Peter Bye

In the wake of the UK referendum vote to leave the EU, there has been no shortage of analysis of the voting patterns of the electorate: who voted to leave and why. Given the momentous – and unexpected – result, the level of interest is hardly surprising.

While some patterns are clear, others are harder to discern. To count the votes cast, the UK was divided into areas. The votes in each area were then aggregated into single totals for remain and leave for the entire UK. The division into areas obviously provides an immediate guide to the geographic distribution of voters’ choices, by country (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and area within each country. However, that does not tell us why those voting to leave actually did so.

Various reasons have been advanced. Some people feel left behind by economic developments: they have not seen any real improvement in their living standards for several years. Fear of immigration, which was stoked up by Brexit campaigners, is another reason. Some clearly believed lies such as the statement that the EU subscription is GBP 350 M per week[1]. If we left the EU, they were told, all the money would be free to spend on the NHS. Others used the referendum as a reason to kick the government. One intriguing suggestion is that people who hold authoritarian views, for example favouring capital punishment, strongly supported leave[2].

There is one reason that, while it does not appear to have registered heavily with the electorate, clearly exercises some of the politicians involved: sovereignty. We were told that the UK would take back control of its affairs. Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP (he has since resigned, declaring his job done) spoke of ‘Independence Day’[3] following the result on 24th June.

Such comments are absurd. The UK is a sovereign nation under international law; the EU is not[4]. No one forced the UK to join the EU and no one is stopping it from leaving. To talk of independence and taking back control is to use language applicable to nations breaking free from colonial powers. It is an example of the pro-Brexit rhetoric of regarding the EU as some form of hostile power, anxious to put one over on the UK. In reality, the UK has been a significant player in the EU, strongly influencing its shape[5].

Let’s look more closely at the sovereignty issue. During the referendum campaign, statements were made to the effect that the EU makes around two thirds of UK legislation. It’s more like 13%, a figure that does not include regulations, which apply across all EU member states[6]. It’s also instructive to look at areas of legislation and other government activity that are largely or wholly independent of the EU, but which have a significant effect on the population[7] of the UK. Here are five examples.

Taxation. The UK and other member states decide their own tax rates and the distribution between income, consumption and business taxes. Tax rates vary widely across the EU. Ireland, for example, has low business taxes to attract inward investment. During the referendum campaign, there was some discussion about the 5% VAT on domestic fuel in the UK. However, VAT on domestic fuel was introduced in 1993 by Norman Lamont, the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, to raise revenue. There was no EU involvement[8].

Health care and the NHS. The UK decides its own health care policies and funding, with no intervention from the EU. While all member states have affordable health care systems, their approaches vary widely.

Education. The structure and funding of schools and higher education differ widely in the EU. Within the UK, there are differences between the member countries. In Scotland, for example, universities do not charge tuition fees whereas in England the fees are very high by EU standards. The EU does mandate that students from EU member states must not be charged higher fees than locals if they opt to go to university in another state.

Defence. The UK’s defence policies are decided by the UK, in conjunction with its NATO allies. The EU encourages co-operation among member states but it has no military capabilities[9].

Criminal justice. The UK decides its own criminal code and law enforcement policies. The noises made by Vote Leave about prisoner voting rights are spurious. The court pursuing the UK on that issue is the European Court of Human Rights, which is part of the Council of Europe, not the EU[10]. There is co-operation within the EU on crime prevention. The European Arrest Warrant, for example, helps to detain criminals wherever they are in the EU. EU membership also requires that states do not have capital punishment.

How will the UK cope with major problems when it is outside of the EU? Many of the challenges we face cannot be solved by nations acting in isolation. Climate change, energy security, crime and terrorism to name a few all require international collaboration. These are just the sort of things that the EU is intended to facilitate. It’s hard to see how the UK’s new-found sovereignty is going to help.


Notes and sources

[1] It’s less than half that figure. For a breakdown of the payments, see https://fullfact.org/economy/our-eu-membership-fee-55-million/ and The Financial Times, 2nd April 2016

[2] Insert link to Fabian website. http://www.fabians.org.uk/brexit-voters-not-the-left-behind/

[3] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfuDmbrksqc

[4] Liverpool University’s Professor Michael Dougan specialises in European constitutional law. See his lecture at https://www.youtube.com/embed/USTypBKEd8Y

[5] See again Professor Dougan’s lecture.

[6] A number of factors make it difficult to come up with a clear answer. If we confine ‘laws’ to Acts passed by the UK Parliament, and Statutory Instruments, the figure is 13.2% for the period 1993 to 2014. See: http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN07092.pdf. Full Fact provides a succinct statement on the subject at https://fullfact.org/europe/two-thirds-uk-law-made-eu/ . Another useful source is http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/RP10-62.

[7] A complication in the UK is that there are variations between the member countries. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved legislatures with varying powers.

[8] See http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/may/31/will-leaving-eu-save-british-households-17bn-energy-bills for more information on this tax.

[9] See https://fullfact.org/europe/hunt-eu-army/

[10] Prisoner voting rights seems to me to be a minor point, but Vote Leave seemed concerned about it. For more information, see https://fullfact.org/law/votes-prisoners-politics-versus-human-rights-law/ , and also https://fullfact.org/news/prisoner-voting-what-does-european-courts-judgment-mean-uk/. The European Court of Justice, which is part of the EU, ruled in October 2015 that it is lawful to impose a voting ban on prisoners convicted of serious offences. See http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/oct/06/uk-ban-on-prisoner-voting-is-lawful-eus-highest-court-rules

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