A Brexit referendum event at Parliament Square in London, United Kingdom, June 19, 2016.
Neil Hall / Reuters

The tensions over the United Kingdom’s Brexit campaign should have culminated with a referendum this Thursday on whether to leave or remain in the European Union. Instead, it peaked prematurely with the tragic murder of Jo Cox, a pro-EU Labour member of Parliament, who was brutally shot and stabbed last week by a man close to a British extremist anti-immigration group. It was the first political killing of a British politician since the end of the Troubles, a turbulent era of conflict in Northern Ireland, and it has led many to wonder how a stable country such as the United Kingdom could lose its head over what is essentially membership in a trading bloc.

Answering that question requires reflecting on how the country grew so divided in the first place. Since the beginning, Brexit has pitted younger, more affluent, and cosmopolitan urban Britons against the older, poorer, and less educated ones in the rural and postindustrial parts of the country. It is this same clash—the elites versus the so-called proletariat—that has fueled the resurgence of extreme right parties across Europe, as well as in the United States. In the United Kingdom, these voters are angry at their financial instability, stagnant or declining living standards, and loss of jobs to emerging economies. And they have blamed it on the migrants arriving on their shores.

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which is committed to leaving the EU, has been best able to channel these frustrations into political victories, winning sizable vote shares in recent European and Westminster elections. Although it has managed to elect one of its members into Parliament (he defected from the Conservative Party), UKIP has benefited from the division within the Conservative Party over European integration, which goes back all the way to 1990. That year, John Major took over as prime minister after Margaret Thatcher’s controversial reign. Although both were members of the Conservative Party, Thatcher was staunchly opposed to the United Kingdom joining the European Monetary System, which eventually paved the way for the euro. But Major was not. He had the United Kingdom join in 1990, but it proved highly unpopular, particularly among Euroskeptics within his own party. He withdrew membership only two years later.

Then, during the elections of May 1997, the Conservative Party suffered a major electoral defeat and Major resigned. David Cameron was able to lead the party back into power only by promising to resist further European integration and, thus, offered a referendum on EU membership before the 2015 election. His offer was more of an attempt to appease Euroskeptic opinion on his backbenches since he had expected his party to lose. But his unexpected electoral success last May left him no choice but to fulfill his promise.

Leader of UKIP Nigel Farage in London, United Kingdom, June 16, 2016.
Stefan Wermuth / Reuters

Now, Cameron’s task of defending British membership in an organization over which himself has rarely enthused is made all the more difficult by a mutiny in his own ranks. Several of his cabinet ministers have come out openly in favor of a “leave” vote, and his rival, former London Mayor Boris Johnson, who has made no secret of his ambition to lead the Tory Party, has campaigned vigorously for an exit. This has required no small measure of political contortion, since as mayor he had declared his enthusiastic support of immigration and championed London’s role as Europe’s premier financial center.

To add to the surreal nature of the debate, Labour is the most unambiguously pro-European of the mainstream parties, yet its new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is a long-standing critic of the EU. So far, he has shown scant commitment to his party’s platform on Brexit. It is no surprise, then, that within this cacophony, the only genuine voice appears to be that of UKIP leader Nigel Farage, whose hostility to immigration and appeals to return the United Kingdom to its homogeneous past have been unwavering throughout his political career.

In such a confused panorama, it is no wonder that the political conversation has consisted of empty rhetoric, angry xenophobia, dry technocratic pronouncements, and a good deal of rank misinformation. Research from Ipsos-MORI reveals that British voters have limited knowledge of how the European Union works, and tend to vastly overestimate the number of migrants who have settled into the United Kingdom, as well as the size of its contribution to the European budget. The print media disproportionately support the “leave” campaign. And the alternative voices—protestations of the British Treasury, the Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and others—seem to cut no ice. Most likely, the reputations of these organizations have been tarnished by their failure to predict the financial crisis, which still casts a shadow over this vote.

Seen in this light, the “leave” vote is also a vote against the power of mainstream political elites who have presided over the financial crisis and the painfully slow recovery. Academics and other opinion leaders in the “remain” camp can barely hide their exasperation at the limited impact of their carefully researched cost–benefit analyses on voter sentiment. But for many “leave” voters who are disproportionately less educated and of lower occupational status than “remain” supporters, these cold calculations merely serve as further proof of how tone-deaf the elite are to the cries of the underclass. A vote against the EU would thus be a vote against those at the top who have prospered from changes to the global economy at their expense. A vote to “remain” may indeed settle the United Kingdom’s membership in the EU for the future, but it will not resolve the social rifts that were created by the deep structural changes to the world economy.

  • JONATHAN HOPKIN is Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science
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