The UK Prime Minister David Cameron promised in January 2013 that should the Conservative Party win the 2015 general election, that the UK government would negotiate more favourable terms for continuing membership of the UK and hold a referendum on whether the UK should remain in or leave the European Union. This promise did not come out of the blue. The long history of UK Euroscepticism at governmental and party-political level is charted in the previous chapter.
Several political promises which had been made to hold a referendum had been sidestepped in the previous decade. The 2005 Labour Party manifesto had promised that the EU Constitutional Treaty, which had been recently signed, but which was later aborted after failed referenda in France and Netherlands, would be put to a referendum.
The replacement Lisbon treaty with most of the same content as the rejected constitution, but not described or framed in constitutional terms, was signed by the United Kingdom without a referendum. David Cameron had promised a referendum on the treaty while in opposition to 2007 but later dropped that proposal once the treaty had been fully approved by 2009.
YouGov opinion polls and those commissioned by other providers, albeit commissioned, largely although not exclusively, by leave supporting newspapers showed significant support for leaving the European Union. Although the appropriateness of the question and the reliability of the data might be disputed, most opinion polls commissioned until mid-2013 showed a significant lead for leave. For example, an opinion poll by You Gov for the Sun in November 2012 showed leave at 51% and remain at 30%. Equally an opinion poll by Opinium for the Observer (a strongly remain supporting newspaper) showed an even greater percentage in favour of leave.
Most opinion polls from mid-2013 onwards showed a 6 to 10% lead for remain. Several showed a narrow or similar lead for leave at certain points in time coinciding strongly with significant political events. Although the opinion polls in the 10 days before the referendum showed a lead for remain to 2 to 8 percentage points, most of the opinion polls in the previous two months had shown a narrow lead for leave.
The evident public support for leaving the European Union was reflected in the position of the political parties. The Conservatives had developed a very significant Eurosceptic wing since the early 1990s. Under the leadership of William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard between 1997 to 2005, the Conservative party had taken a distinctly more Eurosceptic line. David Cameron, who had been elected in 2005 following a third heavy electoral defeat, sought to balance the leave and remain wings of his party and took a less Eurosceptic approach.
The rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is charted in the last chapter. Under the leadership of Nigel Farage for most of the period from 2006 to 2016, the party achieved significant shares of the overall vote in local, European and general elections with 16% of the vote in the 2004 European Parliament elections, 17% of the vote in the 2009 European Parliament elections and 27.5% of the vote in the 2014 European Parliament, coming out in the last case, as the largest party. It also achieved similarly high percentages of the vote in local elections and in the Welsh assembly elections in this period.
Besides the first 1975 referendum on UK membership, the UK had no history of referenda. As part of his coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrat, a referendum on an alternative vote electoral system, essentially single-seat proportional representation, was held and rejected.
The Scottish Nationalist party won a majority in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election on a commitment to hold an independence referendum. Following negotiations and agreement between the UK and Scottish governments, legislation was passed to provide for a Scottish referendum.
Despite opinion polls briefly showing a majority in favour of Scottish independence on the eve of the poll, the Scottish people voted “no” by a majority of 55.3% against 44.7% on 18 September 2014. The late surge in the pro-independence support was met with promises for increased devolution. There was a perception that David Cameron had gambled successfully with the issue of Scottish independence and had put the issue to bed for a generation.
The Conservative party were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats from 2010 until 2015. This coincided with a period of austerity following the global financial crisis in which severe cuts are made in several key areas of public spending. As commonly occurs with coalitions, the junior party the Liberal Democrats suffered most in the subsequent election, with its vote falling from 23% of the vote to 7.9%; from 57 seats to 8 seats. The Conservatives increased their share of the vote slightly but gained 24 seats to achieve an overall majority of almost 20.
The Labour Party increased its share of the vote but lost 26 seats. The Scottish Nationalists following the surprisingly high 45% vote in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 won 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland. Due to the first past, the post-electoral. UKIP won no seats but rose to take 12.64% of the vote in the 2015 general election, despite the Conservative promise of a referendum on withdrawal.
Having unexpectedly won the 2015 general election David Cameron set about the promised renegotiation of EU membership with a view to a referendum on UK withdrawal from European Union, early in the Parliament. As had occurred with the Scottish independence referendum, he believed that the likely rejection of UK withdrawal would put the issue to bed for the foreseeable future.
The European Union Referendum Act 2015 was introduced just three weeks after the May 2015 election. On its second reading, it was supported by all UK parties except the Scottish National party. The new interim Labour leader Harriet Harman committed the party to support the referendum.
The legislation required the referendum to be held before the end of 2017. It did not require the result to be implemented. From a legal perspective, it was advisory only. This was later confirmed in the first Gina Miller case. In this regard, it was different from the alternative vote referendum in which the legislation to implement the change had been already enacted to take effect in the event of a yes vote.
The legislation provided that the referendum would be conducted by the Electoral Commission. The UK was divided into 362 voting areas overseen by counting officers whose results were fed into 12 regional counts overseen by regional counting officers.
Under the legislation and earlier elections legislation, political parties’ expenditure was limited in accordance with their respective percentage of the UK national vote.
The right to vote in the referendum applied to British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens in accordance with the franchise for parliamentary elections. UK nationals who had lived abroad for less than 15 years were qualified to vote. Non-Irish non-British EU citizens were not permitted to vote, unlike the position with the franchise for the European Union elections.
By special legislation in the UK and Gibraltar, citizens of Gibraltar were qualified to vote. Gibraltar was not part of the European Union but was part of the single market for many purposes, in particular, financial services. Residents of The Isle of Man, Channel Islands and other crown dependencies (many of whom are automatically citizens) who also enjoyed a special relationship with the EU by virtue of their association with the United Kingdom (although not part of the United Kingdom) were not included in the electorate for the vote.
As with parliamentary elections, the vote applied to persons over 18 years’ old. In the Scottish referendum, the legislation enacted by the Scottish parliament with the agreement of the United Kingdom government reduced the qualifying age to 16 years. A House of Lords amendment to lower the age to 16 years for the withdrawal referendum was rejected.
The date would be set by ministerial order of the Prime Minister. On 20 February 2016, Prime Minister David Cameron announced following a special Cabinet meeting, that the referendum would be held on Thursday, 23 June 2016.
The wording of the referendum question was set by the legislation. The question that was first proposed to appear on the ballot papers was—
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
The Referendum Commission published its assessment of the question. It concluded that the question encouraged voters to consider one response more favourably than the other, which could raise concerns about the legitimacy of the result of the referendum. The assessment suggested that it was possible to ask a question which would not cause concerns about neutrality, whilst also being easily understood by including both outcomes – remain and leave – in the question and using these as the answer options instead of yes/no. Accordingly, the question which appeared on the ballot paper was
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? There are two responses one to be marked with a single X namely
- remain a member of the European Union
- leave the European Union
The legislation obliged the UK government to publish a report setting out a statement of what had been agreed with the other EU states following negotiations to address the UK’s concerns over its membership and the opinion of the UK government on what has been agreed. The UK government was also obliged to publish a report containing information about the rights and obligations that arise under EU law as a result of UK membership and examples of countries that do not have membership who have arrangements with the EU, describing in the case of each example, those arrangements.
A cross-party group campaigning for a remain vote was formed in October 2015 calling itself Britain Stronger in Europe and was approved by the Electoral Commission as the official campaign for remain. Two leave campaigns “Leave EU” supported principally by UKIP and “Vote Leave” supported principally by Conservative party Eurosceptics were formed and sought approval from the Electoral Commission. Vote Leave was accepted as the official campaign for leave. This approval gave each campaign the right to spend up to £7 million some TV broadcasts and £600,000 public funds.
The UK government’s official position was to support remain, but Prime Minister Cameron announced that Conservative ministers and MPs could campaign for or against the proposal, in accordance with their conscience. This followed pressure from a number of ministers.
The UK government distributed a free leaflet to each household in April and May, giving details on why the government favoured remaining in the European Union. It was criticised by the “leave” campaign as being unfair, inaccurate and a waste of public money.
In mid-May, the Electoral Commission sent a voting guide to each household in the UK to raise awareness. The 8-page guide set out details of how to vote, a sample ballot paper together with the one-page statement by the “leave” and “remain” campaigns respectively. Those favouring “leave” argued that the EU had a democratic deficit and undermined national sovereignty.
Those in favour of “remain” argued that the benefits of EU membership outweighed any loss of sovereignty. The “leave” side argued that leaving the EU would permit the UK to better control its immigration, reduce pressures on public services, housing and jobs, save billions of pounds in EU membership costs, allow the UK to make its own trade deals, free the UK from EU regulations and bureaucracy which it argued to be unnecessary and costly.
The “remain” side argued that leaving the EU would risk prosperity, reduce the UK’s influence in world affairs, jeopardise national security and result in trade barriers between the United Kingdom and the European Union. They argued that this would lead to job losses, loss of investment and risks to business.
Officially the Conservative party was neutral. 23 of the 30 members of the government supported remain. Britain Stronger in Europe was strongly endorsed by the Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne. Ian Duncan Smith, a former party leader and prominent Brexiteer resigned from the government to campaign for a leave vote.
Vote Leave was fronted d by Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove Conservative MP and former Lord Mayor of London Boris Johnson and Labour MP Gisela Stuart who was chairperson of the campaign
The Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalist party, Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalist party) the Green Party of England and Wales, the Scottish Green Party supported “remain”. UKIP, the Socialist Labour Party, the Communist Party of Britain, the Britain National Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and independence from Europe, supported “leave”. There was an unofficial Labour leave group. A total of 11 Labour MPs defied the party line and joined Labour “leave”.
In Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Alliance Party, Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Green party of Northern Ireland supported “remain”. The Democratic Unionist Party, the Traditional Unionist Voice, People before Profit Alliance and Eirigi supported “leave”.
The result of the referendum was announced at 7:20 on Friday 24th June. 51.89% of the voters had voted that the UK should leave as against 48.11% who had voted that the UK should remain as a member of the EU. 53.38% of the voters in England had voted to leave. 62% of the voters in Scotland had voted to remain. 52.53% of the voters in Wales had voted to leave. 55.78% of the voters in Northern Ireland had voted to remain. 95.91% of the 24,000 voters in Gibraltar voted to remain.
Within one hour, Prime Minister David Cameron had resigned as leader of the Conservative party and the election of a successor was scheduled for September.
Jeremy Corbyn the leader of the Labour Party was criticised for his unenthusiastic campaign for remain. He sacked Hilary Benn as Foreign Secretary for apparently leading a coup against him. Several more prominent Labour MPs resigned their roles in the party and Corbyn lost a vote of no-confidence with more than 80% of his MPs voting against him. Later that year, a Labour Party leadership election was triggered and once again Corbyn was re-elected by the electorate comprising party members with a larger share of the vote than in 2015.
Nigel Farage announced that he was stepping down as leader of UKIP and later distanced himself from the party.
Over the course of the referendum count, the pound sterling had risen and then fallen significantly, with an overall drop of 8% the biggest fall in over 40 years. The FTSE 100 index of leading shares fell 8% but recovered to be down for 3% only on the day.