Brexit and the Referendum Explained by Hannah Marshall

Published by: Johann Taljaard

Published on: 6 Mar, 2019

A scholar’s review of the impact of the Brexit campaign, the reaction of much of the population to the outcome, and a sense of disillusionment as the country works to reach an exit ‘deal’.

On the 24th June 2016 the UK held a referendum to decide whether we should remain in the European Union or whether to leave. Some of the key issues that were discussed in the debate included immigration, the economy and the NHS (National Health Service). When the results came in, the nation was shocked to find that 51.9% of the population had voted to leave. This decision has been termed ‘Brexit’: Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU).  The UK system of government is representation so generally important decisions for the nation are taken by the elected government and not decided by referendum. So, when the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, called a referendum, this seemed very unusual.

Since the referendum, the UK has been a very divided country. The decision to leave the EU was not dependent on class or political party and for the first time the country’s two main parties, Conservative and Labour, both find themselves divided. The Conservative party, led by Theresa May, is now leading the country’s withdrawal from the UK and the party is arguing about how close to stay to the EU in terms of migration, trade and economics. The Labour Party, led by Jeremey Corbyn, is conflicted between those who still want to stay in the EU (even after the public have voted to leave) and those who want to leave. The deadline at the moment for all these decisions is the 29th March 2019, and if this date arrives without a deal secured between the UK and the EU, Britain will leave the EU with a ‘no deal’. This is an uncertain, and potentially risky, outcome as experts aren’t sure exactly what will happen to the economy, to trade, to the borders (including the one with Ireland), or to many other key areas that rely on the EU in some way.

One of the main ideas that some Labour MPs and some Conservative MPS are supporting at the moment is a second referendum.  It is also the policy of the Liberal Democrats. This is the idea that there should be a second vote to allow the public to decide if they definitely want to leave and if so, how they want to leave. This idea is becoming more popular the more the government struggles to find a solution that everyone is happy with. 

The public’s reaction to all of this is one of frustration, confusion and injustice. Recent survey results show that 36% of the public want a second referendum if the government can’t get a deal through parliament, whereas 31% of people would want to leave the EU with a ‘no deal’ if the government can’t get a deal[1].  Trust in the Conservative government is less than a third, trust in Labour is even less at 17%, but interestingly trust in the EU is also only 25%, with 75% of people trusting the EU ‘not much or not at all’[2].  This shows a distrust in the government for the way they are handling Brexit, but also seem to show that the people do not like that way the EU has behaved during these negotiations.

Ultimately, there is still a lot to happen, but this is a very uncertain and tumultuous time for the UK. Hopefully, once the 29th March arrives, we will know one way or the other what is going to happen so plans can be made for the future and the country can work towards being reunited. However, Brexit has not been a smooth ride so far so who knows what could change. We have strong institutions such as a politically neutral civil service, strong local government, an independent judiciary and a free press so we can hope that the fundamentals of our system of government will mean that whatever happens, we will survive.

For more of my analysis on the factors shaping the Referendum, go to:

For more on the UK democracy see the post on the International Day of Democracy

[1] YouGov, January 2019,

[2] YouGov, January 2019

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