2016 UK EU Referendum Result Reaction
Paul Dempster
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2016 UK EU Referendum Result Reaction

The 2016 UK Referendum on EU membership has been completed and LEAVE have won. I voted REMAIN. Here is my reaction over the 48 hours since the result came in.

My internet connection is current broken so I have had difficulty re-finding references, what I have is enough to state my position and reaction. It is pretty much just what I still have open in my browser from when it was last working, so apologies for the lack of diversity in the sources. I'm sure everyone is just as sick as me of reading referendum news stories. This is intended as my reflection rather than a historical record of events.


Official Results

Figures from Electoral Commission. Results page. Direct link to CSV results file.
The figures in the table below were transcribed from the BBC results page, except the "Valid votes" column which is just the sum of the two vote columns (this is different from raw turnout as that will include rejected ballots).

RegionLeaveLeave %RemainRemain %Valid votesTurnout %
Northern Ireland34944244.2%44043755.8%78987962.9%

Electorate: 46501241
Turnout: 72.2%
Rejected Ballots: 26033
(For the sake of brevity, I will ignore the rejected ballots in the calculations below).

Initial reaction

Well, LEAVE have won. I followed live, as the result came in and the fall-out developed, from 11pm BST through to about 10am. I voted REMAIN, so I am naturally upset, but also quite shocked. The polls were all over the place and the betting markets weren't aligned with them at all. The markets had converged on a remain result and from what I had heard, they had been conducting their own private polls too. The Sunderland result was the first major signal that the result wasn't going to go the way the Remains wanted, and the currency market reacted immediately. Winning margins for Remain were not enough to counter Leave, there were mutterings about turnout in Scotland (more on that later), and after a couple dozen more results, it looked very bad indeed.

I want to examine the vote and its consequences from as neutral a point of view as possible. Obviously, I will be biased by my Remain position but I will try to neutralise it as much as possible.

The margin of victory was not much - 51.9% vs 48.1%. England and Wales voted to Leave; Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain. The Remain result for Scotland was large, at 62.0%, close to a 2-to-1 position. The Northern Ireland Remain result was closer at 55.8%. I'll admit to having no real expectation of what way NI would vote; early national polls didn't survey NI and I assume that continued through the campaign. I was surprised by Wales voting Leave. For some reason, I had assumed they would be pro-EU. The winning margin in Wales was the smallest of the home nations. England's Leave vote was 53.4% with the biggest turnout of 73.0%.

People not constituencies

Much has been made of the fact that all the constituencies in Scotland voted Remain. Sometimes they note that one, Moray, was only remain by 122 out of 48106 valid ballots but that is often being left unsaid for punchy reporting. However, regardless of this, constituency results don't matter. This was a referendum in which every vote in the country was thrown into a central pool and totaled together. The fact that remain or leave may have "won" in an individual area isn't even part of the system for the referendum. In Scotland, it wasn't 100% remain - it was 62.0% remain. In much of England, it wasn't 100% leave - it was 53.4% leave.

The national turnout was 72.2%. From 46.5 million eligible voters, this meant 12.9 million people did not vote. This seems rather extraordinary given what was at stake, and that every vote did actually count this time. Were people aware of this difference? It is unclear if a higher turnout would have helped a particular side; I heard BBC pundits on the night saying a high turnout (~70-80%) would help Leave but a very high turnout (80%+) would swing back to Remain.

It is also very tempting to read the status-quo into non-voters. If we add those 12.9 million to the Remain total, that would give Remain a victory with a result of 37.5% to 62.5%. However, we can't assume non-voters were Remain, we can't assume they were Leave, and we can't assume they were status-quo - they were literally no opinion. That said, we can say that only 37.5% of the electorate voted to leave the European Union.

Does saying that have any meaning though? We regularly have elections in the UK with much lower turnouts, and therefore a much lower percentage of the electorate voting for the winning result. When turnout sinks below 40% (EU elections, ironically), there have been questions about the validity of results but they have not progressed further than press-pack navel-gazing.

The turnout in Scotland was also questioned early in the night by some Remain pundits who were considering they might need something to blame for losing. This seems rather unreasonable. A 67.2% turnout is high; the fact that even more people turned out in England is an extra plus for democracy, not a negative for Scotland. Scottish and Welsh politicians had also warned the UK government that the date of the referendum was less than 2 months after the end of Scottish and Welsh elections, and "poll fatigue" would have an effect both on campaigners and on voters. The Scottish First Minister herself claimed she only effectively had 3 weeks in which she could campaign before the referendum vote.

For the sake of argument, we can apply the same calculations used above for non-voters to just Scottish non-voters and project nationally. There were 2679513 Scottish valid votes cast with a turnout of 67.2% That means the total possible Scottish electorate was 3987370, or 1307857 eligible voters didn't vote. Allocating those all to Remain, it increases Scottish Remain to 2969048 voters (74.5% in Scotland), and increases the UK Remain vote to 17449098, which would be a 50.55% Remain victory by about 38356 votes. For comparison, there were 26033 rejected ballots in the official results, and remember I have not included the difference between total valid votes and raw turnout in calculations.

Continuing the same argument, we cannot assume those votes would be for Remain. The ~38356 vote margin would be erased if only 19178 of the 1307857 (1.5%) voted for Leave. In other words, it would have required 98.5% of Scottish non-voters to vote Remain to change the UK result. The Scottish turnout quite clearly did not change the outcome of the referendum.

But what about just reducing the margin of Leave victory? If we make the shaky assumption that non-voters would have voted in the same proportions as voters and project higher turnouts, we can see how the Leave victory margin would have narrowed. Increasing Scottish turnout to be equal to England (73.0%) would have moved the UK Leave result to hair below 51.8%. Again, clearly no important effect.

(67.2% valid votes of 2679513 means 73.0% valid votes of 2910780. That increases Scottish Remain to 1804683 and Leave to 1106096. That changes the UK totals to Remain with 17498516 and Leave with 16284463, or 51.7968% victory for Leave.)

The Question and the Conservatives

The question that was asked in the referendum was a very binary question - Remain or Leave. There doesn't appear any middle-ground there to accommodate anything other than a winner-takes-all outcome, yet everyone was aware that it was going to be a divided result. Some predicted a knife-edge result, others a fairly wide margin, but in any case there were going to be millions on people on the losing side. The question was set knowing that there would be no way to avoid total disenfranchisement of the losing side.

Had Remain won, they could have potentially accommodated the Brexiters by staying in but adopting a more euro-skeptic stance in EU activities. It's hard to imagine that would be enough to satisfy them, or that they would believe that stance was actually being taken, or that the winning politicians would actually want to do it themselves, but it exists as a potential position. A tight result would force them to attempt it. With Leave winning, there seems far, far fewer way to accommodate Bremainers position. There are other European agreements that leaving the EU wouldn't necessarily force us to also leave (eg, freedom of movement), but the Leave campaign and their supporters want to leave them too since they were key campaign issues. The other EU members have frequently been saying "out is out", suggesting they weren't going to be too forthcoming with a "partially-in" accommodation.

A question that could accommodate a range of outcomes would seem much better. For example, a middle option could have been "Remain but renegotiate a more euro-skeptic position". This would have given the PM a mandate to go to Europe and say if you don't give us a better position (from UK perspective), then a brexit vote is going to be forced in the future. As it was, the PM did this renegotiation outwith the referendum. He had the mandate of a recent election victory, but that strength of opinion being carried through to a future Leave referendum was probably seen as unlikely. Parallel to all of this, was the entire affair just a play to internal Conservative politics? I have no doubt that the Conservatives, like all modern political parties, would have happily ignored the feelings of their voters if they thought they could get away with it but the Conservative party itself has been fractured by European issues for as long as I have a memory of politics. UKIP obtained a massive share of the vote in the previous election and it was only the first-past-the-post system which prevented them having a large number of seats in parliament. Was the entire thing a gamble the PM thought would pay-off (for him, we presume meaning a Remain victory) to silence or exile his party's European divisions for a decade or two? Was a multi-answer question not chosen because it would have been seen as a pro-EU fiddle by euro-skeptic Conservatives?

Demographics from opinion polls

At least one opinion poll during the campaign has tried to break down the demographics of those voting for each position. Prominent among those demographics has been age, percentage of higher education or formal qualifications, "social level", and income. One example with interactive graphs is here in The Guardian. The correlations that were generally talked about were:

The Guardian, for example, says the proportion of residents with a higher degree is the best predictor to the result of a constituency. This is an example of where I love having lots of data and exploring it, but I am also worried by having the data. Like much in media, these results tended to get reported quickly in isolation when they are still new. Analysis does happen, but only a small fraction of people go looking for analysis articles (or self-indulgent, long-form reactions such as this). I saw this survey data as a bit of a red-rag being waved - "Come on, you thought all the Brexiters are dumb, ignorant bigots; here is some data, you can say it now!". While I disagree with those voting Leave, I don't believe they are idiots or uninformed, at least any more than there are idiots and uninformed people in every vote. Of course, polls were predicting a Remain win, so these demographics may be similarly inaccurate!

What it does seem to show, and those analysis articles talked about, was the disconnection of large segments of society from political enfranchisement. They believed they were ignored by politicians and a global capitalism which works above and outside nations and people's will. I believe this is quite true, but I also believe this viewpoint is held by many of the Remain voters as well. Demographic surveys showed the young (less than 35) being 75% in favour of Remain. If you ask them, they also feel massively ignored and against global capitalism. Yet they didn't reject the EU because of that. Did they see that as a price worth paying for the advantages of EU membership, or did they see those as two separate issues?

If Brexiters believe the EU was co-opted by global capitalism, it's hard to believe that a non-EU UK won't, at least, be equally co-opted. On data protection, privacy, and IP issues, the EU was frequently in conflict with the USA for trying to reign in corporate activities as they affected EU residents. The current massive trade agreements the USA is promoting are almost unbelievably pro-business but even a negotiator the size of the EU is struggling to make any headway; the much smaller (and traditionally pro-USA) UK government don't stand much chance.

Another issue on which it is hard to see change, but was a prominent issue, is immigration. The Leave campaign say the UK will be stronger out of the EU, but if it is strong it will still attract economic migrants. The only reason people will stop coming here for a better life is if life in the UK isn't better. In any circumstance, the UK will still attract refugees as they are fleeing out of necessity. The circumstances that cause refugees - the wars on Europe's doorstep involving UK, European, and aligned powers; the civil wars; the behaviour of oppressive regimes; all these aren't going to stop because the UK has left the EU.

A particularly interesting poll showed Brexiters didn't even trust things said by their own side. A YouGov poll from a week before the vote showed there wasn't a single category of people which the Leave supporters trusted on their opinion of whether UK should leave or remain. I'm struggling to find actual results on YouGov's site due to my internet situation and the Telegraph is pay-walling me, so here is a graphic of the results that was circulated. Various other journalists covered the results as well. The most interesting point of that for me is, how do you have debating campaigns if one of the sides literally won't accept arguments from any possible source? This was echoed by a significant part of the Leave campaign talking about "being brave" and using language of emotion. Remain put forward arguments using figures and experts; Leave said those are exactly the people we don't believe. I'll note the conspiracy theories circulating as well: the pen not pencil affair so your Leave vote couldn't be changed and the YouGov Conspiracy poll (13-14th June) that says 46% of voters intending to vote Leave (and 64% of UKIP voters) think it "Probably true" that "It is likely that the EU referendum will be rigged."

Age is a much more relevant demographic. Polls show young people are 3-to-1 in favour of being in the EU. Areas with a mean age over 40 become majority Leave. There were quotes in the media from older voters saying they can remember life before the EU and that was why they were voting...for both Remain and Leave! The same memories were used by different people to justify differing positions. There were the usual quotes that young people don't know enough to realise they are voting wrongly (both ways), and that it will affect young people's lifes for longer so old people should vote for them and not themselves (to Remain). The only thing that was clear was that there was a generation gap across many issues and hope for the future. If non-EU UK goes bad, that gap might turn into a chasm of bitterness and recriminations, but it seems it will be largely dependent upon the factors that would cause cause such things regardless of our EU position - young people's debt, housing, and democratic deficit.

Finally, another interesting issue was remarked upon in many articles that talked with voters - supporters of either camp rarely know anyone that supported the other camp. It's difficult to know how much this is true but it would make sense when looking at polls which suggest the positions are split along demographic lines. Young people associate with young people, graduates with graduates, factory workers with factory workers, factory owners with factory owners. Entire groups seem to be moving together without mixing with others. Was this echo-chamber effect hampering the debate - if you don't have anyone to politely but firmly debate with over lunch then how are people's positions ever challenged? This is doubly true on the Leave supporters side, where the previous poll shows they don't trust any alternative source of information. This article highlights some of the lack of information, and perhaps doubt in the mind of the "don't know"'s who came down on one side or the other. Another highlights some of the regional and demographic blocks in the results.

All of that sounds quite negative against Leave voters, so what about Remain? Well, they didn't believe the conspiracy theories. From what I could tell, they were putting forward arguments and figures but I am obviously biased by the fact that I support their position and therefore the arguments make sense to me. Osborne's "emergency budget" claim seems (so far) to have been dropped by the wayside. Remain were accused of running "Project Fear" but the markets did immediately drop by record levels. There probably will need to be a budget correction; we'll see if it waits until the next scheduled one. How many Remain supporters were making their decision on rational grounds? Impossible to say. My bias outweighs knowledge here. I'll have to leave it to others to write on the topic.

What now for Bremainers?

So, what now, especially for me and other Remain voters. Well, we can't just ignore a democratic result. I didn't want a referendum but after it was announced I though Remain would be able to argue well enough to win. If I was willing to accept that, I can't reject it when the "wrong" result wins. But did Leave win? After taking turnout into account, only 37.5% of the electorate voted Leave. I've frequently argued about legitimacy of winning votes with low proportions of overall voters (eg, UK General Election winners), so I don't feel two-faced about raising the argument. That said, I'm not sure I can really argue it. A minimum 50% of electorate for Leave to win might have been a reasonable stipulation, but that wasn't the referendum that was run. Ignoring a democratic result isn't really on as it leads to far too slippery a slope. Proposing status-quo equals the default option is also problematic for votes on other issues. Am I cutting my nose off to spite my face? Should I be more blatantly self-interested and argue whatever would have the most chance of my position eventually succeeding? I'm no stranger to self-inflicted facial injuries, but when I do it I am comfortable because I am aligning my actions with my principles, even if it is awkward for me.

Already there is a petition on the UK Parliament website to re-run the referendum, with a 75% turnout requirement for the result to change the status-quo. Within 36 hours, it has 2.5 million signatures and has crashed the website due to "unprecedented" traffic. I haven't seen further details of it, but it's hard for me to believe 75% was picked for any other reason than it would invalidate the current result and the most likely place for more turnout to come from is Scotland, which is pro-Remain. I thought it was outrageous when the Lisbon Treaty referendums were forced to be re-run until the "right" outcome was obtained, even though I thought the treaty had some good reforms. I don't see how I can turn around now and propose the same thing when I am on the losing side. It's obvious to myself that I am looking for wiggle room to not have a Leave victory but I think this is due to wishing it wasn't happening rather than seriously trying to overturn it. The vote is done, the UK is leaving the EU. I just have to come to terms with that. What comes next is even more complicated.

First, the Leave side is already dropping back from statements made during the campaign. The claim of redirecting £350 million of EU contributions to the NHS was being dropped before the first day was out. Farage said it was a Leave campaign statement, not his, and he would not have made it. Brexit MPs are saying that immigration won't stop and if people were voting Leave for that they would be disappointed. That seems rather rich given the emphasis and language on immigration during the campaign.

For Scotland, this slices open the independence issue again. SNP was clear that another referendum would only happen if there was a material change to the UK and leaving the EU was explicitly given as an example. During the 2014 independence referendum (hereby referred to as IndyRef 1), much was made of EU membership. This was not a huge problem before, but as it became clearer there would be an IndyRef, increasingly harsh statements were being made that said Scotland would have to apply as a brand new member for entry to the EU. Losing out by not being an EU member played a huge part of the "Better Together" campaign for a No vote. Now, the UK is not going to be an EU member either and Scotland will lose the benefits even though they voted Remain.

Of course, not all of Scotland voted Remain, but the result for Remain was larger than the result for No to independence (62.0% vs 55.3%), so if there was a mandate for the latter then surely there is one for the former. This is, of course, complicated by both votes being change versus status-quo, but both votes were for the status-quo. It seems justified that there should be an IndyRef 2. Of course, in IndyRef 2 the same kind of majority arguments apply - what if 51.9% votes for independence from UK as UK has done with EU? There is also another scenario - Scotland becomes independent, stays/joins EU, EU then collapses in the medium-long term as some are predicting. In that case both referendums have ended up voting for something that didn't happen - IndyRef 1 for staying in UK in EU but the UK left, IndyRef 2 for independence and in EU but the EU collapses. There is also the argument on whether Scotland could remain in the EU if IndyRef 2 gave an independence result before the end of UK withdrawal. While it might be assumed the EU would be happy to have the bit of the UK which is the most pro-EU, the existing members that have "separatist" problems were the ones most harshly insisting Scotland would have to re-apply if IndyRef 1 was Yes. Either way, IndyRef 2 would need to happen before UK exits, which means within 2-2.5 years. I don't expect it to be rushed; about 9-6 months before the UK leaving date would be my guess. That would give enough time for a proper debate and, I think, for the disadvantages of leaving the EU to start to have visible consequences. I would have voted No for IndyRef 1 if I was allowed to vote (see below), I would vote Yes for IndyRef 2. Right now, I expect IndyRef 2 would succeed.

As I am typing this, there are also news stories suggesting the Scottish First Minister thinks she can veto the UK leaving the EU. I would have imagined that invoking Article 50 would be something the government can do without legislation (although that probably shouldn't be the case) but I've not heard enough yet about what mechanism she thinks she can use. Either way, this has many of the same issues that I covered about about re-voting, etc. What would her reaction be to UK veto-ing a successful Scottish independence vote? I can't see how this has any legs, but it sounds similarly desperate to my search above for wiggle room.

Scotland isn't the only home nation at issue. Northern Ireland voted to remain too. That brings the prospect of the very open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland having to be fenced and controlled as a frontier of Europe. The status of the border is a huge issue in the peace agreement, and large numbers of people use the freedom of movement through it all the time. In response to the results, Sinn Fein has said there should be a border poll on a united Ireland. The NI First Minister has already said no. There may be future calls given time and experience of problems with border issues. One interesting comment I read online suggested such a poll might succeed because it would be the first time the issue at hand was not fundamentally about sectarian issues. Northern Ireland politics are their own separate world so I won't try to say anything else.

My relevance being in China

I wanted to end with a quick note on why any of this matters when I don't live in the UK. I'm Scottish and have a British passport, therefore UK politics still matter immensely to my life. Indeed, being abroad means things that affect my passport matter far, far more to me than to normal Britons! I was not able to vote in IndyRef 1 as I was not resident in Scotland. I though that was wrong then and I still do now. I would have voted No, so "my side" won but it was about being allowed to participate in something that would have a massive affect on the rest of my life rather than the actual outcome. If IndyRef 2 proceeds, I expect the same situation to occur. I would currently vote Yes in that but I don't expect to be eligible to vote either. For the EU referendum, I was eligible to vote as I had been resident in the UK in the last 15 years. This was a bit of a surprise to me but the information campaign that was mounted by the British Embassy worked. I did so via a proxy postal-vote and I voted Remain as I said above.

These votes are important to me because they affect my current life and my future life. I am currently living in a country where, if I don't have a job (resigning, firing, etc), I will have to leave the country in 1-2 weeks. I can't hang around and look for another; I have to leave straight away, and the only place I can unambiguously return to is the UK or (no longer it seems) an EU country. When I reach retirement age, if I am still here, the country will refuse to extend my work visa and again I will have to leave. I imagine most Brits abroad are in similar situations. Some are in countries where they can take citizenship of that country and have more security, but some aren't, and some won't want to. Individual Brits (as opposed to the British Empire) have spent time in other countries for hundreds of years, and the UK is better for it while they are there and when they return. These votes still matter to us and we should have a say too.

— Paul Dempster