The Brexit Vote: A Clear Example of Politicizing Migration, by Kate Korte

By Kate Korte, Student at the Political Science Department at the University of Victoria

In June 2016, the United Kingdom (UK) startled the world by voting to leave the European Union (EU) in a public referendum. Although the majority of voters voted to leave, the margin was small — 52 per cent voted leave, and 48 per cent voted to remain. Since then, politicians in the UK and EU have been struggling to meet a deal, to no avail. On Jan 31 of this year, the UK left the EU officially.

During the Brexit campaign, immigration was a key focus. The leave campaign, in particular, used the perceived threat of increased migration with EU membership to steer voters in their direction.

It’s peculiar, however, to think that this would amass a majority of the public’s support. The United Kingdom never signed on to the Schengen Agreement, so it actually held more power over its borders than many other member states. The United Kingdom is also one of the farthest removed countries in the EU from the Mediterranean Sea. It has not seen a vast influx of refugees. This begs the question: why would voters resonate so strongly with the leave campaigns message of a migration threat?

The leave campaign capitalized off of the perceived, not actual, threat they saw migration posing to the EU’s economy and culture. Like many other countries in the EU, voters routinely overestimate the amount of migrants their country welcomes. Campaigns like the Leave campaign are able to capitalize off this innumeracy by feeding into the fears without articulating any real migration data. This could explain part of the reason voters opted to leave.

All areas in Wales opted to vote leave. This strikes as odd, given that Wales is one of the most economically worse off areas in the United Kingdom and benefits from a lot of EU money. Importantly, Wales doesn’t see a lot of migration. Despite these two facts, Welsh voters still resonated with the Leave campaign’s message enough to vote to leave and effectively vote to cut themselves off from a significant amount of EU funding.

On the other hand, areas in London that see a lot of migration voted to remain in the EU. Some have linked this to the general young, educated, and cosmopolitan nature of the city. In a big city like London, there is a high cost of living and a lot of people to compete for employment. Alas, London seems to welcome newcomers and voted to remain. Even though more migrants set their sites on London than on Wales, Londoners were less willing to listen to the argument that migrants hurt the economy.

Of course, as is the case with both London and Wales, other factors are clearly at play here. It’s certainly not the case that everyone who voted to leave did so out of a perceived threat of migration. But given the campaign’s heavy emphasis on migration and its impact on the economy, it’s worth questioning how unfounded voter’s perceptions of migration data are.

Brexit is still a staple issue in British politics, with Boris Johnson echoing his slogan, “get brexit done” at nearly every opportunity. In the 2019 election, a lot of the areas that switched from Labour to Johnson’s Conservative party were rural areas in Britain — and areas that don’t see a lot of migration. For as long as Brexit is relevant, migration will remain part of the political discourse. Whether or not voters’ fears are founded in reality is something worth exploring, as it draws to light how politicized migration has become in the UK.

The Brexit vote is broken down by area here. Migration data by area can be found here.

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