On 23 June, the UK electorate voted to leave the European Union. With voter turnout exceeding 70 per cent, a majority (52 per cent) elected to leave as opposed to 48 per cent who voted to remain. As news broke, few commentators were in doubt that this was indeed a momentous result, with ramifications within and beyond the British and Irish Isles. The British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation, and the Leader of the Labour Party, the UK’s main opposition party, Jeremy Corbyn, was fighting off critics demanding that he resign.
For the geographer, there is much food for thought. The voting patterns for the referendum itself revealed profound regional divisions between London, Scotland and Northern Ireland (voting ‘remain’) and other areas of England and Wales, with central and northern England being the least inclined to support continued membership of the EU (voting ‘leave’).
The highest number of voters in support of remaining in the EU (as a percentage of total votes) was actually recorded in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar (voters there almost certainly worried that without EU membership, Spain might be more aggressive over its territorial claim to Gibraltar).
Meanwhile, the highest number of voters in support of leaving (as a percentage of total votes) was in the Lincolnshire town of Boston.
As with any electoral geography, making sense of those voting patterns is complicated further once age, occupation, education, gender and race are accounted for. For example, we know that younger people tended to vote for remain while older people were more likely to vote to leave.
What are the implications of such a vote? The voting pattern itself provides a clue to the first one. The future of the United Kingdom itself is at stake. Two years ago, a Scottish referendum revealed a majority wanted to remain within the Union but, critically, assumed for the purpose of the vote that EU membership was a constant. Without continued EU membership, there have been calls for a second referendum by the Scottish National Party even though Scots themselves may be divided. For the voters of Northern Ireland, the decision to leave is profound and raises once again the political, economic, legal and symbolic relevance of the border with the Republic of Ireland. There are fears that the delicate balance secured under the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998 might be unsettled. In Wales, which voted to leave overall, there is talk amongst some Welsh political leaders of an independence vote there.
Whatever comes of ‘independence and referendum talk’, the future of the United Kingdom appears more uncertain than ever before. A political and constitutional creation, which has undergone change in 1707, 1801, and 1922, now has another notable date (2016) to add to its historical record.
The UK’s admission to the European Economic Community in 1972, followed by a referendum on our membership in 1975, established and affirmed a formal relationship with European partners. Three decades later, with an expansion in membership following the ending of the Cold War and admission of predominantly Eastern and Central European states, the EEC transmogrified into the European Union with a growing number of obligations set out in legal instruments such as: the Dublin Regulation (on the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers) and the Treaty of Lisbon (2007), which amongst other things contains the now infamous Article 50 pertaining to withdrawal from the EU.
For the UK, the relationship with the EU is complex; unravelling and remaking our relationship with European countries is the second major implication. The re-casting of that relationship is going to have to embrace issues from the freedom of movement to trade deals and the ability to access European science funding. While agreements should be forthcoming, timing and scope is clearly something not so clear and dependent on both the timing of the UK departure and the attitude of remaining EU members. It would not surprise me if we ended up talking about negotiations running well into the 2020s.
The EU’s relationship with Norway and Switzerland might provide a guide in terms of what will follow. But no one really knows and, as President Obama warned in his pre-referendum statements, the UK will be negotiating its own trade deals in the future rather than being part of a club of 28, which in turn could make the UK less attractive to global investors wanting easy access to the EU market.
But maybe that was the point. For many voters the EU appeared to be a supra-national organisation intent on further expansion into their lives. Many complained that it was not as accountable as it should be. But that may be more a judgment about our current situation, where some people, political entities, and businesses appear to move more easily than others and profit more readily from existing legal and economic structures.
The EU stood also accused of pandering to big business and elites while endorsing continued unrestricted freedoms to move and settle in other parts of the EU; meanwhile relentless images of migrants and refugees crossing land and sea borders within Europe contributed to a sense that the EU was ineffectual and powerless. The referendum campaign itself was bedevilled by these imaginaries, which do little to contribute to community cohesion.
The third implication I would identify is about how we make sense of ourselves as citizens. We might pause for thought about the tone and content of the referendum debate and how we engage with one another and those around us. Was the referendum really about EU membership or was it something else as well – an opportunity to pass a judgment about the kind of country we have become? A more divided country? A country where one’s attitude towards change, including immigration and geopolitical shifts in Europe and the Middle East, is shaped by location, by wealth, by occupation, and by age. Living in an affluent part of London, I am deeply conscious that my everyday experiences of change are very different to residents in Boston, a town described as the least integrated in the UK in January 2016 but one which has been profoundly affected by Eastern European immigration. Some ten per cent of the town’s population hails from countries like Poland and Latvia, and that change has come relatively quickly. This has led to very public concerns that expressions of overt racism and xenophobia may be on the rise again.
But will Brexit actually happen? David Cameron has said that the British people have spoken. But we need to be clear that sovereign authority lies with UK Parliament, which would have to formally repeal the 1972 European Communities Act. The relationship with the Scottish Parliament and Scotland itself is also another factor here especially if the UK Parliament does indeed decide to repeal the 1972 Act.
The referendum in itself is not legally binding – we don’t have a written constitution which addresses that point. UK MPs would have to approve that repeal and then approve a triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. So a new Conservative Prime Minister would have to come to Parliament in the autumn with a new bill for approval. Once Article 50 is triggered, the UK will have two years to secure the very best deal it can from the EU unless the European Council agrees to extend the time limit.
The UK Parliament will determine the fate of this country and its relationship to the EU. It will be a complex business and one that will take years of negotiation with constitutional lawyers at the ready to offer their opinions on how we proceed if MPs vote to repeal the 1972 Act. I would respectfully suggest, pace Michael Gove, that whoever occupies Number 10 Downing Street next will need to depend upon UK-based experts and their expertise. We are blessed (or if you prefer, cursed) to live in interesting times with an autumn general election another possibility still yet to come.