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United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, 2016

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See also: United Kingdom exit from the European Union

A referendum on continued United Kingdom membership of the European Union took place in the UK and Gibraltar on 23rd June 2016. The UK government, an official "Remain" campaign and other groups and some political parties supported UK membership, while an official "Leave" organisation and other "out" groups, including the UK Independence Party, campaigned for the country to exit the EU. Many other organisations, including corporations and small businesses, also expressed opinions one way or the other on the prospect of a UK departure. The result was that 52% of voters supported exit from the European Union.

The campaign focused on the economic consequences of staying or leaving, as well as immigration. "Leave" campaigners argued that a UK outside the EU will be be able to freely negotiate lucrative free trade deals,[1] while the "Remain" camp warned of an economic downturn and isolation. In April 2016, the USA appeared to strongly back the status quo when President Barack Obama told voters that exit would place the UK "in the back of the queue" in terms of cutting a free trade deal with America, because the focus would be on an upcoming US-EU deal.[2]

In April 2016, opinion polls indicated that the two sides were roughly tied, but the results were disputed.[3] Polls were found to give different results depending on whether they were carried out by phone or on line. The government indicated that in the event of an exit vote, a two-year departure process under the Lisbon Treaty would begin soon after the result.[4] On the eve of polling day, most polling experts wrongly predicted a remain vote, and the stock market surged in anticipation.

Although the government collectively supported remaining, collective responsibility was suspended, allowing five cabinet ministers and some junior ministers to campaign openly for leaving. The House of Commons was roughly 3 to 1 in favour of remaining and the Confederation of British Industry, representing mainly big business, about 4 to 1. Small businesses were roughly evenly split, as were national newspapers. Most major trade unions were in favour of remaining, as was the Church of Scotland; the Church of England did not take a collective position. Most economists supported remaining.

It was estimated that something around 7,000,000 people theoretically entitled to vote would be unable to do so because they are not on the electoral register in spite of a publicity campaign and the extension of the deadline after the computer system crashed.

Campaigning was suspended at one point after the assassination of Jo Cox MP.

Result

Polling stations closed at 10pm in the UK and an hour earlier in Gibraltar (because the territory is one time zone ahead). Early rumours that 'remain' were heading for victory led to the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, to make a concession speech that was later retracted. As results came in from 382 local authorities, 'leave' gradually took the lead, and by 5am on 24th June it had become clear that voters had narrowly opted for 'Brexit', i.e. exit from the EU. The final results were 17,410,742 (51.9%) for 'leave' and 16,141,241 (48.1%) for 'remain'. Turnout was about 72%, the highest in a nationwide poll since the general election of 1992. All regions of England except London voted for 'leave', which was also the overall result in Wales. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar all voted 'remain'.[5] Regional tallies have no bearing on the final result, which treated the whole of the UK and Gibraltar as a single area. Pollsters' analysis of results suggests that in England younger and/or better educated voters were more likely to vote to remain. In Northern Ireland, Unionists tended to vote to leave, Irish Nationalists to remain.

Consequences

The pound fell to its lowest level since 1985, and financial markets round the world also fell, with some suspended.

David Cameron announced that he would resign as Prime Minister within a few months, but left more quickly after Theresa May rapidly emerged as his successor. The new Prime Minister will determine the details of negotiations, including the exact date of giving two years' notice required under the treaties. A motion of no confidence in the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was passed by 172 to 40, but he refused to resign. A challenge was made and a new election took place, in which he was reelected with a slightly increased majority. Nigel Farage resigned as leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, having achieved his objective.

The Scottish National Party has said it may well seek a new independence referendum.

The Irish republic has experienced an increase in passport applications from British citizens qualifying.[6]

The campaign led to an increase in political interest and participation, with all major parties gaining members.

Footnotes

  1. BBC News: 'Michael Gove sets out post-exit UK-EU trade vision''. 19th April 2016.
  2. BBC News: 'President Obama: 'UK is going to be in the back of the queue''. 22nd April 2016.
  3. Guardian: 'Support for leaving EU likely to be overstated in polls, analysis suggests'. 29th March 2016.
  4. Daily Telegraph: 'Government would not delay exit if British public vote to leave'. 26th February 2016.
  5. BBC News: 'EU Referendum Results'. 24th June 2016.
  6. If you, or either of your parents, or any of your grandparents were born on the island of Ireland or any of its associated smaller islands, you're qualified. It has been estimated that more than 1/8 of the UK population would qualify.