The Story of Brexit: A Popular Insurgency?

Release Date
January 30, 2017


Democracy and Voting

Almost every authority figure in Britain told them to vote for remaining in the EU. So why did 17 million people vote to leave? Dr. Steve Davies explains.

    1. Brexit Wins: Why That’s Great News for Europe, Too (article): In this article from The Freeman, Dan Sanchez explains the implications of Brexit for Britain and Europe. 
    2. Brexit Illustrates Why Voting Is One of the Worst Ways to Make Decisions (blog post): Professor Michael Munger explains why voting isn’t always the best way to make decisions. 
    3. The Difference Between Trump and Brexit – Learn Liberty (video): Joanna Williams argues Brexit voters had different motivations than Trump voters.


Dave Rubin: For people that have no idea what happened, can you just give me a little history of it, and then where we’re at now?
Steve Davies: Okay. Britain’s relationship with the European Union has always been, I think, a bit fraught and difficult. It’s been like one of those unhappy marriages, if you will, where outsiders wonder, “Why are those two people together?” The reason being that British politicians aren’t the British public. Ever since we first joined the European Economic Communities [inaudible 00:00:32] in 1973, I’ve always seen it just being basically about economics. It’s all about getting economic advantage.
On the Continental side however, they’ve been equally clear, right, since the Messina Conference in 1954, that this is all about building a political union. They see it as part of a kind of grand political project. The British politicians always say, “Oh, they don’t really mean it, these Continentals. This is just rhetoric.” Which of course is actually quite offensive. Not surprisingly, the Continentals get a bit irritated by this attitude.
Essentially, there’s a growing mismatch between what the British public think the EU should be, and the actual nature of that project. That’s got significantly worse since the Maastricht Treaty. It caused all kinds of internal political eruptions. David Cameron, in what I had to say was a grotesque act of misjudgment from his own perspective, called a referendum to try and sort out his internal politics. Now, in that referendum, everyone thought, the expectation was that the status quo would win. I must say I expected that.
Dave Rubin: That’s basically why he called it?
Steve Davies: Yes he did.
Dave Rubin: Because he was in power, and he figured, I’ll call it, they’ll agree with me.
Steve Davies: That’ll sort out my party problem, yes.
Dave Rubin: That’s that. Wow, okay.
Steve Davies: Yes. Because generally speaking, referendum normally go for the status quo. In this case, the overwhelming majority members of Parliament, most of the respected pundits, most economists, virtually all of the big business firms that were asked, the Bank of England, pretty much any authority figure you care to mention said, “Yes, you need to vote remain.” What took place was a popular insurgency in which the ordinary British public thought, “Well, no, we don’t agree with this.” They basically went against the advice of the bulk of the political media business leadership.
Now, the vote that came together to vote leave, if you will, was basically a coalition of three quite distinct groups, I think. On the one hand, you had what you might call Brexit Child, older conservative voters, typically middle-class, slightly older, living in the countryside, living in the affluent suburbs. That was one block.
Dave Rubin: That’s a little bit of the people that you described voting for Trump? A little bit older-
Steve Davies: A little bit, but slightly more moderate. The second group, however, are like the people who voted for Trump. This is older, white, working-class voters in the traditional labor heartlands of the northeast of England, the midlands, Yorkshire. The vote in some constituencies there are like Sunderland, which is our equivalent of say, Scranton Wilkes-Barre. That was 69% vote for leave, an absolute landslide. It was that block of what you might call populist voters, working class voters, that put leave over. The third very small group, which I belong to, is what you might call radical classical liberals who, very small group, but again, you could say we made the difference in some ways because what we wanted was to be able to have a greater range of options for the British government by being outside the EU’s controls and constraints. It’s those three blocks of people that voted for leave, basically.