Revisiting Brexit: Why did Brits Vote Leave?

by Arnav Singh

On January 31st, 2020, the United Kingdom left the European Union, 47 years after joining the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community. Even six months later, the ordeal is far from over, with intense negotiations still underway.

The UK has now entered a transitional period set to end on 31 December 2020, during which the UK and the EU will have to negotiate a trade deal - otherwise, the consequences for the UK's economy will be catastrophic.

The decision to leave has caused the resignation of two Prime Ministers and has triggered three general elections in four years, which begs the following question: how did the UK end up in such a mess?

Before we delve into the immediate causes, it’s important to point out that the UK never completely took to European Integration the way the other members of the European Union did: always prioritizing its independence and sovereignty, it had opted out of major EU integration initiatives.

For example, the UK chose not to join the Schengen Area (26 nations that have adopted a common visa and have simplified their border control policies), and also opted out of joining the Eurozone, under which 19 countries in Europe formed a monetary union through adopting a common currency and monetary policy.

The Brits voting to leave the EU can be put down to four main reasons:

  1. migration,

  2. the 2008 recession and the Eurozone debt crisis,

  3. issues over national sovereignty, and

  4. an effective campaign run by politicians persuading Brits to vote leave.


In 2004, ten Eastern European countries - Hungary, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Malta, Estonia, Poland, Latvia, Slovenia, Lithuania, and Slovakia - joined the EU. Over the next four years, 932,000 migrants entered the UK from Eastern and Southern Europe, taking advantage of the EU’s single market, which enabled - and continues to enable - factor and asset mobility, thereby allowing EU citizens to move and work in any of the member-countries.

The role played by the EU in this phenomenon is confirmed by the fact that between 1991 and 2003, the UK only saw an average annual inflow of 61,000 migrants from Europe.

The Financial Crisis

Unfortunately, the 2008 financial crisis hit the UK especially hard, with unemployment rising more than 3% and households facing income losses. This fueled a growing feeling of resentment against EU migrants amongst Brits, who accused them of causing increased competition for jobs and bringing down wages, and the financial crisis made matters worse. Sociologist Kenneth Plummer summed this up in his Scapegoat Theory.

According to the Scapegoat theory, a continued economic decline may lead to an increased feeling of group threat, wherein people become increasingly skeptical of economic competition from immigrants over resources and jobs.

Support for the right-wing populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and its rather eccentric leader, Nigel Farage, grew amongst the elderly and the unskilled youth during this time, who were employed in low-paying jobs. UKIP had been advocating for the UK to leave the EU since 1993.

Nigel Farage, UKIP Party Leader.

The Eurozone Debt Crisis

The Eurozone debt crisis was a complicated issue that has been subject to deep analysis in recent years. Essentially, it was caused by the inability of 5 countries in the Eurozone - Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Portugal - to pay back bondholders due to rising budget deficits, as well a fall in revenues and slow economic growth, which left these countries at the risk of default.

The European Central Bank failed to foresee the crisis and their response to it was slow since a bailout rescue package required the approval of all Eurozone member states. Seeing the ensuing chaos, Eurosceptics branded the EU as an inefficient organization.

This crisis also gave fuel to the other causes of the British decision to leave the EU - as unemployment in these nations rose, workers took advantage of the single market to go and find jobs in wealthier Northern EU countries such as Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. The UK witnessed a surge in the influx of immigrants from Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. By 2015, the number of EU born migrants living in the UK skyrocketed to more than 3 million.

The situation was capitalized by right-wing eurosceptic parties to gain popularity in mainstream British politics, who built rhetoric around the diminishing control of British Government in matters such as asylum, and argued that the Government had handed over too much of its power to the European Union.

Political Influences

By 2012, there was growing pressure on the British Prime Minister David Cameron from within his own party to declare a referendum on leaving the EU in his campaign manifesto. This pressure manifested from concerns over how some voters were switching allegiance to UKIP, as well as the influential presence of eurosceptics within his own party.

In 2013, Cameron succumbed to the pressures and promised a referendum if the Conservative Party was voted back into power. To no-one’s surprise, the Conservatives won the election, thrusting David Cameron back in the helm as Prime Minister. At first, the UK tried to renegotiate a new deal with the EU, successfully reducing the monetary contributions the UK made to the EU but this was not enough for the public.

Consequently, it was decided that a referendum would be held on 23 June 2016, offering citizens the simple choice of whether or not to leave the EU. Factions emerged within the Conservative Party, with many MPs in favor of leaving, despite the Cabinet’s position in favor of remaining in the EU.

The Vote Remain campaign was led by David Cameron himself, with support from the leaders of several prominent political parties, including Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Vote Leave campaign was led by former London Mayor and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson and UKIP party leader Nigel Farage.

A driving factor behind the Vote Leave campaign was “taking back control”, meaning that the UK should make its own decisions rather than work in accordance with the policies proposed by European Commission, which many saw as an undemocratic body, since its members were elected by the European Council in consultation with the European Parliament.

Boris Johnson also propagated the idea that exiting the EU would open up new opportunities for the UK to pursue new trade deals with non-EU countries and open the doors to the world.

Nigel Farage argued that it would be impossible to control the number of migrants entering the UK should they remain in the EU, stressing upon how immigrants were depressing the wages of British nationals.

The Leave campaign was efficient in delivering its message to the masses, with Boris Johnson going so far as to drive a red bus in London bearing the slogan “We send the EU 350 million pounds a week, let’s fund the NHS instead.”

On the other hand, the Vote Remain campaign, instead of countering the claims of the Leave campaign on immigration, the economy, and sovereignty focused on spreading awareness over the economic risk of leaving the EU. What they did not realize was that the public tied economic prosperity to the very issues paraded by the Leave campaign.

As a result, 51.9% voted to leave the European Union, ushering in a new era in British politics and leading the country into unchartered waters. The following day, David Cameron announced his resignation. Ultimately, despite the Remain camp repeatedly warning people over job losses and contraction of the economy, they failed and lost the referendum.

Many factors were at play, but it cannot be denied that the Remain camp ran a weak official campaign. They were slow to refute the false claims run by the Leave campaign, and eventually, people started believing that 350 million pounds were sent to the EU each week. Additionally, the campaign was slow to catch on to the frustration of working-class British citizens towards migrants.

Home Secretary Theresa May became the new Prime Minister on 13 July 2016, after winning the Party leadership contest. She invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which details the procedure for a country to leave the EU.

Theresa May then decided to hold a snap general election on 8 June 2017, hoping that the Conservative Party would win a majority of seats, making it easier for her to pass a deal with the EU in Parliament. The results were surprising. The Conservatives not only lost the majority but won fewer seats than they had had before.

“May’s reputation crashed, arguably faster than any other in modern British political times,” said the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. After failing to pass her Chequers Plan (a white paper detailing the UK and EU’s future relationship) three times in Parliament, May resigned on 24 June 2019, offering a teary farewell.

Boris Johnson won the Tory (Conservative Party) leadership contest. After a deadlock in Parliament over Boris’s withdrawal bill, he made a gamble by calling another general election. The results left everyone stunned: the party won 364 seats, pulling the largest victory the Tories have seen since Margaret Thatcher’s election back in 1987. Delivering on his word, Boris passed his withdrawal deal in Parliament and got it ratified by the European Union. The UK formally left the EU on January 31, 2020.

The UK is now just six months away from the transition period deadline on 31 December 2020 before which it must negotiate a new trade deal with the EU. Naturally, the process has been stalled by COVID -19. It remains to be seen whether the UK will extend the transition period to negotiate a deal, which at this time seems very unlikely.

Many in the European Union are unwilling to grant Britain further concessions and, in my opinion, a no-deal scenario seems imminent.


Go to our new site