoral behavior. The stature of the authors is reflected by what is the strongest added value of the book, namely the large amount of original survey data they used and the methodologically rigorous empirical analyses employed to test their arguments and research hypotheses. Clarke and his colleagues relied on data on public opinion and political behavior gathered from national representative surveys conducted virtually every month from April 2004 to the time of the referendum in June 2016. The June 2016 survey moreover has the important advantage to have a panel design that allows the authors to tap their opinions before the referendum and their voting behavior right after it.

To make a careful investigation of the determinants of Brexit, the authors adopted an historical perspective that, whenever possible, draws parallels with the 1975 referendum on the UK membership to the EU

Besides this impressive bulk of data in itself, the authors made use also of an original survey of nearly 15,000 UKIP members and of another poll conducted in late September 2016 to evaluate whether and how Britons changed their mind in relation to their previous voting choice. Furthermore, results of statistical analyses are supported by numerous qualitative inspections of politicians and experts’ opinions taken from newspaper, public debates, political speeches and interviews. To make a careful investigation of the determinants of Brexit, the authors adopted an historical perspective that, whenever possible, draws parallels with the 1975 referendum on the UK membership to the EU. Finally, authors claim to address to an audience broader than the academic community, which also includes politicians and journalists.

A holistic approach

The book begins outlining the context in the period that preceded the referendum. The authors examine the background to the campaign analyzing in particular the public mood present in the country and the role played by David Camerons’ renegotiations of the terms of EU membership. Then, they illustrate the competing narratives offered to voters by the Remain and Leave blocks. Once the authors set out the scene, the book turns to investigate trends in public support for the EU membership since 2004. Investigating what is behind the volatile support for the EU expressed by British voters overtime allows the authors to understand why the country went on to vote for Brexit. The following part of the volume focuses on the rise in popular support for UKIP and its success in 2014 European Parliament elections and 2015 British elections. With this analysis the authors show how the rise of UKIP brought issues of Europe and immigration on the forefront of the political debate. Chapters 7 and 8 are the most relevant part of the book. The first one includes a rigorous empirical analysis of the drivers of support for the Leave vote that shows how this can be explained by a mix of self-interested calculations, emotions and partisan cues. The second one focuses on the long-term economic and political consequences of Brexit by examining some potential scenarios. The detrimental effects of Brexit, the authors conclude, have been probably exaggerated both by the media and by the leaders of the Remain campaign. Finally, the book concludes with some interesting analyses based on a survey carried on in the late September 2016 that investigates whether voters have changed their mind.
 The book, however, is not free from weaknesses and gaps that further research could aim to fill. The weakest point of the volume is the lack of survey data on public attitudes towards the current negotiations between the UK and the EU, their potential outcomes and the future relationship that the UK will establish with both the EU institutions and the other member states. Considering that the withdrawal from the EU by a member state is an unprecedented event, the invocation of the Art. 50 of the Treaty of the European Union by Theresa May represents a leap in the dark. However, right after the outcome of the referendum several scholars and analysts hypothesized different potential scenarios that have been summarized by the vague, but still quite efficacious dichotomy between “soft” and “hard” Brexit. The book would have strongly benefited by an analysis of the answers that respondents could have given to one or more questions on these potential scenarios. Furthermore, the most relevant strength of the volume could also represent a weakness. While the large amount of data and quantitative analyses employed by the authors to test their arguments is remarkable for the main scientific purposes of the book, it could be a limit when they address a non-academic audience.
 That said, Brexit remains the most relevant study published so far on this pivotal event that will strongly shape British and European politics in the very next years. In particular, the broad and robust empirical analysis employed by the authors to investigate which factors drove the Britons’ decision to vote for leaving the EU represents an important complement to the voting behavior and EU support literatures and constitutes a landmark for further research on public opinion dynamics underlying Brexit.


Photo Credits CC shalom adamina


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Originally published at EuVisions.

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