A short history of Brexit

How and why did it happen like this? -  A thematic guide to the UK

Britain and Europe, from Churchill to Brexit 

Why did British Prime Minister David Cameron organize a Brexit referendum, and how did we get to the unexpected result and the events that followed and will continue to follow ?

An overview of Brexit

In January 2020, almost four years after the Brexit referendum was held, Great Britain finally left the European Union.
Why such a delay? How did we get here ? And what will the future bring?
    The next British General Election will probably take place in the autumn of 2024 (it must be held before the end of January 2025, but a January election is improbable).  Brexit will be the "elephant in the room",  the subject that  is on every politician's mind, but few politician's lips.  As of August 2023, less than a third of people in Britain still thought that Brexit was a good idea but neither the ruling Conservative party nor the opposition Labour Party will publicly say so....

On the morning of 1st February 2020, people in Britain woke up to the start of a new era. The UK was no longer a member of the European Union. In actual fact, it was not yet entirely out of the EU, but had entered a "transition period" scheduled to last until the final stages of the leaving process are completed, on December 31. Final? Maybe not. Total? Maybe not. Very little is certain at the moment, but there is one thing that has been certain for a long time, even well before the referendum, namely that in Britain there is a third of the population who want and has always wanted to leave the EU, a third who consider Brexit to be the craziest idea imposed on the British people by a government in the last few centuries, and a third who either don't care, have little of no understanding of the implications, or just hesitate between being for and being against.
   For years, UK opinion polls have always shown that public opinion was divided on the question of Britain's membership the EEC which later became the European Union. In general, pro-Europeans remained in the majority, but supporters of an isolationist Britain - sovereignists, neo-liberals, Marxists and others - still represented a strong minority.
    More significantly, there remained a consensus among leaderships of the three major political parties, Conservatives, Labour and Liberals, that the UK's place was in the Common Market, later to become the European Union. On the other hand, there also remained within the two largest parties, Conservatives and Labour, the two parties of government since the 1920s, an anti-European fringe. In the Labour Party, left-wingers viewed the Common Market as a great capitalist plot. In the Conservatives, the right wing of the party - nostalgic imperialists, neo-liberals, libertarians and sovereignists - considered the Common Market, then even more so the European Union, as a big bureaucratic machine, an unwanted supra-national power and an assault on Britain's national sovereignty.

Britain and Europe since Churchill

  In the history of European integration, Great Britain has been, and will remain in spite Brexit, whatever form it eventually takes, a powerful influence. One of the first to rally around the idea of ​​a united Europe was Churchill, who in 1930 supported the plan of French Prime Minister Aristide Briand advocating the creation of a "European federal union", about which Churchill wrote that he would see "nothing but good in a richer and freer European community". Later in his famous 1946 Zurich Speech, he laid out in more detail the path for the creation of a European community "united in a common heritage",  concluding "We must build a kind of United States of Europe ".
   Not without reason, the European Union officially includes Churchill as one of the 11 founding fathers of European integration.

   However, a few years later, the first dealings between Great Britain and the Common Market were not of a kind to encourage a surge of support among the British people in favour of this "continental" body. Firstly the Common Market had been created in 1957 without the British, who initially believed that Britain - with the remains of its Empire to look after - had no need of it ; later, when Conservative prime minister MacMillan submitted Britain's first application to the EEC in 1963, that application was summarily swept aside by the French president at the time, General de Gaulle. De Gaulle then did the sam again four years later when the UK reapplied for membership under the Labour government of Harold Wilson. This second "no" was generally viewed in the UK as a snub and an affront from a man whom the country had welcomed as a refugee in London for three years during the Second World War.
   So when - after the death of De Gaulle -  Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath eventually took the UK into the EEC on January 1, 1973, it was without fireworks or popular jubilation.
   On the contrary, the sovereignists and those who yearned back to the days of Empire, supported by part of the popular press, used the EEC as a scapegoat for everything that was wrong in  Britain. Europe was portrayed as a costly adventure for Britain, adding to the cost of living by replacing butter produced by our efficient cousins in New Zealand, by butter costing twice the price, produced by inefficient farmers on the continent of Europe. The argument was very convincing, since at the beginning of 1973 a pound of butter cost on average £ 0.22 in a British supermarket, compard to £ 0.41 in Denmark, and £ 0.54 in France.
  A year after the United Kingdom joined the EEC, and with the country in an increasingly difficult economic situation, the Conservatives were defeated in the 1974 elections, and replaced by a Labour government led by Harold Wilson . In the runup to the election, Wilson had promised to seriously review Britain's membership of the Common Market; once elected, he stood by this commitment, and organized the first referendum on Britain's membership of the Common Market, which took place a year later in 1975. Uncommitted on the European question while in opposition, Wilson had nevertheless become completely Europhile once in power and strongly urged voters to say "yes" to Europe in this first referendum. As a result, the British voted by a majority of 65% to remain in the Common Market.

   For a decade after this first referendum, questions about Britain's membership of the EEC were off the political agenda. This did not prevent the widely distributed right-wing populist press, led by the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, from waging their own campaign against what they saw as EEC absurdities and interference in the life of the British. Coverage of the EU in the tabloid press was lagely limited to fake or wildly exaggerated  news stories about things like straight bananas and bendy cucumbers; and with little to no reporting about the positive achievements of the EEC, or its economic benefits, the Common Market was portrayed as little more than an absurd bureaucracy. Readers lapped it up. But politically, the position of Great Britain within Europe was accepted as a fait accompli; even the new Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, elected in 1979, did not question Britain's position as a member of the Common Market. On the contrary ; while admitting that certain aspects of governance and the role of the European authorities had to change, Thatcher still believed in Europe, and set to work to improve the EEC from the inside. In this she was remarkably successful.
  Thatcher was even one of the architects of the transformation of the EEC into the European Union. History has already quickly forgotten (especially in Great Britain) that the Single European Act of 1985, setting out the path to the Treaty of Maastricht, was the result of close collaboration between Margaret Thatcher and Jacques Delors, and was largely drafted by the British Conservative European Commissioner Arthur Cockfield, specially appointed to this task by Margaret Thatcher.
   Yet during her later years in power, Thatcher changed, and with it her perception of Europe changed too. The Single European Act was ratified in 1987. Shortly after, or even before, she began to have doubts about the direction in which European integration was going, about ideas of political integration and about a pplanned EU single currency. Her famous "Bruges Speech" delivered on September 20, 1988 is considered in British Eurosceptic circles as the starting point for the campaign to leave Europe. It was not. It was highly critical about the direction in which the EEC was going, but it was not a call for Britain to leave Europe; on the contrary, the Iron Lady unambiguously reaffirmed her commitment to Britain's continued membership of the European Community, stating "And let me be quite clear. Britain does not dream of some cozy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community. "

   The damage however was done. Latching on to Thatcher's criticisms of the EEC, the right wing of the Conservative Party became more overtly Eurosceptic, provoking a reaction from the majority of Europhiles in the party, who considered that the Prime Minister was losing her sense of direction. Barely two years after the Bruges Speech, and before the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, Thatcher was forced to resign by her own party, and it was the Europhile John Major who took over as new Tory leader, and new prime minister.
   For twenty years, from 1990 to 2010, Great Britain experienced its most "European" period, with three Prime Ministers, the Conservative Major, then the Labour PMs  Blair and Brown, all of them Europhiles, establishing the UK as a major player in the evolution of the EEC, which in 1993 became the European Union. But it was during this period, and especially during the 13 years of Labour government from 1997 to 2010, that Euroscepticism became increasingly widespread in the Conservative Party.
   Historical internal divisions among Tories were exacerbated by the emergence, on ground traditionally occupied by the right wing of the Conservative Party, of UKIP (the UK Independence Party) a new openly sovereignist party, calling for Britain to leave the European Union. The Tories were in a difficult situation; Euroscepticism was particularly popular among grass-roots party members and among its traditional Mail or Express-reading electorate. Higher echelons of the party, on the other hand, along with the large majority of MPs, were generally committed Europhiles. The situation was hard to manage,  a delicate balancing act between preventing the loss to UKIP of too many voters on the right by showing sympathy for UKIP ideologies, and distancing themselves sufficiently from UKIP to avoid losing votes in the middle ground. Somehow they managed, and in 2010, the party came back to power with David Cameron, a young Europhile from the moderate wing of the party. Cameron enjoyed a short honeymoon, but it was not long before he had to face a rise in power of the eurosceptic voices on his right, an increasingly Eurosceptic right wing press (by then largely controlled by expatriates and tax exiles) and the continuing rise of UKIP in the polls. Within the party, more and more voices were calling for a new referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, in distinct contrast to the country in general, where there was little or no demand for any referendum.

Towards the Brexit referendum

   However, in 2015, on the eve of a general election with an unpredictable outcome, Cameron gave in to the demands of right-wingers in the  party, and agreed to copy UKIP and organize, if re-elected, a new referendum on British membership of the EU. He hoped in this way to put an end to the interminable and increasingly fractious arguments over Europe within the Party, firmly believing that the British people would once again vote as in 1967, and largely in favour of remaining within the European Union. All the polls suggested that this would be the outcome... or at least, most of them did.
    Cameron was re-elected, and true to his word announced a new referendum for June 2016. Very quickly, it became known as the "Brexit referendum". Cameron was so confident of winning  - he, the young popular Prime Minister, who had just been re-elected with the largest Conservative majority for over 30 years - that he did not even bother to attach any conditions to the result, no "qualified majority ", nor did he draw up any plan B should the electorate do the unthinkable, and vote to leave the EU. The British, he was sure, would reject Brexit, allowing him to settle the score with the Eurosceptics within his party, and to emerge with an even stronger mandate to govern.

   The script was clearly written, but reality did not follow it. In the referendum of June 23, 2016, following a highly controversial campaign in the populist right-wing press and by a "Leave" campign masterminded by the far right and taken to the country by the flamboyant and very ambitious former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, "leave" won against all odds; and to the horror of Cameron and of a majority of MPs and a large part of the British establishment and industry, the UK found itself on the road towards leaving the European Union.

  Cameron had simultaneously committed two of the biggest mistakes a head of state could make: 1, believing in his personal infallibility, to the point of organizing an unconditional referendum without any road-map to follow should the result go the wrong way; and 2,  letting the people, many of whom had little more than a scratchy understanding of the real issues and implications, rather than parliament and well-informed experts, decide the outcome of a major international policy decision, fundamentally affecting the future and the prosperity of the country for years to come.

  We know the rest. Just over half of those who voted supported the proposal that Britain's future would be better outside the European Union. Cameron resigned, and after some turmoil in the Conservative Party was replaced as Prime Minister by Theresa May, to whom fell the task of applying the "will of the people" as indicated  by the result of the referendum.
   The choice of May as prime minister was a bad compromise for the Conservatives. The militants' preferred candidate was Boris Johnson, but he had too many enemies. May therefore came to power by default, and then presided for three years over governments and a parliament in disarray, and over a country which at times seemed to be on the brink of insurrection, so strong were the divisions over the result of the referendum and the way in which it had been obtained.
   The May years could have been less difficult. May had inherited from Cameron an absolute Conservative majority in the House of Commons; admittedly it was a small majority, but it was a majority all the same. However in November 2016, the government was challenged in the Supreme Court for abuse of power by seeking to prepare to leave the EU without the approval of parliament; the judges upheld the complaint, and the government lost. In normal circumstances, this would have immediately led to the resignation of the government and the calling of a snap general election, but in the turmoil of late 2016, Theresa May did not see resignation as an option, at least not immediately.
   Then after a few months of hesitation during which she swore not to call an early general election, May then called one for June 2017, in the hope of increasing her narrow majority. It was not a good move;  as in 2016, things did not go according to plan, and instead of increasing her majority in the House of Commons, May lost it. Thus, to stay in power and avoid a Labour government, she had to form a minority government supported by, but not in coalition with, the Protestant  Northern Ireland party the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party).

Towards a new order

At the head of a minority government kept in power by the DUP, May therefore continued negotiations with the European Union, while being at the mercy of a parliament where the Conservative minority was becoming even more of a minority as the months went by, following a series of defections. Getting her own ministers to accept a draft agreement was difficult enough for Theresa May; getting any draft agreement then voted through parliament was even more difficult. Three times May came to parliament to get her "agreement" with Brussels ratified, and three times MPs rejected it.
   Under normal circumstances, such a situation would have been a boon for the Opposition, and a minority and unpopular Conservative government would soon have been forced to resign by a vote of no confidence. With a government at its lowest in the polls, the Labour opposition should have been able to demand a new general election, which it would have won hands down. But since 2015, the Conservatives had had a powerful and unlikely ally, in the person of the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Marche against Brexit
Marching against Brexit in 2019, the atmosphere of a tragic carnival
   While May was unpopular, all the polls showed that the Labour leader was even more unpopular than she was. Seen as a far-left throwback to the Labour party of the 1980s, Corbyn, unable to make up his mind about Brexit, was the Tories' secret weapon,  because the spectre of a "Corbyn Government" was even more frightening to the electorate and even to many Labour MPs, than keeping Mrs. May in charge of a lame-duck government. So despite her unpopularity, despite her repeated failures, Theresa May was able to remain in power until the summer of 2019 when, following disastrous results for the party in the European elections, she finally handed over power, not without trepidation, to the successor who was the darling of the grassroots party activists, Boris Johnson.
   In this way, May's minority government was kept in power by default for two years at the height of Brexit preparations, by a House of Commons fearful of the outcome of new elections. On the Labour side, many MPs remained convinced that Corbyn could never win, and that the alternative would be a government more to the right than that of May; on the Conservative side, many MPs feared a Corbyn victory if even a quarter of  traditional Conservative voters, tired of the Brexit deadlock, came to vote UKIP. As for the Liberal Democrats, resolutely hostile to Brexit, they remained hopeful, thanks to the difficulties of the May government, of one day being able to organize a new referendum, which would have (according to polls) ended the saga of Brexit.
   The stalemate was finally broken in the autumn of 2019 when the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally managed to obtain a small majority in the House of Commons in favour of the holding of new elections. Many in Labour believed that they could at last prevail given the deep unpopularity of the Conservatives, and that the voters would throw out the Tories despite Corbyn and despite the vagueness of Labour's program; for their part, the Liberal Democrats, along with the Europhile rebels from the two major parties, beleived that they could win a substantial number of seats in the House of Commons by promising to stop Brexit.
   In the event, things turned out very differently. The right-wing organisations that had masterminded a victory for Brexit in the 2016 referendum were still active,  and came back with a new winning slogan "Get Brexit done". Jeremy Corbyn  managed the unprecedented feat for a party leader of losing three general elections in a row, doing so in spite of facing one of the most unpopular governments of all time. And so it was that between the fear of the "chaos" that might ensue if a very left-wing Labour government came to power, and the leap in the dark that a coalition government made up of Tories and the Brexit party would entail, voters came back in sufficient numbers (43.6% of votes) to the Conservative Party, to hand victory to Johnson. Due to the UK's "first past the post" voting system, the 43.6% of votes meant an absolute majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons, and Johnson was free to "get Brexit done" in the knowledge that parliament could no longer stand in his way.

From Johnson to Sunak - reality bites

Chaos of a hard Brexit
Many fear a no-deal Brexit which would cause a partial paralysis of the economy, transforming main routes around Dover into huge parking lots for trucks.
And this photo was taken long before Brexit....
 Johnson immediately had his timetable approved by the government and parliament, and on January 31, 2020, Great Britain finally left the European Union.
   Since then, Britain has gone through very difficult times. The insoluble problem of Northern Ireland remains a point of contention. Though Northern Ireland is part of the UK, it is also in a customs area with its neighbor the Republic of Ireland,  leaving it part of the EU Single Market and subject to EU rules.  In 2023 new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak managed to agree a compromise deal with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen... keeping in place some of the customs checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland... effectively an international customs border separating one part of the UK from the rest. Naturally this agreement was strongly condemned by the Brexiteering right wing of the Conservative Party and by Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist party.

 Since the reality of Britain's new "freedom from Brussels"  began to bite as from the start of 2021, the proportion of people in Britain thinking that Brexit was a mistake has continued to grow, reaching 52%  in August 2023 - with just 32% still thinking that it was a good idea. Like the rest of the world, Britain has been through Covid, and has suffered economic fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine; but the British economy has suffered more than other major European economies, with higher inflation and a slower return to growth. More and more business leaders have been calling for closer alignment with the EU, to the point that earlier plans for the UK to abandon many EU product standards, and "take back control" by introducing different UK standards, have quietly been abandoned.
    Boris Johnson resigned as Prime Minister in  September 2022, following a succession of scandals; then in June 2023 he resigned as an MP, after being found guilty of deliberately misleading Parliament; Johnson was replaced by Liz Truss, who lasted just 49 days as PM before being replaced by Rishi Sunak.
    In by-elections, the Conservatives have suffered resounding defeats in some of their "safest" constituencies, with swings of over 20% to Labour and to the Liberal Democrats; in summer 2023, one of Johnson's surviving supporters, former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, resigned as an MP, lambasting the Sunak administration as a "zombie government".  "Brexit" remains the biggest political issue of the day, but one that few MPs, whatever their party, want to talk about.
    The truth of the matter is that with dozens of constituency results hanging on a knife-edge in coming by-elections and the coming general election, few candidates want to alienate the 30% or so  of voters who continue to think that Brexit was a good idea.  
    Barring any major surprises (and recent history has been full of surprises), the Labour Party will win an absolute majority in the coming General Election, and in late 2024, the new Prime Minister of the UK will be the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer..... who campaigned strongly against Brexit, back in 2016.
    What happens next is, for the time being, the stuff of politics-fiction. There can however be one certainty; the next British Government will set about rebuilding bridges with the EU, and - in spirit if not in actual fact -  the follies of Brexit will start to be undone.

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Picture top of page: Banksy's iconic mural, in Dover, 

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson... the controversial and now disgraced British Prime Minister who championed Brexit

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak - British  Prime Minister in 2023

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Photos of UK Prime Ministers licenced under the UK Open Government licence.

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