What really happened back in June 2016?

The verge of an all-important general election, that will determine how the UK will leave the European Union, is perhaps a good time to reflect on why the UK got itself into its current, tragic mess.

The result of the referendum vote in June 2016 has never been truly explained. But with the benefit of hindsight can we now explain it? Was it a momentary surge of negativity, or a growing disquiet about the European Union? What were the real issues that led to the outcome? How important was the now well-evidenced intervention of Russian digital “trolls” in its outcome?

FedEE has been looking back at newspaper reports and opinion polls over the first half of 2016. These confirm that the “no vote” clearly had an edge in the campaign. But, of course, now we know that this was because more money – openly and covertly – was actually being thrown at this objective than at the “remain” vote. The “remain” camp also suffered from a high level of complacency and few of the consequences of being outside the EU – which have since emerged – were brought into in the various campaign debates.

By far the most powerful approach to analysing this period has come from looking at internet search behaviour during the run up to the vote. This reveals that interest in the EU was not something that built up during the months leading to the vote, but only appeared during the month of the vote itself. There was a rise in interest for “bureaucracy”, the “common market” and “EU budget” in the last few days before the vote. However, many of the issues that might have been expected were not present – these include an interest in “independence”, “democracy”, “asylum seeker”, “trade tariffs”, “national pride”, “Queen and country” and being “British”.

What was also evident, but only during the referendum month, was a concern for “immigrants”, “foreigners” and specific ethnic groups. These were the “Polish”, “Portuguese” and “Pakistanis” – but not any other nationals. Thus, immigration was a big issue, but only immigrants from two particular EU countries and also one non-EU country. There also seemed to be some confusion about what the vote was most fundamentally about. For instance, although there was a sharp rise in interest for the terms “leave” and “remain”, there was also for the term “join”. Perhaps, therefore, many voters did not know the UK was already a member of the EU?

There is little sign of any concern for “jobs” or “loss of jobs” amongst voters, although interest in “house prices” was high. Neither was the vote seen to be overtly political, as searches for the main parties did not surge. Many of those who were undecided may have been searching for a way to use their vote as a strong interest in “protest vote” was confined to the referendum month.

Finally, we now know that there was a huge social media intervention from Russia, both on the eve and day of the referendum. The source of this was heavily disguised, although the second most common month (during the last 15 years in the UK) to search for “Russian” was in the referendum month. Could many of the voters have suspected the source of this last minute influence, without having any direct evidence of it? We shall never finally know.

According to Robin Chater, the Secretary-General of the Federation of International Employers (FedEE): “The UK referendum on EU membership was not just a huge turning point for the British economy (from which it will never recover) but also for the economic fortunes and political power balances around the World. What we can now understand is that the vote was not the consequence of a progressive build-up of concern about the European Union, or even about British patriotism, but a last-minute decision by a confused and uninformed population, largely being tipped into a negative vote by external influences. It is also clear, as I am a British citizen, that those living outside the country were excluded from the vote. I, for one, was repeatedly ignored when I applied for a postal vote. The votes of expatriates could well have tipped the balance on the referendum day – a factor which itself deserves investigation.”

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