According to Lord Ashcroft’s polls, it wasn’t immigration what won it. Rather, it was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. This was a democracy argument, and a democracy argument wider than critiques of how the EU’s institutions are structured.
“Bureaucrats in Brussels”, “unelected commission”, “taking back control” – common buzzwords throughout the referendum. Leavers were effective in making Brussels, already remote and alien to the British electorate, seem even more out of touch. Whether the Union was democratically legitimate through its complex institutional framework was a significant part of the debate. But this clouds the real democratic argument against Europe: the fact that Britain, particularly England, ceased to have a sense of identity and engagement in the Union.
For full functioning democracy to work, the people must recognise their leaders and their roles. They must feel a sense of belonging to them. This has not and was not something Britain has ever been good at with the EU – even senior political journalists and British politicians struggled to recognise European officials. The EU felt confusing and distant, making it easier to blame and harder to identify with.
The 2014 Future of England Surveys showed a rise in English identity, which was associated with Euroscepticism. A remarkable 26% of English people polled felt the EU had the “most influence” in public life; 52% of those who identified as English said they would vote to leave the Union, compared with 32% who identified as British. In a 2015 Eurobarometer survey, only Cyprus and Austria had more negative views than Britain about the EU, with 28% of Brits asked saying they saw the EU as a “total negative”.
Writing about the growth of English nationalism, Ben Wellings referred to England as the “Scotland of Europe”. Any further European integration has been rejected on political grounds by England. Last Thursday’s result revealed that the British electorate sees the possibility of losing more sovereignty, and therefore national identity, as a major risk. This, as Wellings points out, is not unlike the Scottish nationalist reservations about sharing governance with Westminster. Both are loud and proud to advocate disintegration, and confident that secession is the most effective tool in protecting autonomy and sovereignty.
With such little faith and knowledge about the European Union, Britain’s divorce was arguably inevitable. In a tweet, President of the European Parliament Martin Schultz reflected on the 40 years of Britain’s membership of the EU as “ambiguous”. Despite attempts by successive Prime Ministers and numerous treaties, Britain never wholly engaged with the political aspect of the EU, and frankly, we never fully wanted to.