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The result of the United Kingdom European Union Referendum of 2016 was a victory for the 'Leave' campaign, amassing a total of 51.9% of the vote.[1]

The result provoked considerable debate as to the factors that contributed to the victory,[2][3] with various theories and explanations being put forth. This page provides an overview of the different claims being made.

'Leave' represented more popular positions[edit]

The 'Leave' campaign campaigned primarily on issues relating to sovereignty and migration,[4] whereas the remain campaign focused on the economic impacts of leaving the EU. This choice of key positions is significant since Ipsos MORI survey data on which issues Britons felt to be 'important issues facing Britain today' shows that immediately prior to the vote, more people cited both the EU (32%) and migration (48%) as important issues than cited the economy (27%).[5]


On the day of the referendum Lord Ashcroft's polling team questioned 12,369 people who had completed voting.[6] This poll produced data that showed that 'Nearly half (49%) of leave voters said the biggest single reason for wanting to leave the European Union was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”.

Immediately prior to the vote, Ipsos MORI data showed that Europe was the third most highly ranked problem by Britons who were asked to name the most important issues facing the country, with 32% of respondents naming it as an issue.[7]


Lord Ashcroft's election day poll of 12,369 voters also discovered that 'One third (33%) [of leave voters] said the main reason was that leaving "offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders."'[8]

Immediately prior to the referendum, data from Ipsos-Mori showed that immigration/migration was the most cited issue when Britons were asked 'What do you see as the most/other important issue facing Britain today?', with 48% of respondents mentioning it when surveyed.[9]

In the decade before the Brexit referendum there was a significant increase in migration from EU countries, as outlined by the Migration Observatory:

'Inflows of EU nationals migrating to the UK stood at 268,000 in 2014, up from 201,000 in 2013. EU inflows were mainly flat for the 1991–2003 period, averaging close to 61,000 per year.'[10]

According to The Economist, areas that saw increases of over 200% in foreign-born population between 2001 and 2014 saw a majority of voters back leave in 94% of cases.[11] The Economist concluded 'High numbers of migrants don’t bother Britons; high rates of change do.' Consistent with that notion, research suggests that areas that saw significant influx of migration from Eastern Europe following the accession of 12 mainly Eastern European countries to the European Union in 2004 saw significant growth in support for UKIP and more likely to vote to leave the European Union.[12] Academic research investigating differences in Brexit vote among local authorities concluded that the Brexit vote was bigger in areas that had seen a large rise in the proportion of immigrants between 2004 and 2011.[13]

Demographic and cultural factors[edit]

Age of voters[edit]

It has been argued that the result was caused by differential voting patterns among younger and older people. According to Opinium, 64% of eligible people aged 18–24 voted, whereas 90% of eligible individuals over 65 voted.[14]

The 'order versus openness' divide[edit]

Academic Eric Kaufman notes the relatively strong correlation between a voter's support for the death penalty and their choice to vote 'leave'.[15] He says that this highlights a social division that he calls 'order versus openness'. He further argues that 'The order-openness divide is emerging as the key political cleavage, overshadowing the left-right economic dimension'.

Data from the British Election Study shows that support for the death penalty was a more reliable predictor of voting behaviour than any standard demographic measure of age, income or social class.

The 'left behind'[edit]

Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford coined the term 'The Left Behind' to refer to 'older, white, socially conservative voters in more economically marginal neighbourhoods'.[16] Analysing data the day after the Referendum, Ford concluded that 'Such voters had turned against a political class they saw as dominated by socially liberal university graduates with values fundamentally opposed to theirs, on identity, Europe – and particularly immigration.' This was described in as "if you've got money, you vote in... if you haven't got money, you vote out".[17] The left-behind hypothesis is furthered using data on the EU referendum result across electoral wards level as well as across local authorities, suggesting that especially areas with high degrees of social deprivation and low educational attainment strongly voted in favor of leaving the EU.[18][19]

Britons felt less integrated with the EU than other European citizens[edit]

Academics James Dennison and Noah Carl argue that 'the most important phenomenon to be explained vis-à-vis the referendum result in our view is that a sizable [sic] Eurosceptic faction has remained extant in Britain over the last four decades'.[20] Using data from the Eurobarometer survey they showed that fewer Britons considered themselves European than any other EU nationality. Furthermore, they show that British trading patterns, capital flows and emigration patterns were the least Europeanised of any EU member state.

General identity issues[edit]

The World Economic Forum 2017 acknowledged in its Global Risks Report that "the Brexit and President-elect Trump victories featured (...) appeals to sovereignty rooted in national identity and pride" and that it would "be challenging to find political narratives and policies that can repair decades-long cultural fault-lines".[21]

Presentational factors during the campaign[edit]

Misleading information[edit]

A "Vote Leave" poster in Omagh saying "We send the EU £50 million every day. Let's spend it on our NHS instead."

Michael Dougan, Professor of European Law at the University of Liverpool, in a viral video of one of his lectures prior to the referendum, described the Leave campaign as peddling "dishonesty on an industrial scale". Dougan also said that the Remain campaign had "made use of dodgy statistics".[22][23]

Perhaps the most commonly criticised claim by the Leave campaign was that voting to leave the EU would allow for increased spending on the NHS of £350m a week.[24][25]

Vote Leave claimed that the UK's contribution to the EU is £350 million per week.[26] The Treasury's own statement of the UK's contribution to the EU is that the net amount is £6.27 billion per annum. Divided by 52, this is approximately £120 million per week (net amount). Sir John Major claimed that Vote Leave had deliberately misled voters by using the gross contribution to the EU, £360 million.[27] The gross contribution is the total contribution paid, not including any discounts and rebates. The UK currently gets a 40% discount from the gross contribution which was negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s (worth about £144 million) - but reduced by a new formula forced upon Britain and agreed by Tony Blair in the early 2000s - plus various agricultural, economic development and scientific research 'rebates' (worth approximately a further £96 million).[28]

Elements of the Leave campaign have been identified as exemplifying "post-truth politics", in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion rather than the details of policy or objective factual analysis.[29][30][31]

Branding and wording choices[edit]

It has been argued that the 'Leave' brand was stronger and more effective than the 'Remain' brand. According to Mike Hind, a marketing professional, "The Britain Stronger In Europe brand was stillborn. On the basis of preparation, presentation and messaging, it deserved the kicking it got."[32] Additionally behavioural practitioner Warren Hatter argues that 'Leave' as a word places a lower cognitive load on observers than 'Remain a member of'.[33]

Prospect theory[edit]

Economics writer Chris Dillow has argued that, among other factors, Prospect Theory may explain the surprising willingness of many voters to take a path widely viewed as the more risky of two (change vs status quo). In his words Prospect Theory 'Tells us that people who feel they’ve lost want to gamble to break even. This is why they back longshots on the last race of the day or why they hold onto badly performing stocks. People who had lost out from globalization, or felt discomforted by immigration, voted Leave because they felt they had little to lose from doing so.'[34]

Historic policy decisions[edit]

Decision not to impose tougher migration restrictions[edit]

It has been claimed that the role of migration as a key factor in driving voting behaviour at the referendum originates from the relatively high levels of net migration into the UK in the last decade.[35] In particular it is claimed that the decision not to impose restrictions on EU migrants after the addition of the 'A8' (Eastern European) countries to the EU in 2004[36] (at a time when other European countries did impose such restrictions) contributed to a spike in migration levels that underpins contemporary voter attitudes.

European Migrant Crisis[edit]

President of the United States Donald Trump stated that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to open her country's borders for more than a million refugees and illegal immigrants was a "catastrophic mistake" and "the final straw that broke the camel's back", allowing the Leave campaign to win.[37][38][39] As a candidate for the office, Trump already made similar statements prior to the referendum and after it, for example at a rally in Ashburn, Virginia, where he also suggested that more countries would leave the EU because of Merkel's decision.[40][41]

Pro-Brexit party UKIP used images from the migrant crisis during their campaign, a decision that prompted criticism from some Leave and Remain supporters.[42][43][44]

The role of the media[edit]

The Guardian journalist Jane Martinson noted that many of the UK's biggest selling newspapers, The Sun and the Daily Mail in particular, but also including The Daily Telegraph and Daily Express, have been Eurosceptic for many years.[45]

The BBC was also criticised by many remain-supporting pundits for false balance which helped give the leave campaign credibility.[46]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Erlanger, Steven (23 June 2016). "Britain Votes to Leave E.U.; Cameron Plans to Step Down". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-07-15.
  2. ^ "Explaining the Brexit vote". The Economist. 16 July 2016. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2016-07-15.
  3. ^ "It's NOT the economy, stupid: Brexit as a story of personal values". 7 July 2016. Retrieved 2016-07-15.
  4. ^ "EU referendum: Vote Leave focuses on immigration". BBC News. Retrieved 2016-07-31.
  5. ^ "Ipsos MORI | Poll | Concern about immigration rises as EU vote approaches". Retrieved 2016-07-31.
  6. ^ "How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday... and why - Lord Ashcroft Polls". Retrieved 2016-07-23.
  7. ^ "Ipsos MORI | Poll | Concern about immigration rises as EU vote approaches". Retrieved 2016-07-31.
  8. ^ "How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday... and why - Lord Ashcroft Polls". Retrieved 2016-07-23.
  9. ^ "Concern about immigration rises as EU vote approaches". Retrieved 2016-07-31.
  10. ^ "EU Migration to and from the UK". Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  11. ^ "Explaining the Brexit vote". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2016-07-15.
  12. ^ Becker and Fetzer (October 2016). "Does Migration Cause Extreme Voting?". University of Warwick. Retrieved 27 October 2016.
  13. ^ Tammes, Peter (September 2017). "Investigating Differences in Brexit-vote Among Local Authorities in the UK: An Ecological Study on Migration- and Economy-related Issues'". Sociological Research Online.
  14. ^ Helm, Toby (10 July 2016). "EU referendum: youth turnout almost twice as high as first thought". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-07-15.
  15. ^ "It's NOT the economy, stupid: Brexit as a story of personal values". 7 July 2016. Retrieved 2016-07-15.
  16. ^ Ford, Rob (25 June 2016). "Older 'left-behind' voters turned against a political class with values opposed to theirs". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-07-15.
  17. ^ Harris, John (24 June 2016). "'If you've got money, you vote in ... if you haven't got money, you vote out'". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-07-27.
  18. ^ Becker, Fetzer, Novy (October 2016). "'Who Voted for Brexit? A Comprehensive District-Level Analysis'" (PDF). University of Warwick. Retrieved 2016-10-31.
  19. ^ Peter Tammes (September 2017). "Investigating Differences in Brexit-vote Among Local Authorities in the UK: An Ecological Study on Migration- and Economy-related Issues'". Sociological Research Online.
  20. ^ "Ultimate causes of Brexit". 24 July 2016. Retrieved 2016-07-30.
  21. ^ "Part 1 - Global Risks 2017". Retrieved 2017-02-10.
  22. ^ "EU Referendum:European Law expert compares Brexit campaigners to creationists". The Independent. 22 June 2016. Retrieved 2017-05-22.
  23. ^ "Transcript: Professor Michael Dougan on the EU Referendum - News - University of Liverpool". Retrieved 2017-05-22.
  24. ^ "FactCheck: do we really send £350m a week to Brussels?". Archived from the original on 8 July 2016. Retrieved 2016-07-31.
  25. ^ Vote Leave's early claim that the '350 million' will go to the NHS
  26. ^ "Let's give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week | LSE Digital Library". Retrieved 2017-03-30.
  27. ^ Major attacks Vote Leave 'deceit' as Johnson defends campaign
  28. ^ Source: HMRC
  29. ^ Daniel Z. Drezner (16 June 2016). "Why the post-truth political era might be around for a while". The Washington Post. Retrieved 11 July 2016.
  30. ^ Michael Deacon (9 July 2016). "In a world of post-truth politics, Andrea Leadsom will make the perfect PM". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 11 July 2016.
  31. ^ Ned Simons (8 June 2016). "Tory MP Sarah Wollaston Switches Sides in EU Referendum Campaign". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 11 July 2016.
  32. ^ "#epicfail How Britain Stronger In Europe blew it on the basics of PR & marketing communications". 18 July 2016. Retrieved 2016-07-23.
  33. ^ Hatter, Warren (20 July 2016). "The Brexit Referendum Through a Behavioural Lens". The Ripple Effect. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  34. ^ "Why Anger at Elites Was Channelled Towards Voting for Brexit - Evonomics". 5 July 2016. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  35. ^ "Eight reasons Leave won the UK's referendum on the EU". BBC News. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  36. ^ "EU Migration to and from the UK | The Migration Observatory". Retrieved 2016-07-23.
  37. ^ "Donald Trump says Merkel made 'catastrophic mistake' on migrants". BBC. 16 January 2017. Retrieved 2017-02-10.
  38. ^ Nienaber, Michael (16 January 2017). "Donald Trump accuses Angela Merkel of making 'catastrophic mistake' on refugees". The Independent. Retrieved 2017-02-10.
  39. ^ Krieg, Gregory (16 January 2017). "Trump hints at European immigration restrictions". CNN. Retrieved 2017-02-10.
  40. ^ "Trump's Merkel Re-Election Jibe Batted Away by German Government". 3 August 2016. Retrieved 2017-02-10.
  41. ^ "Obama Says Republicans Should Withdraw Support for Trump". The New York Times. 2 August 2016. Retrieved 2017-02-10.
  42. ^ "Nigel Farage's anti-migrant poster reported to police". The Guardian. 16 June 2016. Retrieved 2017-02-10.
  43. ^ Safdar, Anealla (28 June 2016). "Brexit: UKIP's 'unethical' anti-immigration poster". Al Jazeera. Retrieved 2017-02-10.
  44. ^ Riley-Smith, Ben (19 June 2016). "EU referendum: George Osborne compares Ukip 'breaking point' migration poster to Nazi propaganda". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2017-02-10.
  45. ^ Martinson, Jane (24 June 2016). "Did the Mail and Sun help swing the UK towards Brexit?". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 July 2016.
  46. ^ Harding, James (24 September 2016). "A truly balanced view from the BBC: don't blame us for Brexit". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 February 2017.


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