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Dr Clark: EU Referendum comment

Comment: What tipped the scales in favour of Leave

Published on: 28 June 2016

Dr Alistair Clark, an expert in voting behaviour and British politics, sheds some light on why the vote swung in favour of Leave.


At the moment, a lot of people are looking for answers and those who voted to Remain are desperate to find a way out of this result. There’s a petition doing the rounds for a second referendum but this is a non-starter: the people have spoken and this should be respected.

In the North East in particular it is obvious what people think and equally in Scotland, where they took a very different view. Whichever way you look at it, it’s very evident where people’s feelings lie in relation to the EU referendum. The United Kingdom looks ever more like the Disunited Kingdom, with Scotland and Northern Ireland voting differently to England and Wales.

It’s too early to say decisively why people voted as they did. However, some trends are starting to emerge. We can say with reasonable accuracy that one of the factors was down to age. Although young people were in favour of Remain more than any other age group (under 25s were almost twice as likely to be in favour), they didn’t turn out in sufficient numbers to make the difference at polling stations. By comparison, older voters turned out in huge numbers to vote, with almost two thirds (or more in some estimates) wanting to leave the EU.

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A second factor was education. Those with a degree were more likely to vote Remain, by around two-thirds to a third and this was one of the best indicators of which way someone would vote. As we delve deeper into the data to explain the result, it is likely that issues of class and equality will also emerge as contributory factors, with those ‘left behind’ or suffering economically voting against the Remain camp.  

The actual technicalities of the EU institutions and whether or not they are undemocratic and so on are likely to have played some part. It is difficult to combat decades of ‘straight bananas’ stories and other misinformation. Yet Europe has always been low on peoples’ list of priorities. The Euro-sceptic angle took second place to immigration issues. There were signs from early on that this was always was likely to be the case, given that it had much more popular traction. Couple that with widespread anti-elite sentiment, a deep-felt disdain for a politics perceived as irrelevant to peoples’ lives and what it is seen to have delivered and a fairly comprehensive explanation emerges.  

This whole situation reminded me very much of the 2008 referendum in Ireland on the Lisbon Treaty where the mainstream politicians were all pro-integration. However, they were very surprised when a populist anti-EU campaign gained traction and the Irish electorate voted against. They held a second referendum but I think that’s unlikely in this instance. 


There will be profound consequences for the United Kingdom, economically, politically and institutionally. It opens the possibility that Scotland will hold a second independence referendum. Even pro-Union commentators are now suggesting that Nicola Sturgeon has every right to do so given the result on Thursday. The belief that Nicola Sturgeon will be able to ‘veto’ the result has been misreported. Scotland ought to give legislative consent if Westminster legislates on an area of Scottish parliament competence, as will be the case with Brexit. The details are horrendously technical and constitutional, but not giving consent is not the same as vetoing something. Given that the Scottish government needs Westminster to cede it the power to call a second independence referendum, these issues are likely to be part of the legislative bargaining process between the two governments.  

This has profound implications for Scotland and also a considerable knock-on effect for the North East as we are so closely linked in many ways. It’s quite likely that if a referendum for Scottish independence was called now, they would win it, but it’s unlikely an immediate referendum is what’s desired. There are competing pressures such as the economy, which has already taken a massive dive, and people may not want to risk delving into possibly even deeper uncertainty. A cautious building of support over time will be necessary, and also dealing with the economic issues that were important in the first independence referendum remains to be resolved. There’s a lot of serious thinking to be done now in Edinburgh about how that moves forward.

Serious thinking is particularly important in Westminster. It’s more than evident that there has not been enough of that. The crisis of leadership in both the governing party and the opposition is scandalous, if not at all surprising. The Brexit camp appear to have no plan and have been rowing back on the wild promises made in the campaign since Friday morning. It is unlikely they will be able to deliver promises on the NHS, immigration or free markets to the level that people were led to believe. This will stoke even greater anger. The government appeared absent without leave between Friday morning and Monday. The opposition is in meltdown. Hate crimes against immigrants or those of a different racial background have been on the increase, up significantly since the result. These truly are difficult times for Britain, and this is only the start of the consequences of Thursday’s vote.    


Dr Alistair Clark

Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University


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