The debate that divides: The UK and EU membership

“What is clear from this is the extent to which the desire to leave is motivated by a feeling that Britain has been mistreated by EU membership.”


In less than three weeks’ time the United Kingdom will decide by referendum whether or not to leave the European Union. It is an issue which is gripping the nation, in pubs and Universities, on TV and social media there is little else being talked about. For years this issue has bubbled beneath the surface of British politics, but now it is spilling forth on all fronts.

Britain has long been a reluctant and sceptical European. Being an island it feels semi-detached, its experience of the Second World War was also different, so the imperative of economic and political unity was felt differently. Having joined the EU later it also came to a club whose rules were already formed and whose institutions and practices, such as the Common Agricultural Policy, were not optimal for UK citizens. What has triggered the referendum now, however, is the explosive issue of immigration. By virtue of the fact that the UK has a more dynamic economy than most of the Euro zone and due to the widespread use of spoken English, many Southern and Eastern Europeans have moved to Britain for work. The resultant pressures on schools and hospitals and the fact that foreign workers can claim welfare payments for dependent children back in Poland or Spain has fuelled the calls for reform or exit. The result is a nations split by those who think that as the world’s fifth largest economy Britain would be better off alone, - able to control its own fishing, farming and decision making,- and those who see greater prosperity and security from membership of a larger European project and by being part of a market of 300 million people.

As a political scientist and a university professor it’s also fascinating to see the way that the UK is split. There are clear divisions between the generations, older voters who remember life before the UK joined the then EEC in 1973 are much more likely to vote leave, while younger voters who have grown up accustomed to easy travel within Europe and to seeing themselves as culturally and politically European are much more supportive of Vote Remain. But the divisions are not only generational. There is also a major split between elite and popular opinion. The political establishment in all its forms, from the Bank of England, to the major economic bodies, Universities, former heads of the Armed Forces and Intelligence agencies, and former and current political leaders of all parties have argued strongly for remain, while support for leave is located squarely with those sections of the electorate who feel disadvantaged by membership and who are nostalgic or wistful for a world where Britain can “Take back Control” of its borders, businesses and benefits. What is also surprising is how incoherent the leave agenda is. No major political party supports exist, there is no manifesto for what this would involve, no agreement on key issues such as weather Britain should remain within the Single Market, and no obvious answer as to how an exit would be pursued and implemented should the vote go that way on 23 June. What is clear from this is the extent to which the desire to leave is motivated by a feeling that Britain has been mistreated by EU membership and the belief that a better a future is possible outside. That so many voters are prepared to vote for that path without it being demonstrated what that alternative path is, how it would be pursued, who would lead it and where it would lead to, is a striking rejection of traditional politics as usual. It is a movement akin to the populism that supports Donald Trump in America and right wing parties in parts of Europe. It is also a phenomenon that is unlikely to be put to rest whichever way the vote goes in Britain on 23 June.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.