The vote for the United Kingdom (UK) to stay in or leave the European Union (EU) was never intended to lead to the country to exit the EU. The vote resulted from David Cameron, the then- British Prime Minister facing a growing leadership challenge from within his Conservative Party from the so-called Euroskeptic wing of the party. In order to weaken this vocal and powerful part of the party, Cameron decided to call his opponents’ bluff and hold a national referendum on the country’s membership in the EU. Cameron had every expectation that the UK public would decide to stay in the EU, because he knew that expert opinion from economists and foreign policy experts would argue vociferously that leaving the EU would badly damage the British economy and weaken Britain’s place in the world. He estimated that the average Briton would vote the “safe” way, stay in the EU. He gambled wrong, the majority of the UK public voted to leave the EU and Cameron’s political career is ruined. To quell voices of dissent within his own party, Cameron gambled his nation’s future.
Why did Cameron get it wrong? Why did the UK electorate not seem to listen to the advice of myriad learned experts who warned of grave economic and political consequences, if the UK left the EU? Many pundits have claimed that the vote against the EU was from the economically-down-and-out who voted against the European status quo. Prosperity had passed them by and they wanted change. This is a common narrative to explain Donald Trump’s supporters as well. In both cases, the explanation of support for right-wing populism, which was the basis of the British “leave” campaign, likens the support as a vote for taking chances on change to better the left-behinds’ economic plight. In both cases, this economic explanation is wrong.
There are very good reasons, based on exit polls and other data, to believe that the UK vote to exit the EU was not a vote for taking the risk of leaving but was a vote made from fear of staying. It was a vote to go back to a conjured “better time” when the UK was not assailed by immigration and being controlled by “foreigners.” The leave vote was driven much more by xenophobia than it was by economic concerns. The data on who was most likely to vote to leave the EU fit the usual pattern of people most likely to fear immigrants and foreigners in general; the less educated, rural people, and the elderly. We know from many well-documented studies that fear of immigrants is driven more by a general fear of people who are different than it is about concerns about economic competition.
This is the primary lesson of the Brexit vote. Highly–educated experts can preach the benefits of cosmopolitan perspectives and policies to those who have low levels of education or fear change and find that their efforts are for naught. Given the high saliency of the immigration and terrorism issues in Europe, this was the wrong vote at the wrong time. Its consequences may haunt Britain for some time to come.