How did it come to a Brexit? Anti-politics and UKIP's effects on the EU referendum

Emma Vines

Emma Vines is a Lecturer in politics at Australian Catholic University, Canberra

Last time the British people were asked about membership to a European grouping the vote was two-to-one for continued membership. That was in 1975 and it seems a lot has changed in the subsequent decades. Not only did 52% vote for a Brexit, but we also now see a pro-Europe Scotland and a Eurosceptic England – the reverse of 1975. A question that must be asked – and will be by journalists, politicians and academics alike as Britain negotiates its exit – is simply, how did it come to this?


The answer is, of course, complex and multi-faceted. Issues of immigration, economics, nationalism and democracy clearly came into play throughout the campaign, with the Brexit campaign evidently more successful than Bremain, (at least in England and Wales) particularly when it came to monopolising the issue of immigration. While these issues dominated the campaign, there is another, more fundamental issue worthy of consideration – anti-politics: dissatisfaction and disillusionment with how politics is practiced, alongside antipathy towards traditional political actors. Here is another difference between 1975 and 2016. Not only is anti-politics arguably stronger than before, but there is also a populist movement with a strong Eurosceptic agenda capturing voters’ attention. It has been the UK Independence Party – a populist party committed to withdrawal from the European Union – that has most successfully capitalised on this mood of anti-politics and played a key role both in causing the referendum and helping to swing the vote.


Opposition to ‘politics as usual’ has become increasingly widespread across Western democracies and Britain has proved no exception. It was in no small part anti-politics and the corresponding growth of populist parties which led to the referendum being called in the first place. The election of Britain’s first Coalition Government since World War Two represented disillusionment with both major parties, and provided Conservative backbenchers the opportunity to cause considerable trouble for a leader already struggling to maintain a coalition of two quite different parties. Compounding this was the rise of UKIP. As UKIP grew in strength, picking up disillusioned voters eager for a populist party speaking to the ‘ordinary person’, Conservatives were suddenly offered an alternative to their own Party. With UKIP breaking into Westminster in 2014 it seemed politicians with a hard Eurosceptic-bent could change parties and potentially retain their parliamentary seats. This presented Prime Minister Cameron with a considerable problem.


His initial response was to pass the European Act 2011, which reasserted Westminster’s sovereignty and put in-place a ‘referendum lock’ – the requirement that referendums be held prior to any further transference of sovereignty to the EU. While this was an attempt to appease Conservative Eurosceptics, it did little to address the wider problem intensifying outside of Westminster. With a country unhappy with politics as practiced in Parliament, the Act was likely of little interest to voters and failed to address the anti-politics driving UKIP’s continuing growth.


With dissatisfaction with mainstream political parties and career politicians a crucial feature of anti-politics, UKIP’s populism presented something new on the political landscape. Picking up disillusioned Conservative voters, as well as many ‘old’ Labour voters, a clear class and age dimension emerged in UKIP support. These were voters mistrustful of politicians and who felt disempowered and ignored. The ‘us and them’ that resonated with UKIP voters wasn’t simply ‘Britain and Europe’, but the ‘“ordinary person” and Westminster’. The irony here, of course, is that UKIP, and the 95% of its supporters who voted Brexit, has potentially helped secure an enormous boost for Westminster’s political control. However, this appeared to matter little for the Party’s voters who sought to register a protest vote against the mainstream parties.


Although limited in its parliamentary representation, UKIP was placing pressure on Cameron and, along with growing backbench unhappiness, a referendum designed to win back UKIP supporters and calm his Party eventually came to be seen as a gamble worth taking. Yet here again Cameron and the Bremain campaign failed to grasp the wider issue facing British politics. The economic argument, though strong, did little to grip the public’s imagination and, with Bremain’s leading figures, in particular Cameron and Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, failing to secure public trust, when confronted by a populist such as Nigel Farage and the popular Conservative, and high-profile Brexiter, Boris Johnson, the Bremain campaign stumbled. Again, it was politicians who have engineered a non-traditional public image who many voters turned to.


With Brexit suddenly a reality, many voters appeared to wake up the next day to the reality of their decision. Google searches of ‘what is the European Union’ and ‘what does a Brexit mean for the UK’ spiked and many began to express regret and surprise at the way the vote had gone. This perhaps suggests that many voters were preoccupied by other concerns. Immigration is undoubtedly one, particularly given the recent influx of Syrian refugees; however, the idea that the vote also represented a rejection of the major parties’ wishes cannot be ignored. Anti-politics has once again raised its head and caused massive political and economic stability. Already we have seen huge economic damage, along with the resignation of the Prime Minister, and, with a mass exodus from the Shadow Cabinet, it remains to be seen how long Corbyn can dig his heels in. His resignation seems imminent.


Brexit will continue to have profound and long-lasting economic and political ramifications. While negotiations with the EU will of course dominate, another lesson needs to be learnt. People are fed-up with politics as usual. Populist politics helped this referendum come about and, in no small way, swung it for the Brexiters. Such populism is a powerful manifestation of anti-politics. While there are no easy solutions to redressing anti-politics, the first step has to be for major parties to recognise that the problem exists. There needs to be an acknowledgement that the people they are entrusted to represent are frustrated with a distant political elite. Doing so may have helped prevent Cameron’s disastrous gamble in the first place.

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