For a snappy guide you can consult on the street see https://www.talkaboutbrex.co.uk/ . Thanks Mike B and collaborators.
I believe it is extremely important to empower activists around the country to be even more effective in persuading Leavers and don’t knows to change their minds. DK, March 2019.
Briefing document for anti-Brexit activists.
Addressing Leavers’ concerns: A briefing paper specifically designed to help our activists persuade Leave-supporters (and don’t knows) to change their minds.
(Sources of key details plus additional/background information are available via the links included within or at the end of each of the six sections below).
How will posterity judge us? Will the historians of the future consider Brexit as a brave patriotic act or as a misguided betrayal of our nation and our continent?
Will they conclude that, acting as a nation on our own, rather than in concert with our allies, we ultimately gained more influence or less?
Will they conclude that Brexit ultimately helped make Europe and the world a more stable or a less stable place?
Will they concede that, irrespective of other considerations, our Brexit decision at least gave us greater national independence and control of our own destiny, society and borders?
Will they find that Brexit safeguarded our sovereignty – or will they conclude that it ultimately shattered our territorial integrity and destroyed our country?
And finally, will they regard the 2016 Brexit referendum as a remarkable achievement in democratic decision-making – or a tragically flawed distorted betrayal of real democracy?
Those are, I think, some of the key questions. If future historians conclude that Brexit made us more successful and prosperous, gave us increased international influence and greater domestic independence, then one might conclude that we made the right decision. But if those historians in the future were to reach very different conclusions – that Brexit had made Britain weaker, less influential, less prosperous and less independent, then we (and our politicians) would have to hang our heads in shame that we had, in effect, played Russian roulette with our country’s future. Of course, we live now – not in the future. But we do have vastly more information available to us now than most of us had at the time of the referendum. So, because we haven’t left yet (and because nothing, not even Brexit, is written in stone), in answer to some key questions, here’s what we currently do know:
Question number one: Would Brexit be a great act of patriotism or alternatively a shameful betrayal of our nation and our continent?
Question number two: Would Brexit make Britain more influential in the world – or less?
Question number three: Would Brexit make Europe and the world more or less stable, more or less secure?
Question number four: even if Brexit were to make us less secure, less prosperous and less influential in the world, would it at least make us more genuinely independent?
Question number five: Would Brexit enhance Britain’s sovereignty – or would it threaten our very existence as a nation.
Question number six: Will the 2016 Brexit referendum be seen in the future as a remarkable achievement in democratic decision-making – or a tragically flawed and distorted betrayal of real democracy?
1. Would Brexit be a great act of patriotism or alternatively a shameful betrayal of our nation and our continent?
The principal geopolitical reality in Europe today is of course the renewed tensions between a resurgent Russia and Western Europe.
Strategically, Russia sees the European Union as an economic, political and cultural magnet that has already fully absorbed virtually all Russia’s old Cold War allies in Eastern Europe (Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary etc) and which is likely to develop ever closer trading relationships with Russia’s ‘near abroad’– the former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia.
A strong prosperous unified successful Western Europe is therefore anathema to Russia – and it will do everything it can to prevent that occurring. Russia knows that its regional geopolitical power (and therefore, to an extent, the current Russian government’s domestic power) depends upon there being a failure of Western European unity and success.
Looking at the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s President Putin knows that there simply isn’t the political space for both Russia and Western Europe to succeed, expand and prosper equally in geopolitical terms. Russia (whose leader, Putin, is actually a former KGB agent) has therefore attempted to clandestinely intervene to sabotage European unity at every possible opportunity.
Russia intervened on a currently unknown scale in Britain’s 2016 EU referendum. Indeed, a UK Parliamentary committee early last year received a detailed report from a London based social media data analysis company, revealing, for the first time, how the Russians actually did it.
The new data reveals that, in the run-up to the British referendum, the two main Russian- government-funded international TV news stations produced some 260 anti-EU English-language news stories which were then seen, via Twitter, by UK voters up to 134 million times. That was around three times the total impact via Twitter of anti-EU material that both the official and unofficial leave campaigns managed to generate themselves.
The data therefore clearly reveals that Russian-originating material was (in terms of the Twitter aspect of social media) a significant element in pro-Leave propaganda. It’s not yet known whether the Russians directly or indirectly also used other social media systems to try to influence the vote – but we do now know that during the US presidential election, they certainly did on a very substantial scale. What’s more, it’s now known that Russia also used automated tweeting systems (so-called bots) to intervene in Britain’s EU referendum – but the scale of that operation is not yet clear.
Several major UK official bodies have launched investigations into Russian interference in the referendum.
Russia’s pro-leave intervention in Britain’s EU referendum was a key part of the new Cold War against the UK and Europe.
But to fully appreciate the scale and seriousness of that Russian aggression, we need to see how their intervention in our referendum fitted in with other hostile Russian interventions across Europe. Here are a few of the horrifying details:
In France, a Russian bank with close links to the Russian government, funded the main anti-EU political party, the hard right Front National. At the last French presidential election, they got 40 percent of the vote. Russia saw one particular presidential candidate, Emmanuelle Macron, as a major potential boost for the EU (and therefore, in their view, a threat to Russia’s geopolitical interests). Evidence suggests that the Russians therefore launched more than 2000 attempts to hack Macron’s election campaign and steal sensitive information from it. That information was then anonymously leaked online just days before the final presidential election, in the hope of influencing the result. In the end, Macron won, despite the substantial mainly secret attempts by Russia to intervene. Source:
In Germany, a leading German newspaper revealed a secret Russian proposal to finance the Eurosceptic extreme right in Germany, using profits on gold transactions rather than conventional cash. Anonymous gifts of millions of right-wing election leaflets were also donated to the German far right which admitted it could not rule out that they had been provided courtesy of Russian finance. Russia also intervened quite openly in Germany’s general election – by giving massive media support (via Kremlin-financed German and Russian language international television stations). The Russian government was particularly keen to encourage Germany’s 2.5 million Russian immigrants (ethnic Germans whose ancestors had lived in Russia for generations) to undermine the German government and the European Union by voting for the main far-right German opposition party, thus helping them to win 94 seats in 2017 in the German parliament. It’s the first time since the Second World War that an extreme right-wing party has succeeded in establishing a major presence in that parliament. What’s more, Germany’s domestic intelligence service says that Kremlin-linked hackers carried out a series of sophisticated hacking raids to steal important information from Germany’s parliament and from the country‘s main government party. Source: https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FinalRR.pdf
In the Netherlands, Russia covertly intervened to influence voting in the 2016 Dutch referendum on whether the Netherlands should approve of a trade agreement between the EU and the Ukraine. The Russian intervention consisted of the dissemination of fake news, including fake Ukrainian threats to carry out terror attacks against the Netherlands. The Dutch intelligence service said that Russia’s intelligence services had “their sights firmly set on the Netherlands’’ and that they sought “to influence decision-making processes, perceptions and public opinion” through “the dissemination of disinformation and propaganda.” Source:
Even in tiny Montenegro, Russia has intervened with huge funding for some opposition groups and politicians. Evidence even suggests that there was, in 2016, a Russian-backed plan to stage a violent coup d’état in the country. Source
Clandestine and other attempts to interfere politically have also been carried out by Russia in Italy, Spain and the Baltic states.
So tragically, although most people did not realise it at the time, a vote for Brexit was in fact also a vote for Russia – because Russia wanted a weaker EU (and Brexit is likely to deliver just that!). President Putin knows that a united confident Europe might prevail – but, disunited, it will surely fail, and Russia will prevail. He is a political realist. Unfortunately, those British politicians from all major parties, who pushed for Brexit or agreed to support a referendum, were not.
The public were tragically deceived by the Leave campaigns’ patriotic slogans. The bitter truth is that, in the long term, Brexit will help our key geopolitical adversary, Russia, to expand its power, so in that respect it is very difficult to regard Brexit as a patriotic act.
Very significantly pro-Leave politicians, political predecessors back in the 1930s also wanted Britain to abandon Europe. Research into the parallels between the 1930s and now (comparing appeasement and pro-Brexit ideologies) has produced disturbing evidence.
2: Would Brexit make Britain more influential in the world – or less?
The reality of the world today is that it consists of huge nations and trading blocs – the USA/North America, China, Russia, India, South East Asia (ASEAN), and of course the EU itself.
Much of our importance and influence derives from the fact that we are one of the three top players in that huge latter organisation: the EU’s population is 512 million (and its GDP is $22 trillion), making it the third largest political/economic entity in the world.
The U.K.’s population is 66 million (and our GDP is just under $3 trillion) – just 13 percent of that.
In the EU, not only have we been one of the three top players, but we have also always had a veto. Anything we really did not like we were, in effect, able to stop.
After we have left the EU, our influence within our own continent will be massively reduced. We will not be able to exercise our veto – nor even participate in decision-making meetings (even if those meetings are making decisions that will directly or indirectly affect us).
But Brexit won’t just diminish our influence in Europe. Tragically, it will reduce it worldwide. Why?
Well, many countries paid attention to us at least partially because we were a top player in the EU and had substantial influence there. In particular, the Americans, because of our shared language, history and culture, saw us as their ‘bridge’ into the EU – a key part of their interface with Europe.
The US has also traditionally regarded the EU as a key institution for the maintenance of European stability and security in the face of threats from Russia and Islamist extremism. Britain has been, to a large extent, its key European ally – because we’ve traditionally had a so-called ‘special relationship’ with the US, but also because we were a top player in the EU. Remove that second dimension – and our geopolitical value to them (and therefore the degree of international influence we have) would be substantially diminished.
Of course, our influence in the world also depends on our bargaining strength. Because we are scheduled to leave the EU (and probably its single market etc), every government on Earth knows that we are absolutely desperate to do foreign trade deals as rapidly as possible to compensate for what we are about to economically and politically lose, courtesy of Brexit. Unfortunately every government on Earth therefore knows that, as the Brexit cliff edge approaches, we are armed to the teeth with very large begging bowls, rather than sticks or even carrots. Sadly we will be the supplicants at the courts of presidents and other rulers far more powerful than we are.
In terms of wanting deals, it’s sadly not going to be a buyers’ market.
Our international influence will be undermined because our understandable desperation for deals will always trump our ability to limit foreign economic interference in Britain and our ability to influence foreign military and political decisions that could affect our own national interests.
Of course, it’s not just other nations that we will need to influence (and try to work with on equal terms). We will also need to try to ensure that the world’s great multinationals listen to us and respect us. But they too will sense our Brexit-induced desperation for new investment and trade – and, sadly, they too will therefore be in a position to drive some very hard bargains. Our influence on them will thus sadly be reduced proportionately.
But there is one critical factor in world influence that we have so far ignored.
Some pro-Brexit politicians have been very critical of the development of a European army. Having a long military tradition (along with our membership of NATO) has always been key to commanding respect and having international geopolitical clout. Will Brexit allow us to capitalise on that tradition and to expand it? Sadly, even that avenue of influence is likely to narrow – precisely because of Brexit. Our government knows that our financial situation will be, to say the least, delicate post- Brexit. Nobody knows how long that delicate situation will continue for. So investment in our military is likely to continue to decline, at least for some time. It certainly won’t increase in real terms.
The House of Commons Defence Select Committee concluded that Britain’s fighting power was reduced by 50% between 2010 and 2015. Certainly over the past two decades the number of British military personnel has fallen by 27% , the number of major fully armed warships has been cut by 50% and the number of combat aircraft has been cut by 32%.
Defence cuts have “effectively removed” Britain’s ability to “deliver and sustain” an effective fighting force against a “competent” enemy such as Russia, according to the army’s think tank.
And as the economic situation becomes potentially worse (or at the very least somewhat unpredictable) post-Brexit, that downward trend is likely to continue. The painful reality, outlined in a British Army think tank report, is that the UK is not currently capable of deploying an effective fighting force against any competent enemy – not able to fight even a small war and be sure of winning. Certainly, if the Falklands War happened today rather than 36 years ago, Argentina would sadly have a very high chance of winning it.
The new reality is that, ultimately, a key part of our ability to exert military influence is through full cooperation with the very nations we are about to break ranks with.
3: Would Brexit make Europe and the world more or less stable, more or less secure?
At the end of the day, this is probably the most crucial question. Unfortunately the consequences of destabilisation in Europe have normally been particularly severe. For around 60% of the past 500 years, Europe has found itself at war. Some 85 million people have died on our continent in 27 major wars which have on average each involved around a dozen countries. What’s more, many of those wars spilled over into the rest of the world, killing yet more millions. Only when pan-European institutions or arrangements have existed, has peace prevailed for any reasonable amount of time. Source:
So the question of whether Brexit will strengthen or weaken European stability and security is of tremendous importance for the whole world – including us. Tragically, history shows that our continent either pulls together or catastrophically fails to do so – with lethal and painful consequences. It is a little known yet sobering fact that there are today still more than 30 international territorial and ethnic disputes in Europe, and that EU integration and cooperation is often the crucial ingredient that stops them escalating into more bitter disputes or even conflicts.
Geopolitically, the problem is twofold.
Over the past 200 years, Britain has only really had two (often alternating) major European enemies/rivals – Russia (1820-1907; 1918-1929; 1946-1987; and 2006 to now) and Germany (1890- 1918; and 1933-1945. Unfortunately, Brexit will inevitably make both of them much more powerful – a development that is likely to ultimately make Europe and the world less stable.
As already outlined above, Russia sees the European Union as an unwelcome cultural, geopolitical and economic threat on its western flank. It also wants to re-establish its influence in Eastern Europe – most of which slipped out of the Russian orbit back in 1989 and then joined the EU in 2004 and 2007. Brexit will tragically weaken Europe and will therefore increase the temptation for Russia to intervene in the affairs of the EU’s eastern European members. Russian military incursions Into Western air space and territorial waters have substantially increased over recent years. In the past 60 months there have been literally dozens of incidents including Russian ultra-close approaches (sometimes just 2 or 3 metres) to Western military aircraft in international airspace, Russian submarine activity in Western territorial waters, Russian military aircraft buzzing Western warships in international waters and Russian special forces even abducting an allied military officer from NATO territory (Estonia). Russian bombers have even staged a simulated raid on a Danish town and have even approached the coast of south-west England and California. In one particularly reckless incursion a Russian military aircraft almost collided with a Scandinavian civilian airliner. This is the mounting military background to the recent political interference. Sources: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/full-list-of-incidents-involving-russian-military-and-nato-since-march-2014-9851309.html
But Britain’s departure from the EU will also increase Germany’s power within Europe. There are currently three major powers (in economic terms: Germany, Britain and France) in the EU. Traditionally, Britain has therefore acted as a counterweight to German power. However, if or when Britain leaves the European Union, Germany alone will inevitably become the overwhelmingly dominant actor within the EU. This will undoubtedly worry a fair number of European countries who suffered from German dominance in the early to mid 20th century.
Of course, Germany’s political leaders will want to show restraint (so as not to alarm their neighbours) – but with Britain’s contribution no longer available to help fund the EU, a much larger burden will inevitably fall on German taxpayers’ shoulders. The problem will come when those taxpayers want to more clearly exercise a level of real power within Europe that is genuinely commensurate with their country’s level of funding for it. Britain’s absence from the EU may well therefore cause a long-term and fundamental geopolitical imbalance within Europe – one that could unintentionally push Germany into a position of unavoidable increased dominance (a situation – which would, no doubt, be resented by many Europeans – a fact which Russia would inevitably exploit). Back in the late 19th century, Britain pursued a policy of so-called ’splendid isolation’– a less ‘splendid’ version of which we are now in danger of attempting again. And, of course, in the 1930s, we in effect abandoned Europe through the policy of appeasement. The parallels with today are disturbing.
4: Even if Brexit were to make us less secure, less prosperous and less influential in the world, would it at least make us more genuinely independent?
That’s probably the most politically fraught question of all – because, at the end of the day, many people who voted Leave in the referendum did so because they genuinely and sincerely craved more independence for our country.
On paper, of course, Brexit should give us more independence. But tragically, the reality is likely to be very very different.
If we quit the EU and its single market, we will of course, as I mentioned before, need to do alternative trade deals with major countries outside Europe.
And again, as I said earlier, they will realise our desperate and urgent need to get such deals – and will consequently be in a position to drive some very hard bargains. Earlier, I mentioned that with us as the supplicants, so to speak, our global influence would be reduced. But, in a sense, that’s the least of it. The other consequence will be that our level of independence here in the UK will be reduced.
The sad truth is that other countries are likely to impose a heavy protective price for any trade deals they allow us to have. Here’s just a taste of the sorts of things that they are likely to insist upon in any major trade agreements.
Some are likely, for instance, to insist on protecting their exports by forcing us to exempt their goods from some UK health and safety legislation. Key examples are likely to be meat containing high levels of artificial hormones and antibiotics, which are currently barred from being imported into the UK.
Then on UK tax, some new foreign trade deal partners, again sensing our desperation to secure deals rapidly, are likely to insist that any future legal disagreements are not subject to British courts – but would instead be resolved by external arbitration.
Some countries may even insist that existing limits on their ability to own UK businesses be scrapped or weakened. Countries giving us trade deals and major foreign investors are also likely to want us to exempt them from at least some domestic regulation and from normal levels of taxation.
But it won’t just be non-EU countries using trade deals to leverage us, the EU itself will also have immense strength to do so. The “level playing field” elements in May’s deal (intended to avoid ‘unfair competition’) could in reality see us following lots of EU rules without a say on what they are.
Last but not least, several governments are very likely to insist that we allow substantially increased immigration into Britain from their countries. The price tag attached to certain trade deals with at least some major non-European nations will be a relaxation of our immigration policy. So voters, who fondly thought that voting Leave would reduce immigration, may well be in for a surprise.
All this will increase direct foreign control of UK business activity, reduce our courts (and potentially even Parliament’s) jurisdiction over key domestic decisions and will erode our domestic tax base and generate new migration flows.
What’s more, our freedom to protect our interests and even our citizens abroad will be potentially compromised – because we will not wish to offend those foreign governments or other entities on whom we will begin to depend.
In short, tragically and against all popular expectations, Brexit will certainly not make us more independent – and will probably make us substantially less so.
5: Would Brexit enhance Britain’s sovereignty – or would it threaten our very existence as a nation.
Brexit has often been presented as an issue of British sovereignty. Yet, quite apart from all the Brexit-induced threats to that sovereignty, discussed above, there is also the issue of Brexit’s threat to the most central element of British sovereignty – the territorial integrity of the UK.
Brexit certainly threatens to increase the danger of the UK breaking up.
At present at least 45% of Scots support Scottish independence from the UK – but there are also around 4% that have not yet made up their minds (and of course support could further increase if Brexit major economic problems in Scotland). The Scottish National Party has reserved the right to call another independence referendum if Brexit goes ahead.
If the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal or with one that nonetheless delivers a hard Brexit, support in Scotland for independence will almost certainly increase. If that happens, the Scottish government would be very likely to call another independence referendum – and (because of the potential consequences of Brexit), they might well ultimately win it by a small margin. In the 2014 referendum (with no Brexit dimension) 44.7% of Scottish voters supported independence. But, according to opinion polls, in June 2016 and again in March 2017, 46-47% of Scots supported independence.
But a confidential government study which was leaked in February 2018, reveals with a brutal clarity (which the public was not meant to be told) how, in the event of the UK leaving the EU with no deal (or with a deal – but still not in the single market), Scotland will be significantly worse affected than most English regions. Indeed, if one compares Scotland with southern England (London, South East and South West England), Scotland is predicted to be around 66% worse affected (a GDP dip of 9% in Scotland, compared to only 5.4% in southern England). Even if we left the single market, but agreed a free trade deal with the EU, Scotland would still be down 6% while southern England would suffer to the tune of around 2.9%. sources:
If the government’s own estimates are correct, then those GDP figures will inevitably translate into job losses – which in turn are likely to generate more nationalist sentiment in Scotland.
Of course, the other region of the UK for which Brexit has additional geopolitical implications is Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland will be even more badly affected by a hard Brexit than most other parts of the UK. According to the leaked government document, only north-east England would be worse hit.
Northern Ireland’s GDP will be reduced by 12%, if the UK crashes out of the EU with no agreement. Even if a deal is reached, but we don’t stay in the single market, Northern Ireland will suffer an 8% reduction in GDP.
The predicted figures for southern England would be respectively 5.4% and 2.9%. London – where people in northern Ireland (and indeed elsewhere) perceive political power as ultimately flowing from – will be even less affected than southern England as a whole – with its GDP predicted to fall just 3.5% (in a ‘no deal’ scenario) and just 2% if a deal is reached but we still leave the single market. The British government has made it crystal clear that they do not wish to stay in the single market.
In the referendum, Northern Ireland voted 56 percent against Brexit. Because almost 30 percent of its international trade is with the rest of the island of Ireland (i.e. the Republic), its people are well aware of the dire implications of Brexit for their province.
Freedom of movement of people and goods – the de facto abolition of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic – also means in practice that the island of Ireland has begun to function as one semi-unified territory.
The de facto disappearance of the border since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement at the end of the Troubles, is a central part of the spirit and ethos underlying the various important all Ireland economic and other programs – including Tourism Ireland, Waterways Ireland, InterTrade Ireland, etc, etc which all treat the entire island as one indivisible entity.
Anything that undermines the border is likely to undermine that de facto ‘quasi-unification’ ethos. At present, Northern Ireland and the Republic are both part of a greater supra-national whole – the EU. After Brexit, each will be in its own potentially rival entities – the UK and the EU.
Unlike in Scotland, there is probably zero possibility that anger in Northern Ireland over Brexit would lead relatively rapidly to a geopolitical change (i.e. Northern Ireland leaving the UK and joining the Republic) – but long-term a hard Brexit would certainly push events in that direction.
A recent opinion poll suggests that between 44.9 and 50.9% of people in Northern Ireland would support the province becoming part of the Republic in the event of a hard Brexit. A further 3-9 percent had not made up their minds – and a hard Brexit (and consequent economic pain for the province) could well push them also to opt to leave the UK and join the Republic. Certainly the Good Friday Agreement enshrines the opportunity for Northern Ireland to one day hold a referendum on just that subject. The same recent opinion poll also suggests that between 42.4 and 48.4% of Northern Ireland’s people would oppose the province joining the Republic – even in the event of a hard Brexit.
All these figures clearly suggest that, for the very first time in Northern Irish history, there may now be more people in the province prepared to leave the UK and join the Republic than there are opposed to such action.
All this reveals the historic transformational political impact that the approach of Brexit is having on Northern Irish opinion. It suggests, for the first time, that (quite apart from the much more pro-Irish-reunification Catholic community), a significant minority of Protestant (or Protestant background) Northern Irish people are now also prepared for their province to join the Republic – something that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago. Protestants (or people from Protestant backgrounds) make up 48% of Northern Ireland’s population (as opposed to 45% being catholic or from Catholic backgrounds).
Just five years ago, when Brexit was not in prospect, only 4% of Northern Ireland’s population wanted to rapidly join the Republic (0% of the Protestant population and only 13% of the Catholics). Even the idea of joining the Republic far in the future (in say 20 years time) only attracted 26% support from the Northern Irish population as a whole (4% who would prefer it immediately plus another 22% who preferred to wait two decades).
Significantly, the opinion polling last year suggests that today between 5 and 11% of Protestants would opt for leaving the UK and joining the Republic in the event of a hard Brexit – and a further 2.6-8.6% might consider it.
A particular indicator of what the future might hold is the opinion poll’s analysis of voting by age group (carried out by the Northern Ireland lolling company, LucidTalk). Around 57% (+/-3%) of 18-44-year-olds would leave the UK in the event of a hard brexit, compared to only around 40% of those aged 45 and above. Further info:
We’ve just examined how Brexit could conceivably lead sooner or later to both Scotland and Northern Ireland’s departure from the United Kingdom. What would the main implications of that be?
Firstly, the UK as a sovereign entity (and Britain as a geopolitical concept) would obviously cease to exist. Only the Kingdom of England and the principality of Wales would remain.
Secondly, the U.K.’s successor state – a united territory of England and Wales – would be completely surrounded by EU territory. Because the divorce between the UK and the EU may well generate at least some mutual resentment (especially if the EU tries to drive a particularly hard bargain), relations between the UK and the vastly larger EU may well be strained for some time. Any hard bargain, ultimately induced by Britain’s decision to quit the EU, could well lead to at least some Britons feeling resentment and animosity towards our much larger neighbour – ie the EU. Likewise, if Scotland and Northern Ireland were to leave the UK and continue in EU membership, English resentments might well further increase. Divorces are seldom amicable and pleasant affairs!
Thirdly, the political complexion of an Anglo/Welsh successor state to the UK would be tilted in a markedly conservative direction – which could in turn also begin to drive historically largely non-conservative Wales towards much greater self-rule or even ultimately towards independence.
Disturbingly, among a majority of Conservative voters in England, there is a dramatic contradiction between their support for Brexit and their support for the union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (i.e. the concept of the United Kingdom). Tragically, according to an opinion poll last year, a majority of English Conservative voters would prioritise Brexit over the survival of the UK.
6: Will the 2016 Brexit referendum be seen in the future as a remarkable achievement in democratic decision-making – or a tragically flawed and distorted betrayal of real democracy?
The degree to which the referendum was or was not a genuinely democratic exercise is a complex question. There are at least five key issues involved:
(1) Neither leave or remain succeeded in winning support at the ballot box from a majority of the UK population, eligible to register to vote in the referendum.
Just under 31 percent (30.94%) of that eligible UK population voted leave, while 28.65 percent voted Remain. It was therefore an extremely narrow result – with neither side securing support at the ballot box from a majority of the eligible-to-register population. Indeed, in these more objective terms, Leave was about 20 percentage points short of an absolute majority, while Remain was around 22 percentage points short of such a majority. The actual gap between the two sides (in eligible to register terms) was just 2.29 percentage points!
However, even these figures mask a more disturbing reality.
Partly due to government imposed changes in the electoral registration system during the two years prior to the referendum, the Remain side was systematically disadvantaged. There was no deliberate government intention to disadvantage Remain – but the government-imposed electoral registration changes, prior to the referendum, did nevertheless significantly distort the results in a way that led to a Leave victory. That was one of the reasons that the opinion polls failed to accurately predict the result. Their prediction of a Remain victory was almost certainly a genuine reflection of the British public’s real wishes – but it did not take full enough account of the impact of the government imposed changes to voter registration procedures.
These procedures contributed towards a large shortfall in the number of young people who registered to vote.
The proof that this phenomenon was occurring on a major scale (specifically among younger age-groups) is provided by comparing the electoral registers for 2014 and 2015.
Detailed analysis of the December 2015 local government registers for Great Britain (together with related research) reveal that only 65 percent of eligible 18-19-year-olds were registered to vote, only 67 percent of 20-24-year-olds and only 70 percent of 25-34-year-olds.
This compares to 96 percent of over 65s, 93 percent of 55-64-year-olds and 90 percent of 45-54-year-olds. That huge difference in registration levels between young and old, was a key factor in the Leave victory and the Remain defeat – because other research shows very clearly that more elderly voters were more than twice as likely to support Leave than younger ones. Indeed, 71 percent of 18-24-year-olds and 54 percent of 25-49-year-olds voters supported remain, while 64 percent of over 65s supported leave.
Sources and further info:
YouGov survey on ‘how Britain voted’, published June 27, 2016. https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2016/06/27/how-britain-voted
The shortfall in voter registration in younger age groups was a result of several factors.
One important cause (which very substantially affected 18-19-year-olds) was the change in government imposed registration procedures in the months prior to the referendum.
Another even bigger factor is the way in which the frequency with which people change address affects the likelihood of them being on the electoral register. The more changes of address, the less likely a person is to be on the register and therefore able to vote. Again, younger people are massively more affected by this than older ones – and Remain was therefore systematically disadvantaged. The 2013/2014 English Housing survey revealed that 55 percent of all recent movers are under 34 years of age. That is partly a result in the huge rise in house prices, which has driven very large numbers of young people into the very mobile, rented sector and has prevented them becoming (less mobile) owner occupiers.
Both the registration change and house price rise factors were therefore major elements in skewing the results in a Leave direction – and both are unintended results of government practice/policy (i.e. to alter the voter registration system and to , albeit unintentionally, preside over an increase in private renting by young people as opposed to owner occupation.)
However, Leave did not receive majority support from the electorate, even if non-registered potential voters are not included in the figures, and we just look at the Leave and Remain vote totals as proportions of the registered electorate. Looked at it in that more conventional way, Leave won only 37 percent as against 35 percent who supported Remain and 28 percent who were also registered to vote, but abstained. The reality therefore was that the Leave campaigns failed to persuade 63 percent of the electorate!
But the factors above which distorted the referendum result were not the only systematic disadvantages suffered by Remain.
(2) A second major one was the nature of the British media. Coverage was extremely biased, selective and incomplete – and favoured Leave.
National daily newspapers (when weighted to take different levels of circulation into account) were 70 percent pro-Leave and only 30 percent pro-Remain (although one major officially pro-Remain paper, The Times, actually published more pro-Leave articles than pro-Remain ones in the final four days of the referendum campaign. Actual referendum campaign coverage (taking reach [readership] into account) was 48 percent pro-Leave and just 22 percent pro-Remain (with 30 percent non-partisan). Pro-leave spokespeople and campaigners were cited in 74 percent of referendum-related articles, while pro-Remain people were cited in only 26 percent.
What’s more, many pro-Leave articles were far more stridently anti-Remain, while many pro-Remain ones were less aggressively anti-Leave. For instance, over 50 percent of coverage by the pro-Remain Guardian and and the officially pro-remain Times was balanced or neutral, while only 21.3 percent, 34 percent and 38.8 percent of coverage by pro-Leave papers, the Daily Express, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, fell into that category.
Of huge importance was the positioning of stories. 65 percent of front page lead articles in the UK daily papers were pro-leave, while just 35 percent were pro-remain. Taking circulation into account, the contrast was much much greater. The pro-leave Sun (2016 circulation: 1.7 million), for instance, had 22 pro-Brexit front-page lead stories – compared to the pro-Remain Daily Mirror (2016 circulation: 0.75 million), which had just 5 anti-Brexit front page lead stories.
TV News did not really compensate for press bias – because it tended (81.9 percent of TV coverage) to be purely neutral/balanced in its approach.
The other major impact of the media was through its editorial decision-making as to what issues to cover – and what not to cover.
Bizarrely, only 2.3 percent of all media coverage of the referendum was on the national health service (despite the fact that Brexit has huge implications for NHS staffing levels and medicine imports, etc), only 0.6 percent was on agriculture (despite the fact that 60 percent of UK farmers income is from EU subsidies) and only 3.4 percent of coverage was on security/defence implications (despite the rising tide of anti-Western nationalism in Russia – and the threat from Islamist terrorism).
Less than one percent of coverage dealt with Brexit’s implications for the Northern Ireland border situation (and the implications for the Good Friday agreement and peace in the province). Similarly, less than one percent of coverage dealt with Brexit’s implication for the U.K.’s future (i.e. for a second Scottish referendum and potential Scottish independence).
By contrast, the highly emotive subject of immigration (overwhelmingly from a negative perspective) was the most prominent referendum issue in the press (accounting for 99 front-page lead stories/headlines). Over the course of the referendum campaign, press coverage of immigration stories literally trebbled – mainly in pro-leave papers.
There were also a number of totally fake claims made during the referendum campaign – by both sides.
However, the leave campaign made at least double the number of major false/inaccurate claims made by remain.
Leaflets were for instance, issued by the Leave campaign suggesting that Turkey was about to join the European Union and that mass Turkish immigration would follow. A vote leave poster told voters that”Turkey (population 76,000,000) is joining the EU” and implied that large numbers of Turks would therefore migrate to Britain.
The claim was totally false. Turkey was not about to join the EU – and is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future.
In what appears to have been a co-ordinated ploy, the pro-leave Sunday express pre—planned a Turkish immigration scare story, which it then published immediately after the vote leave poster campaign had been launched.
Some weeks earlier, the paper had commissioned a Turkish market research company to ask around 2500 Turks whether , given the chance, they (or any member of their family) would consider emigrating to Britain if at some stage in the future Turkey was to join the European Union. 424 (out of 2685 people questioned (i.e. just 16 percent) said that, given the chance, they would consider it. But Turkey is not joining the EU and there was (and is) therefore absolutely no prospect of them being given the chance in the foreseeable future. But that, however, did not stop the Sunday express publishing a deliberately inaccurate and incendiary front-page headline which said: “12 million Turks say they’ll come to UK”.
In a very real sense, David Cameron and so many MPs’ decision to give in to the Brexiteer right and allow a referendum was, de facto, a decision to abandon Parliamentary democracy and hand over power to a handful of right-wing billionaires who effectively control around 75 percent (circulation wise) of the UK national daily newspaper industry.
For further information about the role of the media in the referendum – and the nature of the UK media:
(3) The third factor undermining the democratic credibility of the referendum was the violation of election law, predominantly by the Leave campaigns.
The official Leave campaign organisation – Vote Leave – spent £449,000 (6.4%) more than it was legally allowed to, according to the U.K.’s electoral commission which was responsible for overseeing the referendum. In July 2018, the commission fined Vote Leave for this and other violations. The commission also referred the case to the Metropolitan Police.
The other major pro-Brexit organisation, Leave.EU, has also had a fine levied against it – by the Information Commissioner’s Office.
The commission also found that the other major Leave organisation – Leave.EU – had spent at least 10% more than they were allowed to. The commission found that the organisation had failed to include at least £77,380 in its spending return.
The commission also investigated financial loans to Leave.EU and said that it suspects that the money had come “from impermissible sources”. In November 2018, it was revealed that the electoral commission had also referred that case to the Metropolitan Police.
Sources and further information:
(4) A fourth factor affecting the democratic credibility of the referendum was the use by one of the two major Leave campaigns of information obtained by a data analysis company through online data mining. There are two key issues here:
Firstly, there is the question of whether ultra-sophisticated data mining is morally permissible as part of an election or referendum campaign process.
Secondly, there is the fact that, despite the use of mined data in the Leave.EU campaign, no campaign contributions by the data mining organisation (Cambridge Analytica), in cash or kind, were ever reported by Leave.EU to the UK Electoral Commission.
Sources and further info:
(5) Last but certainly not least in the list of factors undermining the referendum’s democratic credibility is the question of Russian interference. The truth is that we currently simply do not know its scale. But it is very likely that it was substantially larger than the currently available evidence allows one to prove. The proven scale of Russian interference in elections in several other countries (please see details near the beginning of this document) makes it inherently unlikely that the UK referendum was given less robust treatment by the Russians.
For Moscow, the 2016 referendum was of extreme importance – because of its unique capacity to seriously weaken the European Union. Certainly Russian interference, whatever the scale, has implications for the democratic credibility of the referendum process, especially given the closeness of the result.
But detailed official UK investigations are likely to occur in the near future.