Reassessing the Brexit battleground

Written by Henry Goodwin on . Posted in Current events, Current features, Events, Features

It was a snowy weekend in London, but that did not stop Prime Minister Theresa May from basking in an unfamiliar glow: success. After a week of to-ing and fro-ing between Downing Street and Brussels, May emerged triumphant from a hastily-arranged breakfast with Messrs. Juncker and Barnier on December 8th, a Brexit divorce bill and the all-clear to begin negotiating a trade deal with the EU in hand.

The week preceding her eventual success was anything but plain sailing. May had thought she had solved the thorny issue of the Irish border as early as December 4th, only to find her efforts stymied by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose votes prop up the prime minister’s fragile majority in the House of Commons. That did not sit well with Juncker, who reportedly chastised the prime minister for ‘failing even to speak for her own government.’

May’s week was not made any easier by Brexit Secretary David Davis and the curious case of disappearing impact reports. Having boasted last year that sector-by-sector analyses of Brexit’s economic impact existed in ‘excruciating detail’, Davis finally admitted that his department had conducted no such reports. ‘Just because you use the word impact,’ he scoffed, ‘doesn’t make it an impact assessment.’ That clears that up, then.

Embattled Chancellor Philip Hammond was next to take the stage. With the government keen to move talks with Brussels onto ‘Phase 2’, wherein Britain and the EU will thrash out the details of their future relationship, one would expect Hammond and his colleagues to have a clear idea of the sort of relationship they want. Yet, Hammond let slip, the Cabinet is yet to discuss, let alone agree on, what sort of Brexit it wants.

Amid the chaos, one might expect Britain’s voting public to stop and think twice about its decision to leave the EU. Not so fast. ‘There’s not much evidence that people are changing their minds,’ according to politics professor and Brexit expert Matthew Goodwin, nor is there much visible public support for a second referendum, or a referendum on the deal London is able to strike with the EU at the end of the Article 50 process. There is little sign, Goodwin warns, of what one might term ‘Bregret’.

Rolling the dice

British readers might remember Goodwin as the academic who promised to eat a copy of his new Brexit book if Corbyn-led Labour polled 38% of the vote in the 2017 general election. Labour’s vote share touched 40%, and within hours Goodwin was eating his own words on television. Much to the disappointment of the watching audience, there were no such antics during Goodwin’s visit to the EUI last week, with the professor in Florence to headline a discussion on the drivers of the Brexit vote at the Migration Policy Centre.

May Brussels

After a fraught week of negotiating, May announced a divorce agreement with the EU alongside Jean-Claude Juncker early on December 8th.

One of the central takeaways of Goodwin’s talk goes a long way to explaining why there are no lingering signs of ‘Bregret’. According to YouGov, 60% of Leave voters said they would happily accept economic loss in return for breaking with Brussels, and nearly half would accept a relative losing their job if it meant exiting the EU. ‘Most of the people who voted for Brexit did not do it for economic reasons,’ Goodwin told EUI Times after last week’s discussion at Villa Schifanoia. Instead, he argues, a large proportion of Leave voters – who were predominately middle-aged, elderly, white and English – felt that they had been failed and left behind by the status quo. Why not roll the dice?

In the multitudinous post-mortems seeking to explain why Leave won, fingers are often pointed at the failings of the Remain campaign, and with good reason. Many have accused Remain of placing too heavy a focus on economic risks inherent to Brexit, avoiding the topic of immigration and not making a positive case for why Britons should want to be part of the EU.

‘Those who were feeling as though they’d been left behind,’ Goodwin reflects, ‘were more likely to play down the risks of Brexit and be animated about immigration. The message to voters who cared about immigration was that the mainstream doesn’t want to have a conversation with you about it. That provided room for Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson to have that conversation.’

Immigration, immigration, immigration

Britain’s historically uneasy relationship with immigration is seen by many as the foremost explanation of why Leave won. Pointing to the work of figures like Robert Tombs, Goodwin pointed out that British national identity,  and more specifically Englishness, has been constructed by defining itself against ‘the other’ from mainland Europe. Goodwin therefore does not characterise concern about immigration as a partisan issue. Seven-in-ten British voters, he points out, have genuine concerns about the level of immigration to the UK, and 50% of voters believed that Brexit would mean less immigration. It was, and still is, a decisive issue in British politics.

The strategic failings of the Remain campaign can thus only explain so much. In fact, Goodwin believes that the six-month referendum campaign made little difference one way or another. Europe and the EU had been such a divisive issue in British politics for so long that when it came to referendum time, most peoples’ views were set in stone.  ‘British Euroscepticism has a long tradition and history,’ he explains. ‘The fundamentals of the referendum were baked in a long time ago.’

goodwin immigration

Immigration was the foremost reason for supporting Brexit cited by Leave voters when surveyed, Goodwin says.

Indeed, as Goodwin pointed out in his lecture, British apathy for the European project stretches back decades. In 1975, Sir David Butler and Uwe Kitzinger argued that the British, who had just voted to stay in what was then known as the European Community, did so for purely pragmatic reasons. There was, they argued, ‘no girding of the loins for the great European adventure.’ Between 2004 and present-day, British public opinion on Europe has been remarkably volatile, with approval and disapproval of EU membership each holding clear majorities at different points. If the referendum had been held in 2011 or 2012 – with Europe in the throes of financial crisis and Britain governed by an unpopular Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition – Leave would have been firm and comfortable favourites.

What, then, can we say ultimately drove Britain to vote Leave? There is, Goodwin believes, no single simple explanation for why 17.5 million Britons voted for Brexit. Rather, a cocktail of different factors – from concerns over immigration to politicians’ individual popularity – combined to produce a result which shocked the establishment, but really is not altogether surprising if one uses a long lens.

Looking ahead, May’s high-stakes breakfast in Brussels appears to have injected both Westminster and Brussels with a renewed sense of optimism. With a year-ending EU Summit looming on 14th December, both sides appear ready to move onto the next phase of discussions. We are, it seems, moving closer to finding out what Brexit will actually look like. Nonetheless, as Council chief Donald Tusk put it last week, ‘breaking up is hard, but breaking up and building a new relationship is much harder.’

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent and a Senior Visiting Fellow at Chatham House. His new book, ‘Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union’, was published earlier this year.

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