Harold D. Clarke, Mathew Goodwin, and Paul Whiteley, “Brexit, Why Britain voted to leave The European Union.” ( Cambridge University Press ) E20.00
How I wish I could write a proper review of this book! From my point of view the trouble is that its written by a team of political scientists who are up to their eyeballs ( and further!) in statistical methods which I simply do not understand. ( There are, it turns out, limits to how far a rusty Masters in history can take you!) Consequently I am simply unable to form a serious judgement about the research and reasoning which underlies much of what they have written. All that freely confessed though, it should also be noticed that this is a major work produced by one of the leading academic publishers in the world, and consequently must have been ( one supposes ) carefully peer reviewed. It must therefore be taken seriously.
And if indeed we are to tale the author’s work seriously then their conclusions must be recognized as being truly sensational. The bones of what they write is simply that, with one important exception, that the rhetoric deployed by the Remain forces before and since the referendum of June 2016 was largely delusional.
First then the exception. What did the Remainers get right? Like everyone else who has thought deeply about the referendum the authors ask how seriously we should take the result. Is there a case for saying that the British people should, like the Irish and Danish people before them, be asked to vote again the make sure that that the view they expressed the first time should really stand? To unpick this conundrum the authors embark on a statistical journey. They accept- if only for the sake of argument- that Britain should adopt the Australian practice of compulsory voting, and then ask what would have happened if the turn out had been not seventy two percent but a hundred percent.
To answer this question they delve into the polling data to discover how the people who did not vote in the referendum would have voted if they had voted. They their findings show that had everybody voted there could have been a slim majority for Remain. Well, how slim? The authors posit the question as to what would have happened if instead of there being one referendum that there had been one million referendums. In that ( nightmarish!) scenario they conclude that Remain would have won just over 66% of these contests! But even so their conclusion is hardly an endorsement of a second vote: “It is conceivable that a second referendum would yield a Remain majority. However, the polls provide little encouragement that a second referendum would yield a Remain majority.” ( p. 213 ) Nevertheless it is true to say that Leave won the referendum because Leave voters were more likely to vote than supporters of Remain.
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum nothing was more widespread than the view that Leave had won because of the shameless way it had appealed to racist and xenophobic voters. The evidence assembled by the authors provide only very limited support for this view. While it is the case that members of UKIP are somewhat ( not greatly ) more hostile to Muslims than members of the public at large they are only VERY SLIGHTLY more anti-black and anti-East European than everybody else in Britain. ( p.102-103) Perhaps the most accurate way of putting the case is to say that if one was a racist one was more likely to vote Leave than Remain, but that racism was not a major driver of the Leave vote. However, as we will be seeing, worries about immigration WERE a crucial factor in the Leave vote.
Although the authors are all political scientists, at respectively the universities of Texas, Kent, and Essex, they have interesting things to say about the economic case made by the Remainers during the referendum campaign. It will be recalled, indeed how can it easily be forgotten, that the Remain campaign relied very heavily, indeed almost exclusively, on dire warnings of what would happen to the British economy in the event of Brexit. The authors do a sterling job of reminding us just how far these warnings went ( p.36-38). ( Interestingly, they also think – p.164-that the Remain side would have done better had they made a more positive case for staying in Europe. )
The authors point out that the rhetoric used by the Treasury was ultimately derived from gravity models which exaggerated the importance of existing trade relationships, and failed to take into account the dynamic aspects of the world economy (p.178). The authors observe (p.186 ) that economic openness does not seem to be a good predictor of economic growth. This is especially true when changes in the value of the various currencies involved is taken into account (p.188). More generally the problem with the models based language of the Remainers was that it sought to predict what could not be predicted, if only because of what the authors perceive to be the inherent instability of advanced modern economies (p.188 ). They conclude: “To get a handle on the likely long-run economic consequences of Brexit, it is incumbent on forecasters to be much more modest about what can reliably asserted about the future.” ( p.180 )
Instead of speculating about the future the authors prefer to explore the past, and ask the question: “What is the evidence that membership of the EU has benefited the economy of the UK?” To do this they examine British economic history since 1950. They conclude that membership of the EU “did not have a long-term influence on economic growth” and consequently “that negative economic consequences of Brexit are probably exaggerated.” (p.188) They go on to write: “We cannot confidently forecast 15 years ahead…but if there is another recession in waiting in the wings for the UK economy, it is unlikely that it will be caused by Brexit” (p.188).
All this economic and historical analysis provides the context for the authors explanation of why the British people voted for Brexit. Essentially the authors share the widespread view that while the referendum campaign was important the real explanation for the result was not what happened in Westminster, but rather the extent to which the EU had never really set down deep roots in Britain. The gist of their case is derived from a valence theory of politics. This is the view (p. 68-9 ) that people support political institutions if they provide the sort things that people want ( i.e. security, welfare etc. ) in an accountable way. From the perspective of Remainers the trouble has been though that in Britain the EU has never been seen as playing a very helpful role in any of these respects.
Although, as we have noticed, there is only slim evidence for the view that racism explained the leave vote it is nevertheless undeniable that Immigration was the single most important issue in the campaign. In valence terms the issue in the referendum was whether membership of the EU added significant value,or whether rather it posed a threat to the British way of life. When once the issue is put like this then it becomes clear why immigration was so important a cause of the leave vote. Many British voters had been convinced for a long time that that unrestricted immigration posed a threat to their identity and welfare. Thanks to Mrs Merkel’s intransigence on the issue Remain could offer them no reassurance, and thus it was that voters all over the North of England and the former industrial areas of South Wales rallied to Leave cause. Were they so very wrong to do so?
The result of the referendum in June 2016 will long be regarded as one of the most sensational events in British political history. It has already been the subject of numerous books. And undoubtedly there will be many more. One thing though is sure: neither Remainers nor Leavers, or even the impartial- or at any rate the less partial- historians of the future, will be able to ignore this fascinating contribution to our understanding of what really happened. Other social scientists may well be able to to challenge some of the author’s conclusions, but this book will certainly appear in their bibliographies and mold their thinking.In short this volume is a major addition which can be wholeheartedly recommended. It is indeed the big one on Brexit.