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The idea of holding a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU began as a promise by then Prime Minister Cameron to the “Euroskeptic” right wing of the Tory Party in January 2013.1 The Tories won the general election in May 2015 with an overall parliamentary majority so they had to go through with it. On 23 June 2016, a majority of UK citizens who turned out to vote (certainly not a majority of registered voters, much less a majority of the adult population), 52%, voted in favor of leaving the European Union.
The most important thing to understand is that nobody expected the Leave vote to win, least of all the “Brexiteers” themselves! Britain’s major political parties were not prepared for it, and neither were most big companies (despite the modern focus on “business continuity” and “disaster recovery”). The consequences of this are that the Tory Party, the Labour Party and even UKIP (the party whose whole raison d’être was Brexit) were thrown into crisis and the economy is sinking as uncertainty delays investment and complicates terms of trade.
The Leave vote can certainly be seen as a kind of “protest vote” — this was clearly demonstrated by the fact that the “Leavers” didn’t expect to win and had no idea what to do when they did! It can be seen as part of the rise of “right-wing nihilism.” In the 1970s it was punks, hippies, and anarchists who said “fuck the system” without caring too much about what to replace it with — now it’s disaffected nationalists and social conservatives. Antiglobalization is the modern “socialism of fools” (as leading German Social Democrat, August Bebel said of antisemitism).2 It’s an ideology which really grew to prominence among the liberal left in the 1990s, but now it’s increasingly the right — Trump, Putin, UKIP, Front Nationale, etc. — who are its standard-bearers.
On a global level, victory for the Leave campaign is part of a wider tendency towards economic protectionism and isolationism (accompanied by bigger or smaller doses of racism and xenophobia) facilitated by a rise of political “populists”3 — “populist” in the sense of just spouting a collection of crowd-pleasing slogans with no concrete program addressing either the material concerns of their followers or the problems faced by capital accumulation.