The Contemporary History of Britain Part III

By | September 21, 2021

Brexit debate

The debate about the British’s relationship with the EU was not new. It had been ongoing more or less since Britain joined the Union in 1973. Especially in the Conservative Party, the EU question had been divisive, and the right wing of the party had long expressed a desire to leave the Union. Thus, brexit debates seen as just as much a conservative party issue as a national British concern. Cameron himself was an EU supporter, and wanted a referendum to bring his own critics to life, try to rally the party and negotiate a better deal with the EU before the referendum.

After the election victory in 2015, the question of the referendum became paramount in British politics. The entire political environment and the nation were waiting for Cameron to begin negotiations with the EU on a new agreement, which would form the basis for a vote. The fall and winter of 2015 went to negotiations and the date of the referendum was set for June 23, 2016.

The two campaigns ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ (or Brexit) began the election campaign and split both Labor and the Conservatives. There was a heated election campaign leading up to the vote in which the issues of immigration (free flow of EU labor), sovereignty, legislation, economy and trade dominated the word change. The opinion polls pointed in the direction of ‘Remain’ until last week. Then the mood changed from a rational debate to an emotional battle for identity, history and the British people’s soul. The result must be seen in light of this mood shift.

On June 23, 2016, the British voted themselves out of the EU. 51.9 per cent voted to leave the EU while 48.11 per cent voted to stay. The result went against almost all polls and assumptions. Cameron resigned after the defeat and was replaced by Theresa May on July 12. May took over as a Conservative party leader without elections, and thus became prime minister since the Conservatives won the 2015 election.

There was no political plan for a Brexit, since the political environment in Westminster had been convinced that the British wanted to remain in the EU. The emotional debate that had divided the British in many areas prior to the vote continued after the summer of 2016. In a ‘what-happens-now’ context, many politicians, interest groups and community stakeholders threw in suggestions on the way forward and how the UK could best ready for the “exit” from the EU.

In line with the government’s faltering approach, uncertainty in the people increased. Politics and government had created emotional reactions across families, workplaces and neighborhoods. Many Britons who had voted ‘Leave’ regretted seeing how little planned Brexit was, thus fearing the future of the British. The concept of ‘greeted’ was launched, illustrating that many who voted ‘Leave’ had done so in pure protest, without thinking about the national consequences.

Article 50 of the EU Lisbon Treaty, which is the article regulating a Member State’s resignation from the EU, was triggered by May and the UK Government in March 2017. The article proposes a two-year opt-out period to negotiate the country’s future affiliation with union after the resignation. During 2017, there was little progress in the negotiations, which were mainly about the rights of EU citizens following the British resignation, the border dispute between Northern Ireland, as part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland and the divorce settlement – how much the British should pay for to opt out.

Parliamentary elections 2017

A short month after Article 50 was triggered, Theresa May 18, April 18, held a new election in the United Kingdom on June 8, 2017. Her main reason was that she needed people’s support to enter into negotiations with the EU with slightly greater force than she felt the government had when Article 50 was triggered. She thus applied for her own elected mandate (since taking over Cameron from 2015) as well as strengthening the conservatives’ position in the lower house. At the time the election was announced, the Tories were about 20 percent ahead of Labor on polls.

The outcome was quite the opposite of what May had envisioned. The small majority of 12 candidates from 2015 disappeared, and the Conservatives got 317 of the 650 seats in the lower house. Labor rose sharply from 2015 and gained 262 seats while the Liberal Democrats ended with 12. The Scottish Nationalist Party, which did well in 2015, lost ground in this election and ended with 36 seats. The bipartisan system, which became a multi-party system in 2010 and 2015, returned in 2017, with 82.3 percent voting on either Labor or the Conservatives. This is the highest proportion the two major parties have had since 1970.

The attendance rate was higher in 2017 (68, 8 percent) than it had been in the previous elections, and the forecasts showed that more younger voters (under 45) voted in 2017 compared to previous elections. Labor’s progress is thus attributed to the fact that most of the young voters voted for them.

Still, the Conservatives were the largest party in the lower house after the election, although they did not have a pure majority alone. After some backlash, May chose to form a conservative minority government with the support of the ultra-conservative party – the Democratic Unionist Party – from Northern Ireland. May opted to have a larger and more powerful mandate for Brexit negotiations. She and the Conservatives failed, thus leading one of the weakest governments in modern British political history.

On July 24, 2019, May was replaced by Boris Johnson as prime minister. Johnson promised that the UK would be out of the EU by October 31, 2019 with or without agreement with the EU.

The Contemporary History of Britain 3