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The outcome of the British referendum on EU membership sent shockwaves through Europe. While Britain is an outlier when it comes to the strength of Euroscepticism, the anti-immigration and anti-establishment sentiments that produced the referendum outcome are gaining strength across Europe. Analysing campaign and survey data, this article shows that the divide between winners and losers of globalization was a key driver of the vote. Favouring British EU exit, or ‘Brexit’, was particularly common among less educated, poorer and older voters, and those who expressed concerns about immigration and multi-culturalism. While there is no evidence of a short-term contagion effect with similar membership referendums in other countries, the Brexit vote nonetheless poses a serious challenge to the political establishment across Europe.
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Journal of European Public Policy
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The Brexit vote: a divided nation, a divided
Sara B. Hobolt
To cite this article: Sara B. Hobolt (2016) The Brexit vote: a divided nation, a divided continent,
Journal of European Public Policy, 23:9, 1259-1277, DOI: 10.1080/13501763.2016.1225785
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The Brexit vote: a divided nation, a divided continent
Sara B. Hobolt
London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK
The outcome of the British referendum on European Union (EU) membership
sent shockwaves through Europe. While Britain is an outlier when it comes to
the strength of Euroscepticism, the anti-immigration and anti-establishment
sentiments that produced the referendum outcome are gaining strength
across Europe. Analysing campaign and survey data, this article shows that
the divide between winners and losers of globalization was a key driver of the
vote. Favouring British EU exit, or Brexit, was particularly common among
less-educated, poorer and older voters, and those who expressed concerns
about immigration and multi-culturalism. While there is no evidence of a
short-term contagion effect with similar membership referendums in other
countries, the Brexit vote nonetheless poses a serious challenge to the
political establishment across Europe.
KEYWORDS Brexit; Britain; Euroscepticism; populism; referendum; voting behaviour
There was a sense of shock and disbelief in the early morning hours of 24 June
2016, both in Britain and across European capitals, when it became clear that a
small majority (51.9 per cent) of British voters had cast their ballot in favour of
leaving the European Union (EU). Markets reacted quickly to the Brexit vote:
the British pound plummeted to a 31-year low against the dollar and over 2
trillion dollars were wiped off shares globally. The political ramifications
were almost as immediate and dramatic, as the British Prime Minister David
Cameron resigned, the main opposition Labour Party fought a bruising
internal leadership battle, and the Scottish First Minister signalled Brexit
could mean the break-up of the United Kingdom (UK). Even the leaders of
Leave camp seemed surprised by the outcome as they admitted they had
no plan for what Brexitwould look like. Meanwhile leaders of other EU
member states called for Britain to invoke Article 50 of the EUs Lisbon
Treaty so that exit negotiations could begin immediately.
In many ways, however, the outcome of the UKs referendum on EU mem-
bership was not surprising. First, the British public has consistently been the
© 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Sara B. Hobolt
Supplemental data and underlying research materials for this article can be accessed at http://dx.doi.
VOL. 23, NO. 9, 12591277
most Eurosceptic electorate in the EU ever since the UK joined in 1973, and
opinion polls had suggested that this referendum would be a very close
race. Second, in stark contrast to the pro-EU position held by most other EU
governments, leading figures in Britains governing Conservative Party are
fiercely opposed to the EU, thus bringing the Eurosceptic message into the
mainstream (De Vries and Edwards 2009). Third, it is well-established that
referendums on European integration are highly unpredictable, and that
voters often reject the proposals put to them by the government, even
when supported by a consensus among mainstream political parties and
experts (e.g., Franklin et al.1994,1995; Hobolt 2009). Finally, the anti-establish-
ment message that made the Brexit Leave campaign so effective has also led
to electoral successes of populist parties across Europe in recent years, gener-
ally fuelled by worries about immigration, lack of economic opportunities and
anger with the political class (Hobolt and Tilley 2016; Kriesi et al.2012).
Hence, on the one hand, the outcome of the Brexit referendum is a unique
event, since no other member state
has ever decided to exit the European
Union. Yet, on the other hand, the sentiments that led to this outcome are
by no means a distinctively British phenomenon. The analyses presented in
this article show that British Leave voters were motivated by anti-immigration
and anti-establishment feelings. They also reveal stark demographic divides,
as the less well-educated and the less well-off voted in large majorities to
leave the EU, while the young graduates in the urban centres voted to stay.
This divide between those who feel left behind by the forces of globalization
and mass immigration and those who welcome such developments is also a
driving force behind the increasing support for Eurosceptic parties on the
radical right and left across Europe (see Kriesi et al.2012; Teney et al.2014).
Concerns about the cultural and economic threats of globalization, immigra-
tion and European integration are effectively mobilized by parties, especially
on the populist right, that have been gaining ground in national and Euro-
pean elections (see Hobolt and De Vries 2015,2016b; Van Elsas et al.2016).
The challenge that the EU faces thus go beyond the loss of a major
member state, and the economic and political ramification that follows
from that. Perhaps more significant is the fact that many voters across
Europe see the EU as part of the problem rather than the solution when it
comes to protecting ordinary citizens from the challenges of an ever more
globalized and integrated world.
The article proceeds as follows. First, it discusses the background of the
British EU referendum and describes the campaign leading up to the vote.
Second, the article presents an analysis of voting and survey data to explain
the main divisions in the British electorate and the attitudes that explain
support for Brexit. Finally, I consider some of the implications for European
politics, with a particular focus on the likelihood of a domino effect with
1260 S. B. HOBOLT
other EU membership referendums across Europe and the electoral successes
of Eurosceptic parties.
The Brexit referendum campaign
The Brexit referendum came about as the culmination of decades of internal
division in the British Conservative Party on the issue of European integration.
To appease the Eurosceptic wing of the party and to avoid a flight of voters to
the populist right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the 2015
Conservative Party manifesto included a pledge of a straight in-out referen-
dum of the European Union by the end of 2017(Conservative Party Manifesto
2015: 32). Hence, as with many other EU referendums, this referendum was
called for domestic party political and electoral reasons (Prosser 2016). After
the Conservative Party won an outright majority in the May 2015 General Elec-
tion, Cameron set out to negotiate a new settlementfor Britain in Europe,
promising to win a host of concessions from Brussels. On 20 February 2016,
Cameron finalized that deal with 27 other European leaders and set the
June date for the EU membership referendum. The deal included the power
to limit EU migrantsin-work benefits, a treaty change so the UK would not
be bound by ever closer union, and the ability for the UK to enact an emer-
gency safeguardto protect the interests of the City of London and British
businesses (Jensen and Snaith 2016). Yet this much-heralded new settlement
was widely derided by the British press for amounting to very little, and the
announcement of the deal even led to a boost for the Leave side in the
polls (YouGov 2016). The deal subsequently played a very minor role in the
referendum campaign.
Despite the failure to win over voters with a new settlement for Britain in
the EU, the government nonetheless felt confident that it could win the refer-
endum. All the major parties in Parliament were in favour of remaining in the
EU, including the major opposition party, Labour. The Remain side also had
the major business interests and trade unions on its side, as well as most
foreign leaders and international organizations. The governing Conservative
Party itself, however, was openly divided in the campaign with several
cabinet members, including the charismatic former mayor of London (and
now foreign secretary) Boris Johnson campaigning to leave the EU. The news-
papers were split when it came to recommending an In or Out vote. A media
study of the campaign by Loughborough University shows that Conservative
politicians dominated media coverage on both sides of the campaign,
accounting for almost two-thirds of all referendum-related media appear-
ances, with David Cameron the most prominent In campaigner (mentioned
in 25 per cent of news items) and Boris Johnson the most prominent Out cam-
paigner (mentioned in 19 per cent of news items). In contrast, the Labour
Party led a more lacklustre campaign (its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was only
mentioned in 6 per cent of news items) (see Loughborough University 2016).
The poll of polls, shown in Figure 1, reveals a very close race with slight lead
for the Remain side during most of the campaign, but with some fluctuation in
the last month of the campaign, when several polls indicated a Leave majority.
There were two official campaign organizations, Britain Stronger in Europe
and Vote Leave.
From the outset of the campaign, the battle lines were
starkly drawn up by the two sides: the economy versus immigration. The
messages were clear: vote Remain to avoid the economic risk of a Brexit
(A leap in the dark) or vote Leave to regain control of British borders,
British law-making and restrict immigration (Take back control). On both
sides, the campaign rhetoric was largely negative with the In camp focusing
on the threat of economic disaster in the case of Brexit vote (dubbed Project
Fearby the Leave camp) and the Out campaign mobilizing peoples fears of
immigration (referred to as Project Hateby the Remain camp). The Remain
side was hopeful that the economic uncertainties associated with Brexit
would ultimately persuade voters to choose the status quo option, since
there was an overwhelming consensus among experts that a Brexit
outcome would have negative economic consequences for Britain. In contrast,
the Leave camp presented the referendum as a unique opportunity to regain
control of British law-making, borders and restrict immigration. The media
analysis of the campaign reveal that both camps were successful in setting
the agenda, since the economy and immigration clearly dominated the
news coverage. In the first three weeks of the campaign economic issues
received considerably more attention than immigration, to the benefit of
the Remain camp. There was, however, a shift towards immigration as the
dominant issue in the latter weeks of the campaign, which may have bene-
fitted the Leave campaign (Loughborough University 2016). Interestingly,
other issues, such as sovereignty, security, democracy and devolution, were
much more marginal issues in the media coverage of the referendum.
Figure 1. Referendum vote intention Poll of Polls. Source: Poll of Polls of referendum
vote intention, compiled by Prof. John Curtice and NatCen Social Research, available
1262 S. B. HOBOLT
This picture of a simple choice between the economy and immigration is
also reinforced by survey evidence. According to one YouGov poll, 84 per
cent of Leave voters thought that there would be less immigration into
Britainif we left the EU, compared to only 27 per cent of Remain voters.
The same survey asked about whether Britain would be worse or better off
economically following Brexit, and only 4 per cent of Leave voters thought
Britain would be worse off, despite a broad consensus among experts that
this would indeed be the case. In contrast, 78 per cent of remainers
thought Britain would be worse off economically (YouGov/Times 2022
June 2016). To explore votersreasoning further, Christopher Wratil and I
designed a survey where a representative sample of over 5,000 British citizens
were asked to think about the arguments they have personally heard during
the referendum campaign and summarize the main argument in their own
words (Hobolt and Wratil 2016). When analysing these thousands of open-
ended responses, we find that immigration and the economy emerge as
the main arguments. The analysis identifies around nine distinct arguments
mentioned by voters that centre on immigration, sovereignty, the economy,
lack of information, and distrust in the government, as summarized in Table
1. Similar to the media analysis, we find that a number of other issues often
central to the debate on European integration, notably democracy and
environmental protection, do not appear as prominent arguments for or
against membership in the minds of voters in this referendum debate.
The British public was clearly sharply divided in what it considers to be the
main issue of the referendum. As Table 1 shows, the two key arguments that
resonate more with Remain voters than with Leave voters relate to the
economy, specifically the loss of economic stability in the event of Brexit
and the economic benefits of EU membership, while Leave voters highlight
mainly concerns about immigration as expressed by one respondent: Immi-
grants flooding into the country if we dont regain control of our own borders.
Another key argument for Leave voters is lack of trust in David Cameron
and his government. Hence, the Leave side successfully mobilized not only
Table 1. Main arguments for Remain and Leave voters.
Mentioned mainly by
Main referendum arguments: Leave voters Remain voters
Immigration control X
No trust in Prime Minister/Government X
Cost of EU membership X
Security implications X
Lack of knowledge and trust X
Lack of information X X
Economic risk of Brexit X
Economic stability in the EU X
Economic benefits from the EU X
Source: Original poll by Sara B. Hobolt and Christopher Wratil conducted by YouGov between 9 and 11
May 2016. See Hobolt and Wratil (2016) for more details.
salient concerns about immigration but also anti-establishment attitudes, por-
traying the vote as a chance for ordinary citizens to take back controlfrom
the élites in Brussels. The analysis of vote choice below shows that such
anti-élite sentiments appealed to many Leave voters.
Explaining the Brexit vote
While the Brexit referendum was only the second membership referendum
in an existing member state (the first being the British EEC referendum in
1975, where 67 per cent voted to remain), there have been over 50 referen-
dums on other aspects of European integration, mainly accession and treaty
ratification (Hobolt 2009). Consequently, there is a large literature on how
voters decide in such referendums. Much of the scholarly debate has
focused on whether voters decide on the basis of their attitudes towards
the EU (the issue-voting approach) or whether they use the referendum to
express their dissatisfaction with the government (the second-order
approach). The first approach focuses on individualsvalues and beliefs
and argues that voting behaviour in EU referendums reflects peoples under-
lying, broad attitudes towards European integration (Garry et al.2005; Siune
et al.1994). The alternative explanation of voting behaviour in EU referen-
dums is inspired by the second-ordertheory of elections (Reif and
Schmitt 1980), where voters are thus expected to use their vote as a
means of signalling their dissatisfaction with the government, or the dom-
estic political class more generally (Franklin et al.1994,1995). Other work
on referendums has argued that these approaches are not mutually exclu-
sive, but that the nature of the referendum campaigns influences how
voters decide. For example, Hug (2002) argues that punishment strategies
(second-order voting) are more likely to occur when governments employ
referendums in an attempt to shore up support and when the outcome is
legally non-binding. Other studies have examined how the salience of the
issue of European integration affects attitudes and reception of élite cues
and, in turn, influences patterns of voting behaviour in referendums (see
Franklin 2002; Hobolt 2009). When salience is high, and voters have a
greater interest in European affairs, they are more likely to rely on their atti-
tudes towards European integration and less likely to treat the referendum
as a second-order election.
As the Brexit referendum was clearly a high salience referendum with a
long and intense campaign and high turnout (72.2 per cent), we would
expect that issue-specific attitudes (Euroscepticism) to matter, but importantly
we also want to examine from where such opinions originate. The literature
on Euroscepticism outlines three main approaches to explaining variation in
support for, and opposition to, European integration: utilitarian,identity
and cue-takingapproaches (see Hobolt and de Vries 2016a). The basic
1264 S. B. HOBOLT
proposition of the utilitarian approach is that since European trade liberaliza-
tion favours citizens with higher levels of human capital (education and occu-
pational skills) and income, such individuals will be more supportive of
European integration (Gabel 1998; Gabel and Palmer 1995; Tucker et al.
2002). Moreover, a growing literature has shown that a divide has emerged
between the so-called winners and losers of globalization and that these
groups have coherent and distinct attitudinal positions towards issues such
as international co-operation, European integration and immigration (e.g.,
Azmanova 2011; Evans and Mellon 2016; Kriesi et al.2012; Teney et al.
2014). In a nutshell, the winnersof globalization the young, well-educated
professionals in urban centres favour more open borders, immigration and
international co-operation, whereas the left behind’–the working class, less
educated and the older oppose such openness. There is consistent evidence
to suggest that socioeconomic factors shape attitudes towards European inte-
gration, and recent work even reveals that education has become a more
important determinant of EU support over time, as the less educated are
becoming less supportive of the integration project (Hakhverdian et al.
2013). Similarly, in the Brexit referendum I would expect that those who are
less educated would hold more Eurosceptic and anti-immigration attitudes
and be more likely to vote to Leave.
Demographics may tell part of the story about Euroscepticism, but more
deep-seated attachments have also been found to drive such attitudes. Scho-
lars have argued that European integration is not only, or even primarily,
about trade and the single market, but also about a pooling of sovereignty
that potentially erodes national self-determination and blurs boundaries
between distinct national communities (Carey 2002; Hooghe and Marks
2005,2009; McLaren 2006). Not surprisingly, therefore, individualsattach-
ment to their nation and their perceptions of people from other cultures influ-
ence their attitudes towards European integration. Carey (2002) has shown
that people with strong national identity are less supportive of European inte-
gration. There is also evidence in studies by McLaren (2002,2006) and others
that Euroscepticism is closely related to a general hostility towards other cul-
tures, such as negative attitudes towards minority groups and immigrants (De
Vreese and Boomgaarden 2005; Hobolt et al.2011). Hooghe and Marks (2005)
have demonstrated that individuals who conceive of their national identity as
exclusive of other territorial identities are likely to be considerably more Euro-
sceptic than those who have multiple nested identities. Hence, my expec-
tation is that strong national identity, especially English identity, to be
associated with the Leave vote, while voters with a European identity
would be much more likely to vote to remain in the EU.
Yet, as we know from the second-order election literature on referendum
behaviour, vote choices are not always driven by identities or attitudes
towards the issues at stake, but also by feelings about the political
establishment more generally and the government in particular. The literature
on Euroscepticism has also shown that citizens rely on cuesand proxies
when forming opinions about the EU (Anderson 1998). Since citizens gener-
ally pay more attention to the national political arena than European politics,
it makes sense that they employ domestic cues to form opinions about Euro-
pean integration. The recommendations provided by national political parties
are crucial cues (Hobolt 2007; Lupia 1992). These are also likely to have mat-
tered in the Brexit referendum, especially when the parties were united in
their position on the referendum. As already discussed, the governing Conser-
vative party was openly divided during the campaign, and cue-taking could
thus have worked in both directions. Yet attitudes toward the political élite
may also play a very different role in referendums, as voters used the ballot
to punish the political establishment. Indeed, the Leave campaign sought
to frame the referendum as a battle between ordinary people and the political
establishment, in line with the populist idea of a fundamental division
between the the pure peopleand the corrupt elite(Mudde 2007). Hence,
I would also expect that the Brexit vote was, at least in part, driven by such
populist attitudesand a general disaffection with the political class.
Analysis of vote choice
To summarize the discussion above, I expect that four sets of factors shaped
vote choices: socioeconomic factors; geographical identities; feelings about
the domestic political establishment; and, finally, policy attitudes. These
factors are of course highly interrelated. Following the Michigan model of
voting behaviour (Campbell et al.1960), we can think of these predictors as
afunnel of causalitywhere sociodemographic factors and identities are cau-
sally prior to, and shape, political attitudes that in turn are the proximal cause
of vote choice. Hence, each of these models is estimated separately to test the
association with vote choice, but the analysis here does not allow us to disen-
tangle the complex causal mechanisms that link these factors together.
To test each of the explanatory approaches I analyse the rich data con-
tained in the 7
Wave of the British Election Study. This wave constitutes
the pre-campaign Panel Survey Study of the 2016 EU Referendum, con-
ducted prior to the referendum.
The dependent variable is thus Leave vote
intention in the referendum, where respondents were asked: If there was a
referendum on Britains membership of the European Union tomorrow, how
do you think you would vote?There is very considerable stability in the pre-
dictors of vote intention and actual vote choice. The advantage of this particu-
lar dataset is not only the impressive sample size (30,895 respondents), but
also the number of variables included in the questionnaire that allows us to
investigate all of the hypothesized factors.
1266 S. B. HOBOLT
Starting with the utilitarian model that focuses on how an individuals
sociodemographic position influences her attitudes towards the EU, and in
turn, vote choice, we examine the impact of level of education, household
income, and age. The model also includes individual perceptions of
changes in personal economic conditions in this model.
The second model
is the identity model, also discussed above. This includes measures of Euro-
pean identity as well as the strength of British and English identity.
expectation is that people who feel strongly European would be more likely
to remain in the European Union. In contrast, a stronger national identity is
expected to be associated with the Leave vote.
The third model focuses on how peoples attitude towards the domestic
political class can shape referendum outcomes. Following the second-order
election approach, the expectation is that attitudes towards the domestic pol-
itical élite matter. However, this can lead to two contrasting expectations: cue-
taking and punishment. On the one hand, we know that people take cues
from their preferred party when forming opinions on complex issues such
as EU membership. Hence, the model includes a variable that indicates
which party the respondents would vote for.
The expectation is that if a
party recommends a Remain vote, voters who feel close to this party would
be more likely to also vote Remain, and vice versa for Leave. However, as
already mentioned, the parties were not all united in their approach. The Con-
servative Party in particular was internally divided, the Labour Party less so,
while the Liberal Democrats were united for Remain and UKIP united in
their opposition to membership. On the other hand, voters may also use refer-
endums as an opportunity to punish the political establishment and vote
against the status quo. I therefore include a scale of items that captures indi-
vidualsagreement with this populist message,
as well as their general dis-
trust in politicians
and their (dis)approval of the governments performance.
The final model is the classic issue-voting model that assumes that voters
base their choices on relevant policy preferences. The model thus includes a
number of items that capture attitudes towards salient issues discussed by
each camp in the campaign, including EU immigration (should more or
fewer be allowed to come to Britain?), parliamentary sovereignty (should
the UK Parliament override EU laws?), trade with Europe (good or bad for
Britain?), and views on whether the EU has made Britain more prosperous,
undermined Britains distinctive identity, and helped prevent wars. Given
that so much of the debate was focused on what would happen in the
event of Brexit, the model also includes variables capturing the respondents
assessments of whether Brexit will lead to more or less trade and more or less
immigration. The results are shown in a series of logistic regression models in
Table 2.
Model 1 in Table 2 lends support to the utilitarian model of support for the
EU. In line with our expectation, I find that those who have benefitted from
Table 2. Explaining the Brexit vote.
(1) Sociodemographics (2) Identity
(2) Anti-elite and
cue-taking (4) Attitudes Marginal effects %
Coef. SEs Sig. Coef. SEs Sig. Coef. SEs Sig. Coef. SEs Sig.
One SD Δ
(one unit Δfor 0/1) (Model #)
Constant 0.45 0.09 ** 0.94 0.12 ** 2.32 0.17 ** 14.99 0.26 **
Gender 0.08 0.03 ** 0.24 0.03 ** 0.00 0.03 0.13 0.05 ** 2 (1)
Age 0.02 0.00 ** 0.03 0.00 ** 0.02 0.00 ** 0.01 0.00 ** 11 (1)
Education 0.40 0.01 ** 0.19 0.01 ** 0.30 0.01 ** 0.08 0.02 ** 13 (1)
Income 0.04 0.01 ** 0.05 0.01 ** 0.07 0.01 ** 0.05 0.01 ** 2 (1)
Personal econ. eval. (positive) 0.10 0.02 ** 2 (1)
European identity 0.80 0.01 ** 37 (2)
English identity 0.18 0.01 ** 10 (2)
British identity 0.13 0.01 ** 5 (2)
Lack of trust in politicians 0.24 0.01 ** 9 (3)
Government disapproval 0.02 0.02 1 (3)
Populist attitudes 0.08 0.01 ** 4 (3)
Conservative supporter 0.49 0.05 ** 12 (3)
Labour supporter 0.99 0.04 ** 25 (3)
Lib Dem supporter 0.00 0.08 0 (3)
SNP/PC supporter 0.83 0.07 ** 21 (3)
UKIP supporter 3.55 0.12 ** 88 (3)
EU has not made UK more prosperous 0.93 0.04 ** 23 (4)
EU has not helped prevent war 0.55 0.03 ** 15 (4)
Free trade bad for UK 0.47 0.03 ** 8 (4)
UK Parliament to override EU law 0.42 0.03 ** 12 (4)
EU has undermined British identity 0.80 0.03 ** 24 (4)
Anti-EU migrants 0.13 0.01 ** 8 (4)
Brexit will not reduce trade 1.07 0.04 ** 24 (4)
Brexit will lower immigration 0.56 0.03 ** 13 (4)
N 23, 914 23, 914 23, 914 23, 914
Pseudo R-squared 0.09 0.35 0.27 0.64
Note: Logistic regression models with Leave vote as dependent variable. Non-voters/dont knows excluded. **p< 0.01.
Source: BES Online Panel Wave 7.
1268 S. B. HOBOLT
increased international co-operation and trade the better educated, the
young and the well-off are less likely to vote for Leave compared to those
who are left behind’–the low-skilled, the old and the poor. Simple descriptive
statistics reveals a clear educational divide in the Brexit vote. Figure 2 shows
that that only a quarter of people with a postgraduate degree voted to leave,
whereas over two-thirds of those with no qualifications did so.
This impact of education on vote choices is also highly significant in the
multiple logistic regression models. As log odds are not straightforward to
interpret, the last column in Table 2 shows the marginal effect of one standard
deviation change in each of the explanatory variables on the probability of
voting Leave. This shows the strongest effect for education and age. Going
from A-level education to an undergraduate degree reduces the probability
of voting Leave by about 10 percentage points, all other things being
equal. Similarly, a 50 year old is 10 percentage points more likely to support
Brexit compared to a 33 year old voter. Men are slightly more likely to vote
Leave (2 percentage points), as are those with lower incomes and those
who feel that their financial situation has deteriorated. These are very substan-
tial differences, especially when it comes to the generation and education
gaps; however, the overall model fit is modest (pseudo R-squared of 0.09).
The model fit is much improved when the subjective assessments of iden-
tity are included in Model 2 (pseudo R-squared of 0.34). Unsurprisingly, Euro-
pean identity in particular is a powerful predictor of the Remain vote. A
standard deviation increase in Europeanessreduces the probability of
voting Leave by as much as 37 percentage points. In comparison, a one stan-
dard deviation increase in English identity increases the likelihood of voting
Leave by 10 percentage points and 5 percentage points for British identity.
It makes sense that we find a greater effect for English national identity com-
pared to the more inclusiveBritish identity, since English nationalism is often
associated with the defence of national sovereignty in opposition to transfers
Figure 2. The education gap. Source: BES Online Panel Wave 7.
of powers both upwards (to the EU) and downwards (to devolved nations)
(see Wellings 2012). Overall, the results show that deep-seated identities
matter when it comes to vote choice. But what about attitudes towards the
political class?
Model 3 demonstrates that parties matter, but not necessarily as expected.
While the Conservative-led government advocated Remain, Conservative sup-
porters are 12 percentage points more likely to vote for Brexit compared to
people without a preferred party. Labour voters were more in favour of
Remain (25 percentage points), while we find no statistically significant
effect for Liberal Democrats supporters. The largest effect is found among
UKIP supporters, who were 88 percentage points more likely to be Brexiteers
unsurprising given that opposition to EU membership is the main policy goal
of the party. Supporters of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Welsh
Plaid Cymru are more likely to be Remainers. So party cues matter, especially
when they are united in the cause. But for many voters, this referendum was
also an opportunity to vote against the political class in its entirety. There is a
strong impact of lack of trust in politicians on the Leave vote: one standard
deviation increase in distrust leads to a 9 percentage point increase in the
probability of a Leave vote. Similarly, a standard deviation change in populist
attitudes leads to a 4 percentage point change in the Leave likelihood. Inter-
estingly, however, disapproval of the performance of the government has no
effect on the Leave vote, at least not when controlling for preferred party. So
the Brexit vote cannot be interpreted as a straightforward punishment of the
Cameron government. Overall, this anti-establishment and cue-taking model
explains about as much variance as the identity model.
Finally, turning to the attitudes model we see even greater explanatory
power, as we would expect, since EU issue attitudes should be the most prox-
imal cause of vote choice in such a high intensity referendum campaign
(Hobolt 2009). As anticipated, the results show that the issues mobilized in
the campaign the EUs effect on the economy and immigration are
highly correlated with vote choice. Both economic perceptions and cultural
concerns had a substantial impact on vote choices. Those who felt that the
EU had undermined the distinct identity of Britain were much more likely
to vote to leave, whereas the view that the EU had made Britain more prosper-
ous had a similarly sizeable effect. Attitudes towards immigration also mat-
tered: individuals who thought Britain should have many fewer EU migrants
were 32 percentage points more likely to vote for Brexit compared to those
who wanted more migrants. Equally, expectations about the consequences
of Brexit had very significant effects. Voters convinced by the argument
that Brexit would reduce trade and employment were much more likely to
vote to remain compared to those who were not convinced about the nega-
tive impact on the economy. Similarly, anticipation about changes to immigra-
tion post-Brexit mattered to voters (although the effect size is about half).
1270 S. B. HOBOLT
In sum, the analysis shows that EU issue attitudes were mobilized during
this referendum campaign and helped to shape vote choices. Traditional con-
cerns about sovereignty and the economic benefits of membership were
important, but equally salient were identity concerns related to the impact
of immigration and European integration on Britains cultural identity. Are
such concerns unique to Britain or can we expect similar revolts against the
pro-EU élites in other member states?
Is Britain an outlier?
One of the primary concerns in European capitals following the British refer-
endum was the risk of contagion. While the EU may well be able to survive the
exit of Britain always a recalcitrant member state the worry was that this
could trigger a domino effect with referendums in other countries. In the
aftermath of the Brexit vote, several leaders of populist Eurosceptic parties
called for their own EU membership referendums, including in France, the
Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Sweden. However, unlike in Britain,
where the governing Conservative party called a referendum owing to
internal divisions on the issue, most mainstream parties in Western Europe
are staunchly pro-EU. Even the most successful Eurosceptic parties in
Western Europe, such as the Danish Peoples Party and the Dutch and Austrian
Freedom parties, would need to form a coalition with pro-EU parties in order
gain office, and they would find it hard to muster a parliamentary majority to
call a referendum on EU membership. This makes membership referendums
less likely in other countries, although far from impossible, given pressure
from insurgent populist right-wing parties. But even if the Eurosceptic right
succeeds in their calls for more membership referendums, it is far from
certain that the outcome would be another exit vote. Despite growing Euro-
scepticism is the wake of the eurozone and migrant crises, opinion polls have
consistently shown that Britain is an outlier when it comes to support for
leaving the European Union. Figure 3 shows the Remain inlead in response
to the question If there was a referendum on your countrys membership on
the European Union, how would you vote?since 2012.
It clearly shows that the UK is the only one of the member states surveyed
where there has been public support for leaving the EU for most of the period
since 2012. In contrast, the net gap between those wanting to stay in and
those wanting to leave the EU is well above 20 percentage points in favour
of staying in both Germany and Denmark, and also above 10 percentage
points in France and Finland, with greater fluctuation in support in Sweden.
Yet that is not to say that the Brexit vote represents a uniquely British
phenomenon. Indeed, it can be argued that it reflects the same sentiments
that drive increases in support for populist Eurosceptic parties across
Europe in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the eurozone crisis. In
the 2014 European Parliament elections, such parties won around 30 per cent
of the seats (Hobolt and De Vries 2016b; Treib 2014). In national elections
populist right-wing parties opposed to the EU, such as Geert Wilderss far-
right Freedom Party, the Danish Peoples Party, the Finns Party and the
Sweden Democrats, have gained electoral support in the recent decade
(Hobolt and Tilley 2016). These challenger parties also effectively use populist
rhetoric that pits ordinary peopleagainst the political establishment. Recent
studies have shown that the rise in support for these challenger parties reflect
similar divides to those identified in the Brexit campaign, with higher levels of
support for Eurosceptic parties among the less educated, people adversely
affected by the eurozone crisis, and among those who oppose immigration
and multiculturalism (see Hobolt and De Vries 2016b; Hobolt and Tilley
2016). There is a growing divide, both economically and culturally, between
those who feel left behind by the forces of globalization and those who
feel they have benefitted from it. The former group favours a drawbridge
uppolicy of less European integration, closed borders and fewer migrants,
whereas the latter group are in favour of greater openness and international
co-operation. The eurozone crisis and the Mediterranean migrant crisis have
only served to deepen these divides.
Since the Danes rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, referendums on Euro-
pean integration have often had élite-defying consequences. Yet the Brexit
referendum is arguable the most significant in the EUs history. The exit of a
member state from the EU is unprecedented, and the political and economic
consequences are likely to be considerable and prolonged, not only for Britain
but for the EU as a whole. It is convenient to see the outcome of the Brexit
referendum as yet another example of British exceptionalism. After all,
Figure 3. Support for EU membership across Europe. Source: YouGov EuroTrack, 3-
months rolling average.
1272 S. B. HOBOLT
Britain has always been a reluctant partner standing on the side lines of the
European project. As the French President De Gaulle noted as early as 1963:
England is in effect insular She has, in all her doings, very marked and
very original habits and traditions.(Franks 1964: 70)
But this referendum cannot be dismissed as just a sign of English insularity.
Whereas public and party political Euroscepticism is more pronounced in
Britain than in the rest of the EU, the sentiments that led a majority of
voters to opt for Brexit are gaining strength across the continent. Concerns
about immigration and the loss of a distinct national identity were important
to many who favoured Brexit, and they were issues that clearly divided the
Leave and Remain camps. Such fears of immigration and multiculturalism
are more pronounced among voters with lower levels of education and in a
more vulnerable position in the labour market. Such voters also voted most
decisively for Leave, whereas the winnersof globalization the younger
and highly educated professionals were overwhelmingly in favour of
Remain. The results of the Brexit referendum portray a deeply divided
country, not only along class, education and generational lines, but also in
terms of geography. Generally the Remain side did better in the larger multi-
cultural cities (especially in London) and where there were more graduates,
whereas the Leave side was strongest in the English countryside and in the
post-industrial north-eastern towns with larger working class populations. It
also divided the nations of the UK: while both England and Wales voted 53
per cent Leave, Northern Ireland and Scotland voted Remain (at 56 and 62
per cent respectively).
Across Europe we find similar divisions between the so-called winners of
globalization and those who feel left behind. While the former tend to
embrace European integration and multiculturalism, the latter feel threatened
by the changes that globalization and European integration have brought
about. Such divisions have been successfully mobilized by populist parties
across Europe, especially on the right, who give a voice to the fears of ordin-
ary, decent peoplein opposition to a political establishment that has often
failed to listen. We see this expressed not only in referendums, but also in
the electoral successes of populist Eurosceptic parties, such as Front National
in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the Danish Peoples Party
in Denmark and the Freedom Party in Austria. While the British experience
may make membership referendums less likely in other EU countries, as it
has starkly illustrated the risks associated with such plebiscites, the rise of
populist Eurosceptic parties nonetheless presents a significant challenge to
the EU. Gone are the days when élites could pursue European integration
with no regard to public opinion. There has been a move away from the per-
missive consensusof the early period of integration towards a period where
the EU is an increasingly contested and politicized issue in the domestic pol-
itical arena. The future of the EU hinges more than ever on citizenssupport for
the European integration project. The challenge for European leaders, both
domestically and at the European level, is to find a way of addressing the con-
cerns of the many citizens who have not felt the economic benefits of free
trade and globalization, and who feel that their distinct national identity
and culture is under threat from immigration and European integration.
1. There is one precedent to the Brexit vote. In 1982, Greenland, part of Denmark,
voted by 52 per cent to secede from the EEC, but Denmark remained within the
EEC. That referendum had limited consequences for the EU as a whole, given
Greenlands small population and its relationship to Denmark.
2. There were also other campaigning groups notably on the Leave side, such
Leave.EU and Grassroots Out with clear anti-immigration and anti-establishment
3. Wave 7 was conducted online by the survey organization YouGov between 14th
April 2016 and 4th May 2016 (Fieldhouse et al. 2016).
4. The respondents were asked: How does the financial situation of your house-
hold now compare with what it was 12 months ago?
5. Respondents were asked to place themselves on seven-point scales in terms of
the strength of their Europeanesss,Britishnessand Englishness.
6. And if there were a UK General Election tomorrow, which party would you vote
7. The cumulative scale (with an alpha scalability score of 0.84) consists of
responses to the following five items: The politicians in the UK Parliament
need to follow the will of the people;The people, and not politicians, should
make our most important policy decisions;I would rather be represented by
a citizen than by a specialized politician;Elected officials talk too much and
take too little action; and What people call compromisein politics is really
just selling out on ones principles.
8. How much trust do you have in Members of Parliament in general?
9. Do you approve or disapprove of the job that each of the UK government is
I am grateful to the two anonymous reviewers and the editors of JEPP for valuable
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
I am grateful to the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust (SG153370) for financial
1274 S. B. HOBOLT
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