COM 05/2016

The June 23rd Brexit vote in the UK

Cormac Mac Amhlaigh, Senior Lecturer, MacCormick Fellows & Academic Visitor Convenor; Director of Exams at the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Law School


On June 23rd 2016, the British electorate voted to leave the European Union. It is hard to underestimate the significance of this vote. The UK has been an EU member state for the last 43 years and its membership constituted a central feature of British political, foreign and economic policy over that period and arguably even before. This vote potentially marks a dramatic change in this virtually all aspects of British political life with knock-on effects for the EU and its remaining member states.

Beyond Europe there are a variety of interpretations of this decision, perhaps the most obvious one being that Britain wishes to ‘pivot’ away from Europe in its future foreign, economic, security and defence policy as well and/or become more isolationist. This is an obvious conclusion to draw but it is not clear that it is the best interpretation for a number of reasons:

  • While the referendum question was reasonably clear cut the campaign leading up to the vote was everything but. Knowledge and information about the EU and what it does is generally low in EU Member States and the UK is no exception. The result of such a low knowledge base was that the information in the campaign was untrustworthy, decontextual, or at times outright dishonest. Fiction was frequently portrayed as fact and the resulting information coming from both leave and remain camps was confusing, contradictory and incoherent. Therefore it is unclear what precisely the ‘leave’ majority voted for given that the information in the campaign was so disorientating.
  • The vote itself was close. The turnout was high at 72% but ‘leave’ beat ‘remain’ by 3% giving a picture that the British people are deeply divided on their opinion of Europe and their EU membership. Add the fact that Scotland and Northern Ireland, as distinct entities in the UK state voted to remain against the majority and the picture becomes even more complicated still.
  • The sense of uncertainty is supported by the fact that there was no sense of what ‘leaving’ the EU exactly meant. Immediately after the vote, the leaders of the ‘leave’ campaign disappeared from public view with no programme of how to proceed. This resulted in a protracted leadership contests between the two main parties (one still ongoing) such that the question of what precisely the majority voted for on June 23rd is still no closer to being answered. Notwithstanding the current British Prime Minister’s mantra that ‘Brexit’ (the term used to described UK withdrawal from the EU) ‘means Brex- it’ there is very little detail of how this will happen and what the UK’s future relationship with the EU will look like.
  • Perhaps the only certainty from the vote is that it took place to serve party political interests – the governing Tory party where afraid of losing votes to an anti-EU party and was attempting to appease anti-EU elements in its own party -, that few actually believed that the electorate would vote to leave, and that nobody really knows how to proceed now that the result is to leave. It is hardly an example of deliberative democratic decision-making on questions of the utmost constitutional importance.

From a non-European, particularly Asian perspective, the vote will probably result in a greater British presence in the region in trade matters given that the UK will now negotiate its own trade deals rather than as part of the EU bloc. This will result in an additional partner in international trade politics for Asian countries.  However what this will mean for Asian or global trade politics is far from clear.

The vote had immediate implications in causing the Prime Minister to resign and caused consider- able political turmoil ever since. This is likely to continue well into the foreseeable future.