The “leave” campaign was strongly supported by a swathe of the UK media including the popular tabloid papers the Sun, the Star, the Daily Mail and Express as well as the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times. Remain was supported by the Daily Mirror, the Financial Times the Guardian and the Times.
Many of the leave supporting newspapers has a long record of opposition to the European Union. Famously Boris Johnson was in the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels bureau from 1989 until 1994 during which time he wrote many articles highly critical of the European Union many exaggeratedly critical. The Telegraph decided to back a vote to Leave not harking back to a Britannic golden age lost in the mists of time but looking forward to a new beginning for our country”.
Two days before the referendum the Sun had its first 10 pages devoted to strongly pro-Brexit material. Infamously campaign funds channelled through the Democratic Unionist party supported front- and back-page advertisements in the free Metro newspaper calling for Brexit in the days before the referendum.
The leave campaign was headed nominally by a Labour MP Gisela Stuart. Prominent cabinet members Michael Gove and former London mayor and backbench MP Boris Johnson were the prominent faces of the Leave campaign.
Former chancellors Nigel Lawson Norman Lamont and even Jim Callaghan’s Chancellor Denis Healey (in a pre-referendum interview before it died) supported leave. David Cameron’s to predecessors as Conservative party leader Michael Howard and Ian Duncan Smith weighed in and strongly campaigning in favour of leave.Many key cabinet members did not campaign actively for Brexit or were lukewarm in their support. Sajid Javid, the Business Secretary, said he would not have entered the EU and would vote no in any future referendum.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary who had been responsible for immigration and was critical of judgements of European Court of Human Rights made a speech in April 2016 saying that Britain should withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights and European Convention on Human Rights, implying leaving the Council of Europe. It is a different institution to the European Communities but seemed to send a clear message of her Eurosceptic credentials.
The UKIP campaign was supported by certain wealthy donors and fronted by Nigel Farage UKIP MEP and leader who had campaigned for many years against the European Union. Many questionable claims were made including the notorious leave battle bus with the slogan which declared that the UK would have £350 million a week to spend on the National Health Service if it left the European Union.
The electoral legislation does not assist the remain campaign. A new system of electoral registration required individual registration of voters which tended to reduce the number of students and others living away from home in getting their names on the electoral register. Prior to electoral changes made in 2015, a parent or other could notify registration. The measures were thought to be designed to assist the Conservative Party and were passed after the Conservative win in the May 2015 election.
Some Comapign Factors
Immigration was a very prominent feature of both the UKIP and Conservative-led leave campaigns. A report by the Electoral Reform Society based on polling indicated that practically half of voters believed that politicians mostly told lies.
The Brexit referendum campaign coincided with the EU agreement with Turkey to stem the migrant crisis. It was claimed that Turkey was about to join the EU and that the right to travel and work in the UK would be accorded. Free movement was a possibility under this agreement which does not ultimately emerge. Juxtaposed with the huge migrant population from Syria and Iraq into Turkey, the image of uncontrolled migration seemed plausible.
It did not help that the remain campaign also made exaggerated claims some in relation to the immediate catastrophic effect of Brexit. What was labelled “project fear” emphasised the extra cost per household and other negatives that would follow from a leave vote?
Less was said or appeared to have been said to explain the benefits of European Union membership. When many of these claims did not seem to come true after the leave vote immediately, they appeared to be further discredited.
In a froth campaign it appeared to many that both sides were telling half-truths and untruths. Michael Gove leave campaigner famously said in June 2016 that people in the country had had enough of expert opinion in response to claims that the remain camp had the weight of expert opinion on its side.Nigel Farage suggested that many independent experts were actually in the pay of the government or the EU and reminded voters of occasions when the so-called experts had made mistakes in the past.
It appeared that Jeremy Corbyn and large elements of the Labour Party were unenthusiastic campaigners in the Brexit referendum. Jeremy Corbyn had been a stalwart of the left-wing of the Labour Party for over 30 years and was closely associated with the most anti-European elements in the party, including Tony Benn, through those years. He had historically opposed the EU as a capitalist club. The predominance over decades of centre-right governments in continental Europe caused the EU to be perceived as a centre-right project to many left-wing levers.
Certain prominent Labour figures supported leave. Many others campaigned in a very half-hearted manner. This perhaps reflected the fact that many Labour voters supported leave.
Alistair Darling former Labour cabinet minister and Gordon Brown former Labour Prime Minister was prominent in the remain campaign. Gordon Brown wrote a book on the case for remaining in Europe. Gordon Brown had intervened in the 2014 Scottish referendum in a way that was seen as instrumental in securing the No vote to Scottish independence
Gordon Brown had infamously been recorded labelling a Labour voter in Bolton who complained about immigrants as a bigoted woman in the 2010 general election campaign. This did not help his standing with leave supporting voters.
The UK Government
The Prime Minister’s renegotiation did not assist. In seeking a so-called better deal, the Prime Minister had been wholly critical of the European Union including describing it as bossy and bureaucratic. The measures offered were considerably more significant and far-reaching than is commonly understood. However, partly due to the unrealistic ambition, they were greeted, inevitably, in the United Kingdom as a grave disappointment.
David Cameron had said relatively little about the EU in his years as Conservative party leader perhaps not wishing to exacerbate the divisions in the party over Europe. David Cameron’s earlier statements about how Britain could prosper outside Europe did not assist.
David Cameron’s government has been intimately associated austerity over the previous six years. After achieving single-party government in the wake of the 2015 election more severe cuts in social payments were proposed in the 2016 budget.
Many Labour MPs were reluctant to canvass for remain in particular in cases where it was apparent that their own constituency or electorate was in favour of leave. Some canvased with little enthusiasm. The government was advocating for remain so that supporting remain looked like endorsing the government.
In many respects, Brexit was a protest vote against the Conservative government and the previous Labour government which had seemed to favour big business. The financial crash and deindustrialisation had seen average incomes fall by 10% in the previous decade. There seem to be much more pronounced winners and losers in the post-crisis recovery. The growing inequality and unfairness were widely apparent. There was a one-off chance to protest against the government very forceful way.