On Friday, at exactly 6am British Standard Time it was officially confirmed that the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union (EU) by a 52 to 48 percent margin. The liaison between UK and EU, which lasted a total of 42 years, 5 months and 24 days, were uneasy to begin with and never conducive to a long-term stable relationship.
Even before it decided to join the European Economic Community (fore-runner of the EU) on 1 January, 1973, the UK has had a long tradition of love-hate relationship with Europe. Though a referendum held in 1975, to ascertain whether the UK should continue to remain in European Communities, received a 67 percent 'Yes' vote, many among those who favored a union did so either reluctantly or for limited economic outcomes. Friday's result confirms that many of those same voters, now in their early 60s, who voted to remain in the EC in 1975, have decidedly turned their back on Europe. Decades of ambivalence and skepticism appears to have coalesced into disenchantment, suspicion and downright hostility towards the EU.
Once detailed breakdown of votes are made, it will probably show that it was older voters who clinched the campaign in favor of the Leave side, especially in rural areas. This might seem an overly simplistic argument. No doubt there were a large number of young voters who chose to vote for Brexit, but voting statistics show that older people turn out to vote in larger numbers (78% of those aged 65 and over voted in the 2015 elections, as against 43% among the 18 to 24 age group). Moreover, support for Brexit was significantly higher among those aged 55 and over, with three out of every five saying they wanted to leave the EU; obviously this was the age group that had experienced more and suffered longer the downsides of a union with the continent.
But generational gap was just one of the factors that eventually led to the UK dissolving its marriage with the EU. Over the coming days and weeks poll analysts, politicians and academics will throw in their lengthy diatribes on what they believe led the majority to vote for Brexit. Anxiety about immigration, fear of globalization and traditional mistrust of city folks by rural people, will all be cited as reasons for contributing to the close, yet conclusive, victory for the Leave side.
However, there are some factors that may not appear so apparent but which nevertheless contributed to the Leave vote. For starters, trust in politicians of all color, already at a low level, was further undermined during the campaign. Politicians from both sides were discredited for mouthing blatant lies or twisting truths; campaign leaders were accused of brandishing biased warnings about the economy or immigration.
With their credibility at all-time lows, the politicians’ miss-or-hit utterances were for the most part disregarded, but some did manage to gain traction with the public. For instance, the Leave side’s assertion that by exiting the EU, the UK would have up to £350 million a week extra to spend on the National Health Services lacked veracity, but nevertheless grabbed attention. Though the figure was described as potentially misleading by the UK Statistics Authority, and denounced by campaigners on the Remain side, it gained traction as it was bold, easy to understand and resonated with many voters.
On the other hand, the Remain group's attempts to warn people that they would be poorer if they left the EU, failed to convince ordinary voters, and, even if they were convinced, many appear to have stoically decided that it was a price worth paying.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s rhetoric, which helped him win the last two referendums in the past 10 years, was clearly not slick enough to convince voters this time round. The concessions he managed to wheedle out of the EU after nine months of negotiations were dismissed as being irrelevant or modest at best. Similarly, Labor MPs and their leader Jeremy Corbyn, who overwhelmingly supported the Remain camp, appeared to have lost touch with their supporters and badly misjudged the mood of voters in working-class communities.
Also, the public seem to have discounted the overwhelming support for the Remain campaign from an alphabet soup of local and international institutions. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), all warned about dampened economic growth, rampant unemployment and a plummeting pound, if the UK left the EU.
The Bank of England spoke about an impending recession and, in the last days of the campaign, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, came out saying that he would be forced to increase income tax and cut spending for essential services in case of a Brexit. Even President Obama chipped in to suggest that exit from EU would see UK go to the "back of the queue" in terms of securing a trade deal with the US. However, none of these weighty notes from individuals and institutions managed to sway the majority of voters and Leave campaigners were quick to ridicule these statements as nothing but scaremongering by wealthy elites and vested interests.
Immigration was another trump card (no irony intended) along with sovereignty and a wider sense of pride in national and cultural identity, which the Leave side managed to play often and quite successfully throughout the campaign. This call for protection from outsiders appears to have come across strongly with a public already wary from viewing online and TV footage of hordes of immigrants arriving on beaches and borders across Europe.
None of these reasons one their own would have been enough to gain a Leave victory, but taken together they appear to have had a cascading effect. Politicians and leaders may have desired different outcomes, but in a democracy ultimately it is the people who decide the kind of country they want to have. And, in this referendum the British people appear to have decided.