The British public were warned that leaving the European Union would be worse for business and therefore weaken the economy. Among the points made in the economic case for Remain was the fact that parts of the UK receive significant amounts of EU funding. Hence it is curious that Wales, a country which has received £4billion in ‘structural funding’ from the EU since 2000, was one of the places which voted most heavily to leave. Similarly, in Sunderland, another place which swung overwhelmingly for leave, thousands of jobs have been put at risk after Nissan decided to review the running of its factory in that city, which has been the Japanese carmaker’s production base in Europe since 1986. Why would two regions, with so much to lose, take such a risk?
The answer is simple – the vote was an emphatic two fingers, directed unmistakably at a condescending London establishment. Both Wales and Sunderland were hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis, and their struggle was replicated in similar regions across the UK. Having seen their communities grow weaker as a result of financial decisions made by the big bankers, the referendum was their chance to reject the same ‘experts’ who had ignored their communities in the previous years. A poll by YouGov in 2017 found that 61% of Brexiteers were willing to ‘damage the economy’ in order to push through with Brexit. This clearly illustrates how emotive reasoning often preceded economic pragmatism in the decision to vote to leave the European Union.
Nationalism has grown throughout Europe, and its influence on the British decision to leave the EU cannot be understated. Studies have consistently found that British citizens consider themselves less ‘European’ than other EU nations. Geographically this can be explained by the fact that the UK is not physically connected to the rest of Europe. However, the fact that the UK was not a member of the Schengen Area and did not use the Euro, and yet still decided to vote for Brexit, suggests that this less ‘inclusive’ deal, this unique arrangement, was simply not enough. National identity is something much more collective in the UK than in other EU countries. Unlike in Germany where regional pride is greater than national pride, or in Spain where national identity often revolves around language and dialect, Britons pride themselves on being British first and European second. This is reflected in the age demographic of leave voters, who tended to be older than those who voted to remain. While younger generations largely grew up thinking themselves both British and European, many older leave voters remember life before Britain entered what was then the European Common Market in 1973. These voters grew up with a resolute sense of themselves as British. And, while many would have voted to remain a member in Harold Wilson’s 1975 referendum, the evolving nature of the European constitution in the years after that vote – Brussels taking on more and more powers – was always likely to upset that sense of British identity, and produce a backlash of the sort we witnessed in 2016. A strong sense of national pride, then, seems to underpin one of the most important reasons for why Brexit happened: a nostalgic desire to return to the past.
Nostalgia is one of the most powerful human emotions. While some may view history as an exponentially progressive march, it is hard to argue that Britain today is in a better position than before. Whether people voted to leave the European Union with their head or their heart, they evidently did so in the hope that their decision would improve the United Kingdom. Many remember a time when the National Health Service was the pride of the country, and the promise to take the £350million we pay to the EU every week and redirect that money to the NHS clearly influenced many voters. As I have said, Brexit was a rejection of the establishment. Nigel Farage himself said that the vote to leave was a win against ‘big merchant banks’ and ‘big politics.’ Many voted against these big establishments as they remember a time when globalisation and business did not take precedence over the smaller voices of local communities. The desire for the past can also be seen in the promise to end freedom-movement with the European Union. Communities felt as though their identities had been diluted by European immigration, and the rejection of immigration indicates a desire to return to a more ‘British’ Britain. And while there are statistics which show that immigration both socially and economically benefits the UK, it is hard for many communities to recognize the force of these benefits when they compare their lives today to years before.
Of course, it is impossible to give a single concrete reason for why Brexit happened. Rather, a more holistic view of the cultures and attitudes of Britons is required. What does seem to be clear is that Brexit was not merely a result of the failure of the European Union. Political apathy towards an ever-elitist group of London-based ‘experts’, poor social and economic conditions throughout the UK and frustration at the effects of austerity culminated over many years. The 2016 referendum simply provided the stage for many who felt forgotten or left behind to voice their anger at the perfect opportunist scapegoat – the European Union.
By Haroon Faqir