Why did the British people ultimately vote for the withdrawal from the EU in the Brexit referendum of 23 June 2016? And what roles did the campaigns play in the process?
It is not that easy to explain. Have a look at the campaigns and their effects for a start. Then focus on the correlation and impact of knowledge and information on political decision-making processes. These steps should allow you to answer the opening questions.
This is not very polite.
Scrutinising the claims by the Leave Campaigns one might easily get the impression that some Brexit proponents failed to play fair: Some of their claims were simply false, others were misleading or consciously playing with the fear of the British people. For example the fear to lose their jobs to immigrants was addressed. Sometimes the arguments were even openly xenophobic.
It would be easy to denunciate the Brexit proponents because they deceived the British people and influenced them on an emotional level. It would be similarly easy to present the Brexit opponents as honest losers in return. However, the representatives of the Remain campaign made use of the British people’s fears – the former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, warned against the fanning of very old quarrels in Europe in case Great Britain left the EU, for instance. Instead, he could have illustrated the positive effects and advantages of the EU membership for Great Britain.
The opponents as well as the proponents of the Brexit tended to argue on an emotional level and instil fears during the campaigns. The politicians of both camps used half-truths and sometimes even lies instead of relying on facts and rational arguments.
What do the figures tell us?
Statistics concerning the Brexit referendum tell us that especially older people and those with rather low levels of educational attainment voted for the withdrawal from the EU. The figures, however, do not tell us why they did. One theory is that these citizens get less from the economic and cultural advantages of an EU membership, for example the duty free access to the EU Single Market or the EU citizens freedom to chose freely where to live and work. Thus, they do not benefit from the EU’s advantages to the same extent as other people. Additionally, they have more reasons to see their jobs threatened by immigration from other EU member states as younger Brits or those with higher educational attainments.
Wait a Moment! The British People Needed to be more informed, right?
A referendum like the Brexit referendum serves the function of getting the people’s opinion on a specific issue prior to important political decisions. What seems to be a laudable and democratic idea actually has a substantial downside to it: Most citizens are political laypeople. That is to say, they have to rely on the professional assessment of leading politicians when forming an opinion about the subject at issue. A political decision – no matter who takes it – should be based on a consideration of all the factors and on the individual’s conscience. The better citizens are informed about the basics of the decision the easier it is for them to scrutinise politicians’ claims or the media presentation. People having an idea of what the EU is, what it is composed of and which advantages as well as disadvantages an EU membership entails, are not that likely to be deceived by misleading claims and misinformation. This results in them making more objective decisions.
No Knowledge Gaps – No Problem?
Of course, knowledge is an important prerequisite in making major political decisions. Arguing that British people would have voted differently if they had been appropriately informed in advance, however, implies not taking seriously their worries, fears, and opinions. Opinion polls show that the British people stays divided concerning the planned withdrawal from the EU; nobody can say for sure if the final vote would be different from the 2016 result.
If one wants to explain why the British people voted for Great Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, one should not look exclusively at the snapshot regarding the British people’s attitudes towards the EU and Europe. Great Britain’s relation with the EU and Europe is a rather peculiar one due to historical and societal reasons. This is why the emotional campaigning fell on good soil, since it took on pre-existing opinions and concerns and even fortified them. Regardless of the assessment of the referendum’s result – it shows that there is no strong, positive idea of Europe united by the EU by the majority in Great Britain. Neither is there a future vision of a continuously improving EU which is worth investing time, money and nerves for being part of it, and primarily: co-deciding its future proceedings.
Niedermeier, Alexander; Ridder, Wolfram (2017): Das Brexit-Referendum. Hintergründe, Streitthemen, Perspektiven. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien.
Treib, Oliver (2018): Wenn der Geist einmal aus der Flasche ist. Das Brexit-Referendum und die Politisierung der EU in Großbritannien. In: Anders, Lisa H; Scheller, Henrik; Tuntschew, Thomas (Hg.): Parteien und die Politisierung der Europäischen Union. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien.
Assignments: (Learning speed duo):
Read the text carefully and highlight essential statements. Note down briefly important correlations using your own words. Keep the following questions in mind:
Which features characterise the campaigns of the Brexit proponents as well as the campaigns of the Brexit opponents? (strategies, procedures) Hint: The cartoon refers to one of the tactics of the campaigns.
Which role do knowledge and information play in political decisions? When you are finished show it by standing up and going to the „corner of answers“ and find a partner who is already finished.
Clarify if there are any questions and explain to one another how you answered the questions (assignment 1).
Think together about how you would answer the questions asked at the beginning of the text. Give reasons for your answers.