Britain’s vote to leave the EU offers a lesson to all democratic leaders who consider calling a referendum: Think again!

referendum
A man with an EU flag, outside Downing Street in London, 24 June, 2016.
(REUTERS/Neil Hall)

By Alexander Nicoll

It sounds appealingly simple. Here’s a really important issue for the future of the nation. Let the people have their say! That will settle it once and for all.

But the example of David Cameron offers a lesson to all democratic leaders who consider calling a referendum. Think again!

Cameron tried to end a decades-old division within his own Conservative Party by putting the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union to the public vote. He argued for “Remain.”

Today, with the count showing a 52 percent vote for Brexit, he announced his resignation. Only a year ago, having won an unexpected majority in a general election, Cameron was riding high. Today, he is receding into history.

What went wrong?

First, you have to consider why the referendum was being held. There was in fact no popular clamor to quit the EU.

In truth, the British have never really felt comfortable as Europeans and had carved out a semi-detached status within the 28-member EU — exempt from the common currency, the euro, and from the continent’s border-free travel zone. But for years, opinion polls had consistently shown that EU membership was not one of voters’ major concerns.

The answer lies in internal party politics. The right wing of the Conservative party has always tended towards vocal Euroscepticism. It was the bane of John Major’s premiership in the 1990s.

When Cameron became prime minister in 2010, he did not have a strong position as party leader because he failed to win the election outright and was forced into coalition government — rare in Britain.

He was harried and threatened by his Eurosceptic right wing, and he feared the defection of Conservative members of parliament to the rising UK Independence Party (UKIP). He promised a referendum to appease them. It was an act of weakness, not strength.

The Brexit camp painted a patriotic vision of an independent country.

Second, Cameron opted to keep the status quo. In a referendum, the side that wants to change things has a much greater chance of mobilizing emotions. Remember Barack Obama and his promise of “change”?

The Brexit camp managed to paint an optimistic and patriotic vision of an independent, sovereign country forging its way in the world, instead of being ruled by faceless European bureaucrats. Never mind the facts, it was the emotion that counted.

The Remain side, by contrast, sent a negative message, that Britons would be worse off economically if they left the EU — dismissed as “Project Fear” by the Brexiteers. Reflecting Britain’s long ambivalence about Europe, most Remainers found it difficult to be passionate about Brussels.

Lesson two: if you call a referendum, make sure you can argue strongly for something positive, and capture people’s imagination.

The real underlying issue was immigration.

Third, there’s a real danger that a referendum, which offers a binary choice on one issue, will turn into a debate about much more than that specific issue. The real underlying theme was immigration — a hot-button issue in any country that people want to live in.

One in eight residents in the UK, or eight million people, were born outside it. Of these, five million were born outside the EU, but the biggest change in the past decade has been the rise in arrivals from eastern European members of the EU, especially Poland and, more recently, Romania and Bulgaria.

In London, a global city with a thriving economy, many voters do not see immigration as a problem. But the heavy voting in provincial England in favor of Brexit suggested that the Brexit camp was successful in stirring concerns about lost jobs and lower wages as a result of immigration. The Leave campaign’s harping on the this issue led to it being called “Project Hate” by London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan.

But the referendum ranged even more widely. The Brexiteers succeeded in turning it into a “people versus establishment” vote, in which they were supposedly representing ordinary people and the Remainers an out-of-touch elite. This attracted many traditional Labour voters to what was really a right-wing Conservative cause.

What had been Labour’s industrial heartlands in northern and middle England did not feel well served by politicians, with living standards not matching those in the bigger cities. Labour, with its leader Jeremy Corbyn delivering a weak, equivocal message in favor of Remain, lost many traditional voters to the Brexit camp and will now face a huge electoral challenge.

Jo Cox, a pro-EU member of parliament, was murdered.

Fourth, it gets ugly.

In the effort to mobilize support on what are complex issues about the EU, lies were told and steadfastly repeated. The Brexiteers, for example, misled voters about how much money the UK pays into the EU as its membership fee. Sober warnings about the consequences of Brexit, by estimable people and independent institutions, were rubbished as coming from a conspiracy of the elite.

Shame on the Leave campaign’s Michael Gove for likening economists to the Nazis. Now a senior cabinet minister, he was once an Oxford student and president of the Oxford Union debating society, and was then a senior journalist on the Times newspaper. But now his view is that “people in this country have had enough of experts.”

And during the campaign, a 41-year member of parliament, Jo Cox, was assassinated in the street. The mother of two small children was previously an aid worker and policy chief for Oxfam. She was strongly pro-EU.

The man accused of her murder gave his name in court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Her husband said he believed she had been killed for her political views. Although bitterly divided by the Brexit debate, members of parliament of all sides were united in their horror at this tragedy.

The fifth lesson about calling referendums is the one that Cameron has proved: You might lose. Cameron staked all his authority and his political legacy on a vote to Remain. He is not alone in putting his career at stake.

So too did Boris Johnson, the bluff former London Mayor, who became the de facto leader of the Brexit campaign and is now odds-on favorite to succeed Cameron. The referendum campaign might also spell the end for Labour’s Corbyn.

The vote, far from settling Britain’s future, has left it up in the air.

And finally, of course, a referendum will rarely end an issue once and for all. The Brexit vote will set in train years of negotiations on exit terms with other EU countries. Popular expectations of the next prime minister will be high on the Brexit side.

Meanwhile, the reaction of the financial markets — a plunge for the UK stock market and the pound — is an early indication of financial and economic problems ahead. People will want to revive the EU issue, and will perhaps call for another referendum once the negotiations are done. The referendum, far from settling Britain’s future, has left it up in the air.

And yet: a vote by 17.4 million people to leave (against 16.1 million to remain) cannot simply be dismissed as an aberration. Political mistakes may have been made, arguably including the calling of the referendum itself.

But the vote says something about Britain, and it says something about the EU. It will mark a historic turning point for both.


anicoll3Alexander Nicoll is a writer on defense and European issues. From 2003 to 2015, he was on the staff of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, where he was editor of the London think-tank’s annual review of international affairs. Previously he spent 18 years as a reporter and editor at the Financial Times, including as defense correspondent from 1997 to 2002. He began his career at Reuters as a correspondent in Hong Kong, Paris, Tehran and New York.

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