Why has Britain decided to leave the EU?

On 23 June 2016, Britain voted narrowly in favour of leaving the European Union. In the aftermath of this historic decision, we asked five historians to offer their opinions – about the causes of the Leave victory and what it might mean for the country's future

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The panel

Richard Overy is a professor of history at the University of Exeter who specialises in 20th-century international history, especially the Second World War.

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Dominic Sandbrook is a historian, writer and broadcaster who has presented a number of BBC TV series on postwar Britain, including a forthcoming history of the 1980s.

David Abulafiais professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge University. He is the leader of Historians for Britain, which argued for changes to Britain’s EU membership.

Helen McCarthy is a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London who works on modern Britain. She edits the journal Twentieth Century British History.

Kathleen Burk is emeritus professor of modern and contemporary history at University College London. Her interests lie in British and Anglo-American history.

Were you surprised by the result, and if so, why?

Richard Overy: I was not surprised as the result was always a strong possibility given the long history of populist hostility to Europe and the difficulty of finding a popular political language in favour of a European future. The narrow margin was also entirely predictable.

Helen McCarthy: I was surprised because I believed the ‘safety first’ argument of the Remain side would resonate in the final days of the campaign and pull undecideds towards Remain. I underestimated the strength of anti-EU sentiment, even in relatively affluent parts of England, such as Essex, Suffolk and Surrey where many stand to lose a great deal in the recession which almost inevitably will follow Brexit. The result confounds the familiar logic of ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ – which has fitted so neatly with the evidence of general elections in recent decades.

Do you see the Leave victory as more the result of short or long-term factors?

Dominic Sandbrook: Clearly it’s a bit of both. It was close, after all. One very obvious short-term factor, for example, is the fact that Labour had such an extraordinarily unconvincing leader, which nobody anticipated even a year ago. But I also think this has been a long time coming. Public discontent about immigration has been growing for 50 years; so has the alienation of large swathes of formerly industrial working-class England. And I think it’s crucial to remember that England has a very long history of distrust and even hostility towards its European neighbours. In a sense, and though I’m sorry it happened, the nation’s verdict on 23 June was simply a reversion to our default setting.

Kathleen Burk: In the long-term, Europe has frequently been an existential threat, from the French to the Germans to the Russians. During the Second World War, all othe countries in continental Europe, except Sweden, Spain and Switzerland, had been invaded, conquered and occupied; Britain had not, and faith in the state was not shaken.

Then in the medium-term the widespread anger arising from the democratic deficit and the volume of regulations became increasingly intolerable. As for the short-term: social and economic chaos and the threat of a surge of migrants were alarming. The desirable policies of the EU, such as funding, were taken for granted, while the undesirable were all too public.

David Abulafia: It’s a combination. The aggressive stance of the Remainers proved counter-productive – not that the Leave campaign always conducted itself wisely. The comments by Obama and others were also, I believe, counter-productive, not least because he won’t even be president when the UK leaves the EU.

But we are also looking at the release of pent-up anger after so many years during which the public was not consulted about ‘ever closer union’ and ‘the European project’. Jean-Claude Juncker bears heavy responsibility; his refusal to compromise or to introduce democratic reforms left the PM with insignificant concessions.

To what extent has Britain historically stood apart from continental Europe?

HM: Britain has been closely engaged in all the major events and turning points of 20th-century European history, from the two world wars and the creation and work of the League of Nations in between, to postwar reconstruction and, since the 1970s, the European project. Certainly Britain’s historic relationship with Europe has distinctive features, but that’s true of all member states to a greater or lesser degree.

I dislike arguments about how the English Channel, or victory in the Second World War, or the ‘special relationship’ with the US somehow makes it impossible for the British to feel truly European. Historians should use narratives to unpick complex processes of change and continuity in the past, not to shackle politics in the present and the future.

DS: Any historian will tell you that we have a long history of entanglement with the continent: the Angevin empire, the Glorious Revolution, and so on. Yes, yes, we know all that. But the plain fact is that Britain has a long-standing self-image as an exceptional country, a cradle of Protestant liberty. Is that just a myth? Maybe. But myths matter.

Perhaps even more importantly, we undoubtedly had an exceptional 20th century. Britain was the only major European country not to experience defeat, invasion, occupation, civil war or dictatorship. That meant that we had a unique attitude to the European project. Alone among the major European nations, we entered grudgingly and halfheartedly. Our neighbours hoped to escape their modern history. But many British voters saw no reason to join in the first place, because they had so few of those 20th-century scars.

RO: Britain has never stood apart from Europe and it is an illusion to believe that it ever has. Britain (earlier England) has always been a part of the European order and has waged war and made trade in Europe continuously. Influences – cultural, economic, technological, intellectual – have flowed both ways for centuries.

How far do you see the EU itself as having been responsible for Euroscepticism in Britain over the years?

KB: Europe and the UK are different. They have different legal systems, different business cycles, different approaches to languages, different political cultures, different assumptions about the state. The foundation for Euroscepticism was there, providing a strong base for an increasing dislike of unacceptable interference by unelected institutions.

DA: Very much so: the remote institutions of the EU, largely unaccountable, have generated Euroscepticism not just in the UK. The insistence on creating a ‘European identity’, based on a false notion that being European transcends national identities, has created an enormous backlash that has taken unpleasant forms, as in Hungary or France.

The British public, with its milder political temper, has by and large avoided extremist positions, but the EU is now paying the price of its extraordinary arrogance, combined with impenetrable bureaucracy and corruption. Moreover, the European Court has stamped on national parliaments and supreme courts.

RO: It is not the EU as such that has been responsible for Euroscepticism (a phenomenon by no means exclusively British) but the failure of national governments to make clear enough the nature of the union and the benefits derived from it, or to counter popular but ill-informed prejudice about the Union’s practices.

Why do you think the result this time was so different from the Remain victory of 1975?

KB: Forty years versus two years of experience.

DA: Joining a loose trading association was one thing; being part of an increasingly monolithic United States of Europe would be quite another, and the concessions won by the prime minister simply did not go far enough to meet the worries of the British public. Had he managed to position the UK within a new Europe built around the old idea of a common market, he would have won the support of the vast majority of voters.

DS: The answer’s very simple. Britain was at a low ebb in 1975, its confidence shattered after 10 years of terrible news. The empire had gone, the pound had been devalued; there had been five states of emergency in four years. Inflation was heading towards 30 per cent, and all the talk was of Britain being ungovernable. So Europe seemed a way out, a bulwark, even a panacea.

If we had been better off in 1975, though – if we had been a more united, confident, prosperous country – I suspect the vote would have gone differently. So perhaps it is only a slight stretch to suggest that Britain was always likely to reverse the 1975 referendum once it recovered its self-confidence.

How much do you think an awareness of history played a role in people’s voting decisions?

HM: Some older voters seem to have been influenced by what might be described as a ‘myth of betrayal’ surrounding the 1975 referendum. In other words, they believed that they had been misled by elites promising access to a single market rather than membership of a nascent European ‘super-state’, and this second referendum presented an opportunity to settle scores.

Some Leave voters also appeared to subscribe to a politics of patriotism rooted in a rather generalised but nonetheless historic notion of their nation’s ‘greatness’. This created fertile ground for Leave’s claim that the UK would thrive outside the EU, but barren soil for Remain’s more nuanced arguments about the merits of pooled sovereignty in an interdependent world.

DA: For some people, I don’t doubt, there was some romantic notion of recovering an Olde England characterised by village cricket greens and so on, but I don’t think it counted for much. The debate was about the future, which is uncertain, to put it mildly. The recent history of the EU – stagnant growth, a disastrous common currency, the Schengen crisis – was surely in some people’s minds, but it was strangely ignored in favour of vapid speculation about what ‘might’ or ‘could’ happen to the economy, security and so on.

RO: It is difficult to gauge this, and historians would like to think it did. It mattered less for the Remain camp, though there was some sense that union was a better future given Europe’s bloody past. It mattered more for the Leave campaign because it traded on the myths of 1940 and Britain alone against the European threat. This was, of course, a complete distortion. Alone, Britain had no prospect of winning the war. Moreover the war itself had been about saving Europe from fascism, a commitment that tied Britain more to Europe, rather than less.

KB: I cannot think that an awareness of history played much of a part: not even the Remain camp pointed out that the EU in its early guises was set up partly to balance and constrain Germany, bringing to an end 75 years of European civil war.

DS: History undoubtedly mattered a great deal. Not, curiously, the kind of history written by historians, but a version of history that’s very deeply embedded in the popular imagination – the island nation, standing alone against a succession of continental bullies. In many ways it’s a myth. But through our popular culture, as much as anything, it’s so tightly woven into many Britons’ sense of themselves that there’s probably nothing historians can do to shift it. People can write as many books as they like about our European inheritance or the ‘invention’ of our national identity, but you just can’t change a nation’s character and assumptions overnight.

How does this referendum fit into the history of British democracy?

HM: Direct democracy in the form of referenda has not featured prominently in Britain’s modern political history. To the contrary, popular plebiscites were generally regarded as the mark of immature polities not yet sufficiently advanced to practise the art of representative democracy – of which the British were the supposed masters.

Of course there is much Whiggish nonsense in this; arguably what this referendum has exposed is the lamentable state of political leadership in this country, which utterly failed to convey to voters the magnitude of what was at stake in a ballot of this kind. We’re witnessing the fallout of this failure in the regret subsequently expressed by many Leave supporters who didn’t think their vote ‘would count’.

DS: In democratic terms, there’s never been anything like it. Personally I think it was the worst campaign in our history, with both sides reaching a terrible low. What’s also true is that the electorate have probably never rebelled so overtly (if narrowly) against the massed ranks of the political and economic establishments. I don’t even think the Labour landslide of 1945 comes close. But the referendum also represents something that few of us have really come to terms with – the eclipse of the idea of representative parliamentary democracy by a kind of populist plebiscitary version.

Has a Leave vote shifted Britain’s historical trajectory?

KB: The Leave vote appears to have shifted Britain’s historical trajectory back to that of 1970: 1971–2016 appears to have been an aberration.

DA: It means we won’t be in at the kill when the EU disintegrates. Unless its leaders take the British vote seriously, recognising the strength of Euroscepticism across the Union, the EU is doomed. In the very long term, though, leaving the EU may well position the UK between the EU and the rest of the world, very much to Britain’s advantage as a trading nation. We have the chance to make connections across the globe that the EU has failed to pursue. So this is an opportunity that has to be seized enthusiastically.

DS: I think this is the biggest turning point in our modern political history. Not everyone will agree, but I don’t think the elections of 1945 and 1979 were turning points; I think the changes they unleashed were always coming. But this is different, a real lurch into the unknown. Half a century after Harold Macmillan made our first bid to join, Britain seems to have definitively turned its back on the European project. Never before has our political future been so utterly unpredictable, and never before has our national destiny seemed so uncertain.

HM: While some Leave supporters might welcome Brexit as a return to glorious isolation, in truth it marks a fundamental break with the liberal internationalist traditions present within British foreign policy throughout the century. Britain was a major architect of the League of Nations and a founding member of the United Nations, and, despite wavering levels of enthusiasm on the part of postwar British governments, has found in Europe a welcome source of global influence to compensate for the loss of its own superpower status.

In 50 years’ time, how will historians look back on this result?

RO: Historians will have many explanations for the outcome of the referendum, and a clear view of its consequences, which we lack. It is impossible to pre-judge, since historians are themselves deeply divided now over the issue. In 50 years’ time they are not likely to be less so.

HM: Assuming Brexit actually takes place, historians will look back at the EU referendum of 2016 as the moment when Britain slipped from managed into unmanaged decline in terms of her global influence and economic muscle. Even – or perhaps especially – if parliament finds a way to prevent it, the referendum will mark one of the ugliest and most divisive chapters in the history of British democracy. Unless the Labour party finds a way to renew itself, historians might be talking about 2016 as the year in which a fundamental realignment took place in British politics favouring the far right. I sincerely hope I’ve got that one wrong.

KB: I suspect that it will be looked back on as a dirty, dishonest, history-changing episode. Very few of the leading lights will have come out of it well.

DS: It’s genuinely impossible to say because it depends so completely on what happens next. That’s what makes it so uncertain, and at once so exciting and so terrifying. We just have no way of knowing what Britain’s future relationship with the EU will look like, or even what the economic impact will be. We don’t even know whether Britain will exist as a political unit. Sadly, I think there’s a good chance now that it won’t, and that historians will look back on 23 June as the day that the United Kingdom died.

DA: As another stage in the disintegration of the EU, coming on top of the failure of the Euro project and the mishandling of the very real refugee crisis. From that perspective, it is more a sharp tremor than an earthquake – one of a series of tremors whose effect will be cumulative. Even if we had voted the other way, disintegration would still be on the cards, though not quite so rapidly.

And how will history remember David Cameron as prime minister?

RO: He might well have been remembered as a reasonably successful premier, given the major problems the country has faced. But it seems inevitable that history will see him as the man who failed to stop the wave of populist revolt in Britain over Europe, and who may well have opened the way for the rest of the European right to follow suit.

HM: As Lord North is remembered for losing America, Cameron will take his place in the history books as the premier who unwittingly led us out of Europe and, in all likelihood, ensured the secession of Scotland from the UK. It’s hard to recall any notable achievements, except perhaps the legalisation of gay marriage, which come anywhere near mitigating Cameron’s car-crash decision to call a wholly unnecessary referendum.

DA: David Cameron has been a very capable politician, and at the peak of his career won considerable popularity. This was his big mistake politically – he didn’t expect to have to hold a referendum, because he didn’t expect his party to win enough seats to govern on its own. Then he miscalculated by not standing above the fray but throwing himself into bitter arguments that (on both sides) sometimes stretched the evidence and reason. So something of a tragic figure: a charismatic leader who gambled and lost.

KB: He is likely to have joined Neville Chamberlain in the hall of those politicians whose political careers ended in a huge and incontrovertible failure of a policy of national and international importance.

A lack of judgment, a lack of familiarity with the wider electorate and a focus on tactics rather than strategy did for him.

DS: I think that until 23 June, Cameron was a good, solid, moderate prime minister. Certainly he handled the economy far better that most people predicted. But even I have to face facts. Nobody is going to remember him for anything but the referendum. I’m genuinely sorry to say this, but in the space of a few hours Cameron plunged from a well-deserved place in the top half of the prime ministerial league table to an equally well-deserved one in the relegation zone. He joins Chamberlain, Eden and Callaghan as men remembered, perhaps unjustly, for just one word. In his case, not ‘appeasement’, ‘Suez’ or ‘strikes’, but ‘Europe’.

These answers were compiled by Rob Attar.

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This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine