Brexit: The referendum that should never have been
We have had nearly a week to soak in one of the most significant political events this country has experienced since WWII, yet still it seems that parts of the country remain frustrated and bitter at the result, and our leaders are no closer to working out the next step. Though we should respect the democratic outcome, all the uncertainty and crises could and should have been avoided. A referendum on the UK’s membership to the European Union was a political gamble, one David Cameron should have known he was likely to lose.
Cast your minds back to early 2015, when the British General Election campaigning was in full swing. Europe had been rocked by a crippling debt crisis and conflict in Syria and elsewhere had meant an unprecedented amount of refugees were coming into Europe. Immigration rose and for many countries their economies were still suffering from the worst financial crisis since the 1920s. Despite Britain being one of the faster growing economies in Europe, income inequality was at its worst levels for some decades under the Conservative government’s austerity packages. The perfect recipe for euro-scepticism.
This was evident in the rise of Nigel Farage and UKIP who, like many populist right-wing politicians in Europe post-financial crisis, had been riding the wave of xenophobic and anti-establishment sentiment as people look for something to blame. In the UK, like across the rest of the continent, this was at the expense of the traditional, major parties: Conservatives and Labour (and in some small part, the Liberal Democrats).
This did not sit well with the incumbent Conservative government who feared another five years of coalition would wane their support. As a right-wing party, many of their politicians and supporters would sit in the euro-sceptics camp. To appease them and stop them from disaffecting to UKIP, David Cameron took a political gamble. One that he would later come to regret.
Mr. Cameron promised to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the European Union in a 2013 speech. One way to do this was to hold an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership with the EU should his party win the next election. With such a promise he could maintain all the euro-sceptics support for him and his party, whilst also reducing the persuasive power of the populist right and Mr. Farage.
At first it seemed that the gamble paid off. Cameron’s Conservative Party defied all the opinion polls and won 330 seats, a majority. Farage’s UKIP gained support in many regions but failed to win many seats and with a re-negotiated position in the EU, David Cameron was sure Britain would vote to Remain. However, on the 23rd June Britain voted to leave the EU, and by the next day David Cameron announced that he would be resigning as Prime Minister following his failed attempts in persuading the British public to vote Remain in his referendum.
Britain has always been a little sceptical of its neighbours on the continent, but a salient voice to leave the EU has never before got off the ground. So why now did 52% of us vote to leave?
Despite recent articles suggesting that many didn’t actually know why they voted to leave, or “didn’t actually think it would happen” and now want to change their mind, there are very serious and deeply rooted reasons to why many voted to leave the EU. Reasons that David Cameron knew full well, especially since him and his party were responsible for perpetuating them.
Between 2000 and 2014, the UK is the only country in the G7 to report rising wealth inequality, most poignant is that it rose four-times faster after the crash, four out of six of those years headed by a Conservative-led coalition dedicated to reducing the deficit through spending cuts rather than tax increases.
Despite rises in employment, the OECD reports that as productivity in the UK has failed to grow, wages remain stagnant and those of lower-income households risk poverty. Couple this with a systematic dismantling of the social security and welfare system and the poor really have drawn the short straw and probably have a right to be dissatisfied.
The vote to leave was a protest. Amongst all those sceptical of Europe were those who wanted to stick the metaphorical two-fingers up to the establishment, and whether they knew it or not, this meant voting against the establishment that was telling them to vote Remain.
Though much of the fracas post-referendum has focused on the age of voters, when we compare the average income of regions against where the highest proportions of Leave voters were we see another picture. The majority of regions have marginal victories for Leave. However, those with the highest proportions, for example Boston (75.6%), Hartlepool (69.9%), and Kingston upon Hull (67.6%) all have average incomes below £20,000 per employee, and also have some of the highest unemployment rates in Britain. On the other hand, places with low proportion of Leave votes, for example London, Cambridge (26.2%), and Oxford (29.7%) are the wealthiest areas in the UK.
The actual effects of the referendum are still yet to be seen. However, with the largest decline in the value of the pound since 1985 and £120bn being wiped off the FTSE 100 when trading opened the morning of the 24th June, many fear the worst. Whatever the effects, they were not ones that could be predicted or understood by your average voter during a campaign dominated by fear mongering on both sides. Were we really qualified to vote on such a complex issue?
The referendum regarding the UK’s membership was therefore a poorly calculated, selfish, political gamble by Mr. Cameron that has ultimately cost him his job. Not only were we not qualified to vote, but it became a platform for protest, a popularity contest for the Conservative government – one in which they sowed the seeds of their own defeat.