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Five myths about Brexit

  • Author: Adam Taylor
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 31, 2018
  • Published December 21, 2018

A pro-Brexit demonstrator waves a placard with others outside the Houses of Parliament in London Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. The British Cabinet was meeting Tuesday to discuss ramping up preparations for Britain's departure from the European Union without a deal, after Prime Minister Theresa May postponed Parliament's vote on her divorce agreement until mid-January. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Taylor, a staff writer for The Washington Post’s foreign desk, writes about a range of global issues for WorldViews.

Two and a half years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Brexit is a mess. Prime Minister Theresa May, who once opposed the policy, can’t sell the departure agreement she negotiated with the European Union, and she barely survived a no-confidence vote in her own party this month. Few in Britainbelieve she will make Brexit successful - or even know what a successful Brexit would be. Indeed, after a couple of years of debate, several myths have developed.

Myth No. 1: A Brexit vote was inevitable.

Former prime minister David Cameron has justified his 2013 promise to hold a referendum on Britain's membership in the EU by saying the situation was "unsustainable" - that it "needed to be addressed." Shortly after the vote, the Conservative Brexiteer Boris Johnson said that the vote was "inevitable," because there was "no way of dealing with a decision on this scale except by putting it to the people."

But polls from the time tell a different story. In the months before Cameron's promise, Ipsos MORIasked Britons what the biggest issues facing their country were. Sixty-one percent said the economy, followed by 35 percent who said unemployment. Just 1 in 20 mentioned Europe. According to a BBC tally, 138 Conservative members of Parliament supported Brexit, compared with 185 who wanted to remain in the EU The vast majority of other parties supported staying in the bloc.

Cameron's referendum wasn't answering any demands from the British public. The prime minister was worried that pressure from a few euroskeptic Conservative lawmakers and the fringe anti-EU party UKIP would cost him a parliamentary majority in the next election. (He thought the vote would neutralize those critics, and he didn't expect it to pass.) But Brexit was a self-fulfilling policy: Polls show that, since the plebiscite, Europe is consideredthe biggest problem facing the country.

Myth No. 2: Brexit spells doom for the European Union.

Immediately after Britain's vote to leave the EU, some predicted that it heralded the beginning of the end for the bloc. "Europe will fall," said Peter Lundgren, a member of the European Parliament from the far-Right Sweden Democrat party. A YouGov poll from July 2016 found that many around Europe thought more countries would leave the EU as a result of Brexit.

Two and a half years later, how has that panned out? Even when populists have taken power in other nations, they haven't pushed for their own EU exits. Italian Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini said this month that he is not seeking a "Brexit all'Italiana," while Poland's ruling party, Law and Justice, has also distanced itself from a Polish departure. France's Marine Le Pen, a leading force in European populism, has said she no longer supports a "Frexit" - because she doesn't think French voters want it.

This doesn't mean Brexit is good for Europe; a no-deal departure, in particular, would hurt EU members. But Brussels has gained a great argument against nations seeking their own farewell: Look at what's happening in Britain!

Myth No. 3: May’s recent deal is a betrayal of Brexit.

Brexiteer critics of the prime minister say the withdrawal agreement she crafted with EU leaders and announced this month is disloyal to the 2016 referendum. Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of the most prominent Conservative euroskeptics, arguesthat staying in the EU's customs union, as May proposes, "would not be delivering the result of the referendum." Johnson writes that Britons "want this Government to fulfil the mandate of the people and deliver a full British Brexit."

But this idea of a "Brexit betrayal," as hard-right protesters put it, makes little sense. The 2016 referendum asked one simple question: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" Voters were asked to leave or remain - not how they should leave or remain. In a 2017 election manifesto, May pledged to leave the EU's single market and customs union. But the Conservatives lost their majority in that election: hardly a decisive mandate.

Besides, May's deal is based on the premise that staying in the customs union would be temporary. Hard-line Brexiteers don't trust this assurance, but so far they haven't offered a realistic alternate pact. Rees-Mogg sounds oddly sanguine about a "no deal" Brexit - widely seen by analysts as the worst possible option - an indication, perhaps, that he knows no better agreement can be reached.

Myth No. 4: “Remain” would easily win a second referndum.

The idea of a redo has many admirers. It's not hard to see why. It could clear a democratic path out of the impasse, and more specific ballot language could help overcome the vague nature of the first question. The left-wing New Statesman has argued that another vote would undo the whole Brexit crisis, and a recent poll from YouGovfound that 72 percent of Remain voters thought Remain would win a second referendum.

Such confidence is unfounded. Although some polls have discovered shifts in support when they ask how people would vote in the 2016 referendum if it were held again, changing an old vote is quite different than starting from scratch. According to a survey by Deltapoll, 60 percent of Britons - voters for Leave and Remain - now say they just want the government to get on with it.

John Curtice, a polling expert at Strathclyde University, has written that there seems to be relatively little evidence of people changing their minds about their original votes on Brexit, but people who didn't vote last time now lean toward Remain. This means that any new vote may hinge on turnout - and that Remain would have to overcome voter apathy and cynicism to win.

Myth No. 5: Brexit was an anti-establishment uprising.

Britain's June 2016 vote left analysts around the world scrambling for a way to describe it. The Guardian's Owen Jones dubbed it a "working class revolt," while UKIP's former leader Nigel Farage called it a move "against the establishment." And it's true that Britons with a university degree were more likely to vote Remain than those without.

But this class contest was hardly unanimous. Polling data has shown that people employed in administrative or professional roles were more likely to vote for Brexit than manual laborers, but it wasn't an overwhelming divide: Almost 4 out of 10 unskilled and casual workers wanted to remain in Britain; notably, those from nonwhite ethnic backgrounds largely voted to stay in the EU. The vote was relatively close overall - and also across all different social classes: Millions and millions of working people voted against Brexit, and millions of upper-class people wanted it.

What's more, from the very start of the campaign, Brexit hard-liners have come from the elite. Farage is the son of a stockbroker, educated at London's exclusive Dulwich College. Johnson and Rees-Mogg were educated at Eton - just like Cameron.

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