Brexit: How could anyone vote to leave?


Last week, IE students and professors had the privilege of attending the sold-out and much-anticipated “Session with the Ambassador of the UK”, held by the IE Global Transformation Club in collaboration with the School of Global and Public Affairs. Mr. Hugh Elliott, the UK Ambassador to Spain and Andorra as well as the former Director of Communication and Stakeholders for the Department for Exiting the European Union, spoke candidly about Brexit, why it happened, and what it means. 

Mr. Elliott began his speech by asking for, if not requiring, audience participation, and as the seats were filled by equal parts opinionated and curious students, participation immediately ensued: “How did the government let this happen?”; “Would the phrasing of the question have changed the outcome?”; “Was this the ‘right moment’ for Brexit?”; and, of course, “What about the economy?”. His answers were insightful, thoughtful, and honest, and perhaps one of the most intriguing was his response to a question along the lines of “How could anyone vote to leave?”.

Mr. Elliott first spoke of a “thread of legitimacy” between the people and their government that “has gotten stretched so long and so thin it becomes untenable”, arguing that this was the case for Brexit. The people felt disconnected and the EU seemed distant. When this sense of disenfranchisement occurs, he warns: “Something very risky is happening to your democracy”. It is often too easy to look at situations like Brexit and prematurely pat ourselves on the back, saying, “I never would have voted to leave”. Mr. Elliott prompts us to, instead, to take a walk in the shoes of so-called “leavers”. People in their 50s and older were far more likely to vote to leave, often attributed to their memory of the UK pre-EU, as it only joined in 1973. These are people who look back fondly on their pasts and remember the UK before it gave up some of its sovereignty in order to reap the benefits the EU supposedly provides. Perhaps this was a time when people felt more in touch with their representatives (although this is speculation). Certainly, the UK and the world in general before the EU were less interconnected and less globalized. To see such changes in international affairs over a lifetime, whether we view them as positive or negative, surely brings up the question of whether the “good old days” were actually better. As we see across the globe and throughout history, globalization often spurs protectionist policies. 

Another issue that resounded in the move to leave was of course, immigration. Young progressives especially are quick to call for open borders, but we again must remember who voted to leave. A map from the BBC helps to understand the demographic: 

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From this map we can deduce the following: those who voted against the EU were majoritarily elderly, people without higher educations, and citizens with, assumedly, a more nationalist perspective. This demographic analysis is not a commentary on whether leaving was the right decision or if those who supported it are justified in their ways of thinking. Instead, it is meant as a way to follow Mr. Elliott’s advice to walk in these people’s shoes instead of being so quick to assume they are simply wrong and ill-advised. As Mr. Elliott stated: in matters like these (and perhaps in all aspects of life), “we must be humble, not arrogant”.

The people sitting in the room listening to Mr. Elliott are privileged people. We are receiving private higher education and we are young. The UK’s city of Boston had the highest rates of leavers, with 75.6% of its residents voting pro-Brexit. It is also a city whose economy is largely based on agriculture, has some of the highest crime rates in the UK, and has seen a recent influx of immigrants, specifically Eastern Europeans. Again, political opinions aside, upon both humbling ourselves, as Mr. Elliott recommends, and recognizing the privileged place from which we, as IE students, cast our judgements, it becomes easier to understand the reasons why ¾ of Boston voted to leave. This is a city of working class people from a relatively unsafe city who see an increase in migration and, in many cases, make connections: crime rates and job loss can be blamed on immigrants, and this notion combined with a clear lack of connection between the UK’s citizens and their EU representatives can explain the vote.

Boston is just one example that provides background to the winning vote. In each case, however, if we dig just deep enough, we can at the very least understand why so many people voted to leave. We must not preemptively blame, nor judge, nor decide we know better. Instead, as Mr. Elliott suggests, let us always humble ourselves enough to walk in the shoes of those we do not understand. 

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