Monthly Archives: June 2017

One Year On: The Many Factors in Brexit

Pro-EU Protest March, London, 25th of March 2017, via Wikimedia Commons.


I’ve heard the claim made in multiple contexts, usually amongst Remainers, that Jeremy Corbyn is to blame for the outcome of last year’s referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. This strikes me as an overly-simplistic analysis that should be heavily caveated but rarely (if ever) is. Indeed, I think that most political outcomes are the result of an interaction of context and actors, so I’d probably be equally unsatisfied with any attempt to pin the blame for Brexit on a single factor. As soon as I hear claims like this my mind starts cycling through all the other things that plausibly contributed to the outcome, and I rapidly reach the conclusion that it’s pretty hard to weigh their importance against each other and thus conclude which ones are more important than others, let alone to identify the decisive factor. This is tied up with the difficulty of demonstrating causality in relation to social outcomes (of which political decisions are an element), and I think we should always try to talk about as many of the influences on an outcome as possible. Of course, if we’re lucky enough to have data that measures all those plausible influences then we can think about finding out which are more closely correlated than others with the outcome, and interpret this to mean that there is some sort of relationship between them. I don’t have this data (and I’m not sure it exists) so my focus here is on flagging up the things that, to my mind, are likely to have influenced the outcome of the EU referendum. In doing so, I also hope to show that a range of factors all had a part to play in that outcome, and that trying to pin it on one of them alone is unconvincing. Indeed, even if we ignore the factors that are unlikely to have changed, there are enough things that could plausibly have changed to make blaming any one of them a bit of a stretch. So, let’s start with the contextual factors, the order of which does not imply anything about their presumed importance:


The Great Recession

There’s the obvious way in which this had an impact; namely, the financial crisis caused serious economic problems, and problems of economic coordination, in the European Union. These indicated weakness whilst, at the same time, prompting a response that could be characterised as heavy handed. The latter played into existing narratives of the EU being distant, detached, and out-of-touch with the concerns of ‘ordinary people’ (there’s no such thing; most people think they’re ordinary; no-one is). At the same time, the economic downturn had an impact on domestic politics, prompting austerity and reducing or removing economic security, or the sense of it, for many. Economic insecurity often makes people more risk averse, leading them to want to batten down the hatches and seek familiar forms of security. The frame of reference for that security will vary from person to person but there are enough for whom the European Union has not always been the status quo that returning to ‘British sovereignty’ (i.e. ‘taking back control’) seems the safer, and more familiar, option. So, we know that economics often matters in voting, and the economic circumstances preceding the EU referendum meant that it was plausible to paint the EU in a bad light whilst also promoting a desire to return to a non-EU state of security for many.


Explanations for the economic downturn

In the aftermath of the financial crisis different causes were identified and emphasised by different political actors, and these included reckless behaviour by banks and their employees, the financial decisions made by large sections of the public, government policy (be it spending too much during the good times, or failing to regulate financial markets properly) and, as the downturn unfolded, remote international institutions such as the EU. The reason for some of those explanations becoming more accepted than others remains mysterious to me (crucially, in line with the point of this blog, I suspect many things played a part) but it seems that the Conservative Party achieved a major victory by emphasising the issue of state spending rather than irresponsible behaviour by banks and bankers. This played to their strength as the party that is seen as more responsible with state spending, whilst ‘banker bashing’ played to Labour’s image as the party of ‘working people’ against ‘the elite’ (though this was fatally undermined by their failure, when in power, to adequately regulate financial markets (a difficult thing to do, perhaps, because of their international nature)). This meant that a domestic solution to the economic downturn (i.e. limiting state spending (thus making the promise of the notorious £350 million tempting)) could be emphasised instead of international coordination and cooperation (e.g. regarding financial market regulation), rendering the EU part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Further, the focus on one element of, and explanation for, the economic downturn contributed to the electoral outcomes in 2010 and 2015 and thus set the scene for David Cameron to call the EU referendum. So, prevailing explanations for the Great Recession contributed the circumstances that allowed the referendum to be called whilst, at the same time, promoting solutions centred on national rather than international governance.


Strain on public services

This is obviously related to, but not exclusively the result of, the economic downturn and the prevailing explanations for it, whilst government policy (both in response to the above factors and preceding them) and demographic changes have also played a role. These strains are real and can be seen by people in their day-to-day lives but have also been emphasised in the media (who, perhaps, have a duty to report problems with such services) and by political parties (both for electoral purposes and because it’s a legitimate policy concern to consider). The presence of the idea that public services are under strain contributes to the previously mentioned sense of insecurity that can lead to people seeking familiar solutions (again, ‘taking back control’, with the middle word being key) whilst also feeding a belief that there is an uncaring elite who are making bad decisions for the population. Such mud sticks more easily to distant institutions than ones that are closer (this is related to a concept called the paradox of distance[1] in which people rate their local services or MP better than they do national services overall or MPs as an entire group; in the same way, Westminster is closer (and more familiar) than the institutions of the EU). Thus, when people have a sense that things are going wrong and are trying to place the blame, they will be more likely to pin it on something that is, in some sense, distant. Again, this did not bode well for the EU.


The coalition government

The Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government administered the ‘necessary medicine’ in response to economic downturn and, thus, was a reflection of and a contributor to the previous two points. Further, by uniting two previously opposed political parties it contributed to the general sense, held by many, that there is a ‘them’ (politicians) and an ‘us’ (‘ordinary’ people). This sustained the idea of the very establishment (with the EU as part of it) that would subsequently be given a bloody nose in the EU referendum (with the outcome, arguably, being about ‘taking back control’ from the generic establishment ‘them’ as well as from the EU specifically). Further, it significantly weakened the Liberal Democrats, undermining the sense that they were an alternative, or opposed, to the Conservatives (as has often been the case in coalitions, their independent identity was washed away by association with a larger and more prominent partner). This meant that Liberal Democrat seats became juicy low-hanging fruit for a well-run and well-targeted Conservative campaign in 2015, thus paving the way for the majority that allowed David Cameron to instigate a referendum on EU membership.


The expenses scandal

This feels like the dim and distant past now, but it played a role in the 2010 election that resulted in the above coalition, and thus indirectly contributed to the 2015 election outcome. More to the point, though, it was symbolic of, reinforced, and expanded the common mistrust of politicians in the population. Thus, it affirmed the sense, again, that there is a distance ‘elite’ (perhaps incorporating, as well, the much-maligned experts) with different interests from the general population. It was this very group that was then, a few years later, seen to be unified behind another position, the Remain Campaign, that could be presented as in their own interest (and concomitantly seen as questionably in the interests of ‘ordinary people’). Thus, the role of the expenses scandal, and other scandals and news stories presenting politicians in a bad light, was to prompt not only mistrust but also a rejection of those who advocated remaining in the EU.


Divided parties

Of course, were it not for (ongoing and long-term) disunity over the EU in the Conservative Party, there would have no need for that David Cameron would have felt the need to ‘resolve’ the issue by calling a referendum. However, all parties are coalitions so disunity can emerge on a range of issues and at different times. The Labour Party was also disunited, though less severely, over the EU membership and this meant that there could be representatives of both parties on each side of the referendum campaign (indeed, the presence of Labour MPs amongst the largely Conservative ranks of Leave supporters was an important influence on some voters), whilst also meaning that Jeremy Corbyn and some of those around him were less-than-enthusiastic about the Remain campaign. Further, and more tenuously, the divide between liberal and social democratic elements of the Liberal Democrats allowed a situation in which the party promoted itself in the latter light for many years but then, with the ascendance of the Orange Book liberals, went into coalition with the Conservatives (linking with the previous point). This not only hurt the party at the next general election, and played into the ‘establishment’ narrative (i.e. ‘they’re all the same’), but also made the idea of untrustworthy and dishonest politicians (already common) more salient, which would prove important in the EU referendum.



Their success as a political party was always a longshot (given the electoral system in the UK) but it’s fair to say that UKIP has been one of the most successful campaigning groups of recent times. They used electoral politics as one of their main campaign tools, not to win seats but to threaten the main parties with losses. Certainly, they were aided by other contextual factors, but the presence of this group of dedicated campaigners helped make the EU, and especially the topic of free movement of people, an issue that could not be ignored. Nothing more need be said; UKIP’s influence is self-evident, and should not be forgotten as they become electorally insignificant.


A divided electorate

Of course, UKIP would have been on a hiding to nowhere were it not for the fact that plenty of the electorate felt, on some level at least, that the EU had disempowered the British state, facilitated levels of immigration that they were uncomfortable with, and sustained values that were at odds with their own. These views may not have been solidified at the outset (though they certainly were for some) but there were people who were more or less predisposed to adopt pro- or anti-EU positions. There is a concept in political science called heresthetic,[2] which is the ability to identify and activate previously latent divisions in an electorate (i.e. make new dimensions of politics salient) for strategic gain. It seems clear that the emergence of the EU as a clear dividing line is the result of successful heresthetic by some (prominent members of UKIP included), but this also indicates that some level of meaningful division existed in the first place. That such a division was made salient threw the traditional political parties off their game because it was a cross-cutting issue, with the divide between Labour’s traditional and more recent core groups of supporters being a key example. This meant that normal partisan appeals could not be made in the in the referendum campaign, and the outcome was far from a foregone conclusion.


The left behind

There are multiple explanations for the above division in the electorate, and one of the most prominent is that there is a section of the population who can be considered ‘left behind’.[3] That group is often characterised as older, white, male, less educated, and working class, but those characteristics are not pre-requisites. The main thing is that people in the ‘left behind’ group have a sense that changes in the UK (and world), over whatever period of time, have not been materially beneficial to them. Thus, they are likely to take issue with things such as free movement of people (perceived to remove job opportunities and put strain on public services), offshoring (again, seen to remove job opportunities), and free trade (which is bound up with the preceding points and the broader concept of globalisation). These are all things that are seen to be beneficial to other sections of society at the expense of the ‘left behind’. This leads such people to reject (i.e. vote against) the policies and institutions that have brought about the changes that they feel have harmed them, and also to consider themselves different from the groups that are seen to have benefited from such policies. This is especially so in relation to the ‘elite’ who have been responsible for implementing the policies and who, again, the ‘left behind’ wished to give a bloody nose.


A commitment to authority

Another major explanation for the division in the electorate that led to the outcome of the EU referendum is competing basic values. Specifically, it is argued that some people are more committed to the exercise of authority in social contexts. For instance, such people are more likely to support children being taught to respect authority in school, to think that punishments for convicted criminals should be stricter, and that the death penalty should be applied in some cases. Thus, such people are described as having authoritarian social values, but this is not intended to be pejorative. Crucially, those values can cross-cut the material circumstances that differentiate groups such as the ‘left behind’ from others and there are more or less wealthy, and more or less privileged, people who are committed to the exercise of social authority. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to believe in both economic redistribution and the importance of social authority, so views that are considered ‘left wing’ are not mutually exclusive with ‘social authoritarianism’.[4] A question of particular interest here is what the roots of such values are, with possible explanations including socialisation, basic psychological dispositions, or some interaction of the two (which seems most plausible to me). Regardless of their origins and relationships with other characteristics, however, the key thing is that such values also incline people to support the clear exercise of authority by a single institution or limited set of institutions, especially if they are familiar (as the British state undoubtedly is to most in the UK). Thus, any undermining of ‘sovereignty’ by the EU was much less likely to be tolerated by people with a commitment to authority, especially to the extent that the EU institutions are complex and unfamiliar, are predicated on consensus rather than clear exercise of power by one group, and espouse values (e.g. universal human rights) that may be opposed to those held by ‘social authoritarians’.


Educational disparities

The relationship between educational levels and EU referendum votes has been observed (i.e. areas with lower levels of education tended to have a higher proportion of the population voting Leave), and this relationship is open to interpretation. For me, this is about the types of knowledge that people hold, and the broader cultural divides that exist in society. In other words, education can be seen to have three not entirely reconcilable functions: first, to engage people in a dialogue that promotes thinking about and understanding of the world; second, to set particular standards of knowledge and understanding, and rank people against these standards so that qualifications can be awarded; third, to imbue people with particular norms and values. To the extent that the latter two functions are emphasised, education is likely to imbue people who are educated with different norms and values to those who are not, and thus to create competing cultures. Of course, this does not happen only in educational contexts (early years are also important, especially in creating lower-order beliefs[5]) but they are clearly important. The resultant cultural differences can be related to the above two explanations for the divide in the electorate that led to the EU referendum outcome.


Prevailing media coverage

I won’t spend ages on this because it’s been done to death, and because the issue of cause and effect is particularly difficult (i.e. the classic question of whether the media reflects or shapes the views of the public). Still, it seems likely that the long-term and widespread coverage of, and emphasis on, the EU’s failings (despite not always being accurate) with very little coverage of, and emphasis on, its successes affirmed the views of those who opposed membership, weakened the views of some of those who supported it, and made the issue salient when it might not have otherwise been. Indeed, I don’t think the power of the media lies only (or even mainly) in the tone with which it reports issues but, instead, in the decisions about what to report and not report prominently, and in the links between issues that can be made. Thus, media coverage of the issue of immigration is also important, again not only because of its tone but because it made the issue prominent in people’s minds and linked it with the EU. Indeed, it is the case that many people associated the issue of immigration with that of the EU in their minds and, to the extent that they were concerned by the former, this made them more likely to vote to leave the latter. Thus, when it came to the vote, the table had been set not in the previous months of campaigning but in the preceding years of national media discussion of particular issues, and emphasis of the links between them. In light of all this, I could include a range of editors and proprietors in the list of individuals that is outlined below, but I’ll leave it at giving them a non-specific name-check here.


The EU

The previous point argues that the media coverage of the EU was lop-sided, emphasising the problems more than the benefits (again, though, perhaps the media has a duty to report things going wrong more than things going right), but there was also material that provided the basis for some of that coverage. The horror stories about ‘red tape’ regulations (e.g. straight bananas) are well known and, whilst many of those stories were over-the-top or downright inaccurate, it is the case that the EU is involved in many areas of regulation. Thus, to the extent that one is opposed to those sorts of regulations it makes sense to be opposed to the EU (though it has other functions too). Further, for many years it was possible (and, perhaps, legitimate) to be sceptical about the financial comings and goings of the EU (though this has been less the case since 2007), which contributed to the idea of it being wasteful (and even corrupt). More important, to my mind, than the output of the institutions is their very structure. Education around the setup of the EU could be improved but, regardless, that setup is rather complicated. There are two elements of the executive branch, the European Council (heads of state or government of the member countries) and the European Commission (nominated by member states, adopted by the European Council, and approved by the European Parliament), with only the latter having the capacity to propose laws (though one element of the legislative branch (the European Parliament) can also ask it to do so). The legislative branch then has two elements in the form of the directly elected European Parliament and the non-directly elected Council of the European Union (distinct from the European Council, mentioned previously), which is referred to as the Council and made up of relevant ministers (depending on the policy area being discussed) from member countries. The second of those bodies also has some executive powers, and it makes decisions using a special system called qualified majority voting. Further, all of the institutions and powers of the EU have evolved over the course of its existence. This is positive (allowing responses to circumstances) but also adds further complexity in the sense that one must pay attention to stay up-to-date not only with the decisions of the EU but also how they are made. I’ve tried not to be opaque in the preceding descriptions but I think they give a sense of the extent to which they can be viewed as inaccessible. This is not helped by the fact that there is no individual constituency link to the European Parliament (there are seven Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) for my region; three Conservatives, three from UKIP, and one Labour) and it’s remarkably difficult for such a small number of people to meaningfully engage with a large and dispersed electorate. Thus, overall, it’s understandable that the EU can feel complex and distant, thus rendering it an irrelevance (which does not motivate endorsement) or an imposition (which prompts opposition).


The Campaigns

The Remain campaign looked like (was?) an ‘establishment’ project, whilst the Leave campaign looked like a scrappy insurgency. The former appealed to the head rather than the heart, whilst the latter did quite the opposite. This is important because the outcome seemed like Remain’s to lose; had they found some content appealing to emotions and, perhaps, elevated a more diverse bunch of people to prominent campaign positions, it seems plausible that the result could have been reversed. They appear to have underestimated the extent to which the electorate was looking for an opportunity to exercise their democratic right to vote against the prevailing advice. Furthermore, the Leave campaign benefited a great deal from prevailing media coverage and, despite being funded and led by figures who are absolutely not ‘of the people’, looked anti-establishment. This may have been helped by the fact that they had few scruples about the ‘evidence’ they used, and being controversial is a very good way to look like the outsider who won’t be silenced whilst standing up for what they believe in. Splits meant that they could have fallen apart, but they kept it together, and the Remain campaign cruised to failure.


With the contextual factors covered, we can turn to the individual actors who made decisions within the context that existed:


David Cameron

Handed the decades-old problem of a party divided over Europe, David Cameron decided that the best way to resolve that squabble was a divisive national referendum. I’m exaggerating of course, and it’s not that simple; it really is a difficult internal party division, and he was additionally confronted by a meaningful electoral threat from UKIP (again, not because they could win seats but because they could split the Conservative vote and cause them to lose seats). Nevertheless, it seems that he (and others) were complacent about victory, and he can be counted amongst the pro-Remain leaders who failed to see the need to appeal to emotion in the campaign (alas, I think this may be common amongst those who simplistically attribute humans the characteristics of utility maximising calculus machines). Further, in terms of having a campaign in which one side (the status quo) was likely to be hamstrung by the appearance of representing establishment interests, it might’ve been sensible not to have one of the main leaders being, well, David Cameron. Of course, his background is beyond his control, and it would’ve been difficult for him to take a back seat (without this looking like a lukewarm endorsement, which could’ve been equally damaging) but, again, he did choose to call the bloody referendum.


Nick Clegg

To the extent that Nick Clegg represents the Orange Book liberals within his party, this point can be linked to those covering divided parties and the coalition government. In deciding (along with other senior party colleagues) to go into coalition with the Conservatives, despite having presented a policy agenda to the public that was rather distinct, sowed the seeds for the party’s near-elimination in 2010 (which was worse than the preceding decline in the Liberal Democrat vote share otherwise suggested). This, in part, facilitated the Conservative majority that allowed David Cameron to work his referendum magic. More to the point, there was a choice, despite the line that ‘there had to be a government in a time of national crisis’. For a party that advocates constitutional reform, the leader seemed rather eager to maintain Britain’s ‘tradition of strong government’ (i.e. the constitutional status quo) rather than, for instance, offering to support a Conservative minority government on legislation in the vital national interest (e.g. bank bailouts, if you’re so inclined) without signing up to all the things they claimed to oppose (e.g. the Health and Social Care Act, Welfare Reform Act, and Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act). Incidentally, I struggle to think of an electoral line that’s weaker than ‘yeah, sure, the stuff we supported in government was bad, but it was slightly less bad because we were there’. Note, there’s no attempt to say it was good. A confidence and supply arrangement would have allowed the Liberal Democrats the capacity to stay closer to their principles, but the party leadership including Nick Clegg chose not to pursue that path in return for the ground-breaking, world-changing opportunity to have an AV referendum. Or something.


Nigel Farage

As with UKIP in general, not a lot needs to be said here; his impact is obvious but that doesn’t mean it should be overlooked. In Nigel Farage, UKIP got a leader who was not only charismatic but also could give the impression of being ‘straight-talking’ and a ‘man of the people’ (despite all the evidence to the contrary). He was also, apparently, pretty tireless and had the brass neck to say controversial things and stick to them, which shored up core support whilst having some wider appeal.


Aaron Banks

It’s tempting to write a one-word summary of this gentleman but I’ll avoid doing so. Again, not a lot needs to be said; to a large extent he bankrolled UKIP and Nigel Farage, not-to-mention the non-official campaign, allowing them not only to continue their activities but also to raise their profiles.


Boris Johnson

A popular high-profile political figure with appeal beyond his party (such things are rare), and who (despite his dispatches from Brussels as a journalist, linking to the point about media coverage above) was apparently undecided at the outset of the referendum campaign. Part of the reason for his popularity and appeal beyond the Conservatives was his reputation as a maverick, which perhaps pointed towards endorsement of the more anti-establishment Leave campaign (despite being so clearly part of ‘the establishment’). Nevertheless, there’s good reason to think that some voters could be swung, at least in part, by his decision on the matter and his hands certainly weren’t tied.


Gisela Stuart

The most prominent Labour member of the Leave campaign, Gisela Stuart is a good example of the importance of party divisions in the referendum. She is certainly not a well-known political figure (though perhaps more so after the campaign) but her role is likely to have been picked up by high-attention undecided voters (a key group because they can be won over to either side, and are likely to turn up at the polling station). This is important because the fact that she took a different line to most of her fellow Labour MPs can be seen as acting against type. Indeed, people expected Nigel Farage, Peter Bone, and others in the awkward squad to be on the Leave side, but the presence of a ‘liberal left-winger’ (and a citizen of another EU country to boot) amongst those ranks was less expected. Such unexpected information is more persuasive (e.g. if a fiscal hawk says that spending needs to be raised people will take that more seriously than if a fiscal dove suggests the same), and it also allowed the issue to be, at least in part, non-partisan. There were other political figures who can be put in the same group, but Gisela Stuart is the most prominent example.


Jeremy Corbyn

The case being made in this post is not that Jeremy Corbyn had no part to play in the outcome of the EU referendum, but that his actions were only part of an interaction between context and actors. So, it is fair to say that his position on membership of the European Union was lukewarm, and that he could have done more to proclaim clear support for remaining, and motivate Labour voters to turn out and vote for that option. Still, his less than wholehearted endorsement of membership was known when he was elected as leader and should have come as no surprise. Further, and as noted previously, the Labour party has a divided electorate in relation to the issue of Brexit, making it a difficult task for any Labour leader to take a clear-cut position on the matter. So, part of the picture? Yes. But all of it, or most of it, the largest part of it, or even the decisive element? No.


So, what does all of the above suggest? Well, as was the argument at the outset, it demonstrates that the outcome of the EU referendum was the result of, to become boringly repetitious, an interaction between context and actors. All of the above elements played their own part in the outcome but none of them alone was decisive. Without the economic downturn the EU would have been less likely to look simultaneously weak and heavy handed, whilst there would have been less capacity to argue for cuts in national state spending. The pressure on public services would thus have been reduced, the electorate would have felt less insecure, and they would have been less eager to seek familiar (national-level) ways to address that. At the same time, the outcome of the 2010 election would have been different, with a coalition that reinforced the view that politicians are all the same and cannot be trusted (which also emerged from the expenses scandal) less likely. That coalition also relied on divided parties in which the Orange Book liberals could become the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and contradict its social democratic image by aligning with the Conservatives. Indeed, were the parties not divided there would have been much less need for a referendum, and there would not have been an opportunity for Jeremy Corbyn to ascend to the leadership of the Labour Party as a left-wing insurgent. Further, the divide in the Conservative Party as well as the divided electorate could be exploited by a strong campaigning organisation like UKIP. That divide in the electorate was a prerequisite for the referendum, and its basis was a combination of meaningful differences in material circumstances, different basic (ideological) commitments to the exercise of authority in society, and educational disparities. The latter is important not only because it imbues particular knowledge in some groups and not others, but also because it creates different sub-cultures with different norms and values. Such competing sub-cultures can be plugged into by prevailing media coverage, especially to the extent that it is aimed at some groups and not others, and this exaggerates existing divides. Further, such coverage hardens the views that align with it and, to the extent that it is prevailing, weakens views that don’t align with it, thus solidifying likely outcomes based on the other contextual factors. Of course, this might have mattered less had the EU not provided (primarily constitutional) material that made it look distant, complex and, perhaps, untrustworthy. Further, had the Leave Campaign been worse run or the Remain Campaign been better run, especially in the sense of appealing to people’s emotions, there was the chance for a different outcome despite the other contextual factors. Within the context set by those factors, David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum, facilitated by Nick Clegg’s decision to go into coalition and set the table for the Conservative’s 2015 electoral victory, set the train in motion from the penultimate station to the terminus. Along the way, Nigel Farage’s tireless campaigning, Aaron Banks’ money, Boris Johnson and Gisela Stuart’s support for Leave, and Jeremy Corbyn’s less-than-enthusiastic endorsement of Remain all ensured that points weren’t changed, and the train continued along its track (I’ll leave the metaphor there now).


Could all of the above things have changed? The answer in relation to contextual factors is tricky; context does change, but not necessarily quickly, in an expected direction, or because of the actions of a particular individual (despite possible intent). Had previous governments around the world co-ordinated better in order to regulate financial markets, the Great Recession and all its knock-on effects might have been averted or mitigated. Such coordination was unlikely but possible, as was the potential for explanations of the downturn that didn’t require austerity to become dominant, and in doing so negate the need to place public services under more strain. The subsequent coalition government certainly did not have to happen, and neither did the behaviour of the MPs embroiled in the preceding expenses scandal. Those MPs actions could have changed, but the nature of parties is to be divided (in the sense that they always encompass competing positions), so this is always likely to be a feature of the political landscape, whilst UKIP had been part of the furniture for some time. Divides in the electorate and the things that underpinned them are a function of the vast never-ending interaction of humans that we call society. That’s hard to change. Being disposed towards the exercise of authority in social contexts is likely to result from early life experiences and may be difficult (but not impossible) to alter subsequently. The economic disparities that created the ‘left behind’, and the educational disparities that sustain potentially competing sub-cultures can be influenced by government policy and demographic change but they are hard to change decisively in a short period (or even in an intended direction). Prevailing media coverage can certainly alter, given that it’s in the gift of a few editors and proprietors, but that’s to underestimate the extent to which they are committed to their existing (political) positions. In a similar ‘could change but probably wouldn’t’ camp is the EU itself, which is part of what made the Remain campaign’s job more difficult. Still, that job could plausibly have been done much better, whilst the Leave campaign’s divisions sowed surprisingly few seeds of failure. Moving to the individuals in those campaigns, we can safely rule Nigel Farage or Aaron Banks out of the ‘could have changed’ group, and this is also likely to be the case with Gisela Stewart. David Cameron, however, could absolutely have sought a different option than a referendum, and Nick Clegg did not have his hands tied in terms of joining the coalition. Boris Johnson, despite his previous journalistic endeavours, could have come down on the other side of the campaign and, to finish, Jeremy Corbyn could have cracked out his recently demonstrated campaigning prowess to support Remain more wholeheartedly.


So, looking back at all those factors, we can see plausible scenarios in which a coalition government didn’t happen, perhaps because Nick Clegg decided to pursue alternative arrangements. The need for austerity might have been mitigated, reducing strain on public services and perceived insecurity. Even had none of these things happened, the shape of the campaigns could have been dramatically different, presuming of course that David Cameron hadn’t taken the eminently plausible step of not calling a referendum in the first place. With that decision made, nothing bound Boris Johnson to put his considerable political weight behind the Leave campaign. So, even just taking the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of contextual factors and individual decisions that could have changed, there are multiple other things that played a part in the EU referendum outcome. To be sure, Jeremy Corbyn also played a part, but is he to blame, primarily, decisively, or more than any other single factor? I’m not convinced. So, as argued at the outset, laying the outcome of the EU referendum at the door of a single factor seems a bit of a stretch.




[1] See H. George Frederickson and David G. Frederickson, ‘Public Perceptions of Ethics in Government’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 537, Ethnics in American Public Service (Jan., 1995), pp. 163-172.

[2] For more information, and examples, see Iain McLean, ‘Review Article: William H. Riker and the Invention of Heresthetic(s)’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Jul., 2002), pp. 535-558; Kenneth A. Shepsle, ‘Losers in Politics (and How They Sometimes Become Winners): William Riker’s Heresthetic’, Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jun., 2003), pp. 307-315; Andrew J. Taylor, ‘Stanley Baldwin, Heresthetics and the Realignment of British Politics’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 429-463.

[3] For the definitive work on this concept in relation to Brexit, see Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (London, Routledge, 2014).

[4] See James Duckitt and Chris G. Sibley, ‘A Dual Process Motivational Model of Ideological Attitudes and System Justification’, in John T. Jost, Aaron C. Kay, and Hulda Thorisdottir (eds.), Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 293-308; and Anthony Heath, Geoffrey Evans, and Jean Martin, ‘The Measurement of Core Beliefs and Values: The Development of Balance Socialist/Laissez Faire and Libertarian/Authoritarian Scales’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Jan., 1994), pp. 115-132.

[5] Daryl J. Bem posits that zero-order beliefs (e.g. that our parents can be trusted) are the first that are defined in our lives, with subsequent levels of lower and then higher order beliefs (e.g. the news sources that my parents consume can be trusted) based on those zero-order beliefs: Daryl J. Bem, Beliefs, Attitudes, and Human Affairs (Belmont, CA, Brooks/Cole Publishing, 1970), pp 6-12.