Scepticism towards the European Union has always had a significant presence within the United Kingdom’s political landscape. Ever since the UK joined the EEC (the earlier formation of the EU) in 1973, there has been debate about potential withdrawal from the Community.
The UK already held in 1975 a first referendum about its membership to the EEC. Differently than in 2016, the referendum resulted in a heavy win for staying in: people considered the EEC to be of relevance in terms of economics, defence, international affairs, peace and conflict prevention with World War II freshly in mind. In the years that followed, however, discourse about the EU changed. Brussels’ bureaucracy and laws were increasingly considered to be a constraint to UK’s glory, longing back to the days of British exceptionalism and imperialism while the hard reality of Britain’s lost global power was painfully realised.
In the years prior to Brexit, people became more and more sceptical towards the EU. Concerns regarding British (political) sovereignty intensified and became among the most common arguments expressed by Brexiteers. People argued that the EU gained too much power over individual member states by the many regulations that overrule national law.
Moreover, the financial crisis of 2008 contributed as well to growing dissatisfaction for the Britons. Even though the UK chose not to join the common Euro currency, seeing the EU perform so badly in the aftermath of the crisis made the UK government cautious about further integration.
On a more emotional base rather than on political and economic grounds, immigration formed a third major argument for the UK to distance itself from the EU. One of the most prominent pro-Brexit advocators and – at that time – leader of the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, often argued that waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were responsible for keeping wages down in the UK. Brexiteers would argue for a more rational and more selective immigration system to simply reduce the overall amount of immigration to the UK.
Farage, who became known as ‘Mr. Brexit’ due to his strong pro-Brexit stance, made tremendous progress in the UK, leading UKIP to a significant breakthrough in the UK’s European Parliament elections in 2014 when the party received the greatest number of votes, gaining 11 seats. David Cameron, Prime Minister at the time, found himself under pressure due to increasing Euroscepticism within his own Conservative Party, among the public and UKIP’s growing political presence and electorate. Fearing that the Conservatives would lose more ground, Cameron promised to hold a referendum on whether the UK should remain or leave the EU if his Conservative Party would win the elections in 2015.
Some argued that Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum was an extremely dangerous move, gambling with the future of both the UK and the EU for the sake of his Conservative Party. On the contrary, others – taking into consideration the political landscape – argued that Cameron was left no choice but to give in to the political and democratic pressures.
What followed after the victory for the Conservatives in 2015 was an intense period of pro-Brexit and pro-EU campaigning, dividing the UK between ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’. And so it happened that on 23 June 2016, ‘Brexit’ was decided with 51,9 per cent of the votes in favour of leave. Geographically, England, except for the London area, and Wales saw a majority in votes for leave whereas Northern Ireland and Scotland voted overwhelmingly for remain. In terms of demographics, 73 per cent of the voters between the age of 18-24 backed remain whereas only 40 per cent of the voters over the age of 65 was in favour of the UK staying in the EU. These statistics indicate how strongly divided the UK was about Brexit and how the ‘United’ Kingdom is perhaps no longer such a united entity.