How the Brexit outcome has changed our understanding of referendums


Prof John Fitzgibbon 

Works at the Center for Teaching Excellence in Boston College where he develops simulations and online learning programs.

This September his Co-Edited book “Euroscepticism as a Transnational and Pan-European Phenomenon”will be published by Taylor and Francis. 



EU Referendum Analysis 2016 - section 1

Section 1: Context

In a referendum campaign, typically the impetus is with the status quo. Unless the situation surrounding the issue is highly negative then on the balance of probabilities voters will stick with what they are familiar with rather than what they are unsure of. This finding has been consistent for referendums across advanced democracies. For those referendum campaigns arguing for change, their imperative was not just to convince voters that the status quo is a bad thing but additionally that the alternative they propose is better.

What makes the Brexit referendum outcome fascinating is that voters had such a negative position toward the status quo of EU membership that they rejected it without a singular or clear alternative being presented to them.

What makes the Brexit referendum outcome fascinating is that voters had such a negative position toward the status quo of EU membership that they rejected it without a singular or clear alternative being presented to them. This leads us to two immediate conclusions; firstly, that opposition to the existing UK political system and EU membership ran deep; and secondly, that the Brexit side did not expect to win as they did not draft up detailed plans for a post-Brexit Britain. The second conclusion can be contrasted to the plans of the SNP for what a post-independence Scotland would look like. Their proposal ‘Scotland’s Future’ was critiqued in great detail by the media, pro-Union politicians and independent experts. This had the result that nuanced policy arguments such as a currency union and the future of North Sea Oil becoming key issues of debate that swayed many voters to stick with the UK. The fact that this did not happen is representative of the first conclusion, the depth of negative sentiment toward the existing political order in Westminster and Brussels.

The table opposite lists out the four main Leave campaign groups next to the main alternative proposals they put forward for EU membership. As can be seen there was wide variance between the proposals. All advocated for some form of associated membership of the EU based on other examples – Norway, Switzerland, Albania etc – with a specific focus on a trade agreement and access to the Single Market. In essence this argument was somewhat superfluous. The campaign boiled down not an alternative to UK membership of the EU, but more to what specific EU policies would be removed from a new UK-EU relationship. With public understanding of the EU at the lowest in the EU, the electorate were more focused on immigration, the UK financial contribution to the EU budget, and the democratic deficit in EU governance. As for alternatives the focus was on a ‘globalized’ UK that went ‘out into the world’ to trade with fast growing states beyond the sclerotic Eurozone. This reveals a significant gap in the alternative proposals of the Brexit campaigners. They focused on articulating the specific EU policies they opposed and made arguments for greater focus on non-EU trade, but omitted an analysis of what would happen in the middle, namely what form would the new UK-EU relationship take.

All of these ‘movements’ were lead by a mixture of MPs, MEPs, political activists, and civil society members. This proved to be both a strength, and a weakness for the Leave campaign – a strength in that it gave them a wide base of support across social, party, and geographic cleavages; but a weakness in that it made formulating an alternative plan to replace the UK-EU membership impossible to agree on. Leave campaigners were clear on what they disliked about the EU, were in unison about future participation in the Single Market as part of a wider global trade strategy for the economy, but were negligent in articulating how this goal would be achieved. It would appear that their trenchant criticism of the EU, left them bereft of any practical consideration of how European integration worked in reality, and thus how they could secure the immediate future of a post-Brexit UK.