Bringing Europe's Leaders Together

The perfect storm

Britain’s vote for Brexit drew on three distinct factors – longstanding mistrust of the EU on the political Right and in the right-wing press, Labour’s unconvincing campaign for staying in, and failure to address immigration concerns – to create a potent anti-establishment cocktail, writes Michael Maclay

Three underlying factors came together to prepare the ground for the UK referendum’s apparently astonishing result. The decision for Brexit was also helped by a misplaced strategy at the heart of the Remain campaign.

First, a deep mistrust of British EU membership had haunted the political agenda of the Conservative Party and of the dominant right-wing press since the Maastricht Treaty of the early 1990s.  A full political generation later, the same accusations about rule from Brussels had lost none of their potency with these groups. David Cameron, who came into office promising that he would stop his party ‘banging on about Europe’, was the man who promised a referendum on the very principle of UK membership. After twenty years of being seen to pour vitriol on the EU and most of its works, it was not surprising that he could not turn around in four months the euroscepticism of the Right that had become entrenched in the Conservative party and the English shires over the preceding years.

The second underlying factor was more novel, a Labour Party failing to project the strong pro-European position it had built while the Conservatives turned against Brussels. Even though more than 90% of Labour Members of Parliament were for Remain, the party was led by a man in Jeremy Corbyn who was traditionally anti-European and whose approach to campaigning alternated between passive and eccentric. There was no strong signal to the Labour heartlands that voting Remain was of critical importance to them either in broad economic or political terms, or crucially, in assuring their standard of living. Cameron had been relying on this support to achieve a majority.

Most critically, the dominant policy issue in the referendum was immigration – in ways similar to the role it plays for populist movements from France and Germany to the Trump campaign in the US. Immigration had never figured in Cameron’s thinking about how a referendum might exorcise the demons in the Conservative Party. The very success of the British economy over the past five years has however brought a huge wave of EU economic migrants, mainly from Poland and Eastern Europe. Although most of them tend to return home, and they are still marginally outnumbered by non-European immigrants to the UK, this issue became toxic both in areas of high immigration, and also in less heavily populated parts of the country where it had totemic significance for voters of both Right and Left. The failure of Germany and the EU to cope with huge waves of immigrants across the Mediterranean last year and this has only made such concerns more vivid and disturbing.

Other issues naturally figured in the mix, from the cost of the UK contribution and the lack of democratic accountability in Brussels, to the crisis in the Eurozone and low growth rates across the EU. There was a strong element of anti-establishment, anti-Westminster, anti-elitism, again comparable to the Trump campaign, and underpinned by a strong class element in the cities and the Labour strongholds of the Midlands and the North of England. But immigration was the critical issue that the Remain campaign could not address. The line approved both in Downing Street, and by the old Blairites running the ground campaign, was to relativise the issue in saying that freedom of movement was the price to be paid for the economic benefits of EU membership.

From start to finish, the sharp point of the Remain case was to orchestrate the economic advantages to the UK. To this end, every national and international institution of note, from the Bank of England to the CBI and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, from the IMF to the G8, pitched in. This approach, dubbed Project Fear, became shrill. It fed the Leave campaign’s dismissal of experts and accusations that the dangers were being exaggerated. And above all, arguing only about the economy showed as clearly as could be that the Remain camp had nothing to say to answer the justified question about immigration from the Leave campaign. This was implicitly – and explicitly – their trump card. And in the event, it was decisive. 

Michael Maclay is Club of Three Steering Group Chairman and Executive Chairman of Montrose Associates, which provides strategic intelligence and advice to international corporations and governmental agencies.

Published in August 2016