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2016 in review: a night of drama that ripped Britain apart

A referendum would ask the British people whether they wished to stay in the European Union. The answer undid the political establishment and ushered in a new age of uncertainty.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who played a decisive role in the No Vote, is pictured with a supporter in Kent, England, in June. Just over 52 per cent of the UK population, overwhelmingly in England, voted to leave the EU. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who played a decisive role in the No Vote, is pictured with a supporter in Kent, England, in June. Just over 52 per cent of the UK population, overwhelmingly in England, voted to leave the EU. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

When the world’s press reported that Google had released figures to suggest that Britons were frantically typing “What is the EU?” into its search engine as news emerged that the Leave camp had been victorious in the UK’s in/out EU referendum, it gave the perfect fodder for Remain voters horrified by their country’s lurch towards the exit door.

The Google “spike” was apparently minimal, but the appearance of an ill-informed British electorate trudging to the polls to end their decades-long association with the European project was given some short-term credence.

In the immediate aftermath of the shock result – in which 52 per cent of Brits gave a thumbs down to the UK’s continued membership of the EU, Remainers assessed the scale of their perceived loss: a Britain soon to be cut off from its place at the heart of Europe and restricted from freedom of travel across a continent that has enriched the lives of Britons and EU citizens. For the Leavers, their slender margin of victory served notice to what many so-called Brexiteers deemed a bloated and bureaucratic institution that had, for too long, encroached on the sovereignty of the British state, not least on the powder keg issue of immigration.

Indeed, as the dust settled on Britain’s historic decision, the statistics poured forth: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a British social policy research and development charity, reported “Groups of voters pushed to the margins of society, living on low incomes, with few qualifications and without the skills required to prosper in the modern economy, were more likely than others to vote ‘Leave’”, as its chief executive Julia Unwin told Prospect magazine.


More from 2016 in review:

Is it left to Germany to save Europe?

France stuck in a permanent state of emergency

Climate change continues its deadly march


While other evidence is somewhat conflicting, the apparently better educated and more affluent Remainers could comfort themselves with the notion that the victors were voting in ignorance – as per the reported Google searches. Yet a more profound analysis became apparent. Sure, there were some who voted for the EU exit door because of xenophobic or even outright racist views – and many would say that the populist right-wing Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) played a part in peddling some unpalatable views about immigration – but many did so because they felt that current arrangements were simply not working for them. So they gave the British establishment and, in turn, the “elitist” European project the mother of all bloody noses to, as the official Leave camp successfully headlined during the referendum campaign, “take back control”.

And, what of the main players? With then-UK prime minister David Cameron arguing the case for Remain on behalf of the Conservative government and one-time Conservative London mayor and all-round eccentric Boris Johnson doing the same for Leave, it pitted two old colleagues against one another. With the former fighting to keep his job and the latter lining himself up to replace him, it also saw the always-controversial then-UKIP leader Nigel Farage sidelined by the official Leave camp, which sought to distance itself from the more radical anti-EU voices.

Cameron was a lukewarm supporter of the EU and proclaimed his wish to see a Britain inside a “reformed” institution, while Johnson flip-flopped his way to supporting an EU exit. With Brexit the final result, a humiliated Cameron fell on his sword while Johnson, apparently stabbed in the back by fellow Brexiteer and then-justice secretary Michael Gove – who had attempted to make a prime ministerial bid himself rather than support his colleague – watched his chances at securing the British premiership slip away. The not-inconsiderable post of foreign secretary would be Johnson’s however, as a new Conservative government, headed by former home secretary and Remain supporter, Theresa May, took shape.

The UK remains divided in almost every way – the anti-EU majorities in England and Wales negated the pro-EU majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and another Scottish independence referendum could be on the horizon. Yet it remains to be seen whether the disaffected voters who threw in their lot with the promises of Leave, and who now look to the Conservative government for a smooth Brexit transition, will find solace in the new order of things.

The murder of a British MP

snailFlowers surround a picture of murdered British MP Jo Cox at a vigil in Parliament Square, London, in June. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Jo Cox was a 41-year-old English MP who represented the constituency of Batley and Spen in Yorkshire. Married with two children, she was stabbed and gunned down by Thomas Mair, just days before the EU referendum.

Mair, who had far-right inclinations and a house full of far-right paraphernalia, was jailed for life last month. He shouted “Britain First” as he murdered the Labour politician outside her constituency office. A pro-EU campaigner, Cox’s murder caused nationwide horror and EU campaigning was briefly suspended.

Both sides of the referendum divide blamed each other for taking advantage of the tragedy, but most agreed that British politics had reached a modern-day nadir. Many argued that the demonisation of politicians had been allowed to permeate across society and in the British press for too long, and that following Cox’s untimely death a new kind of politics was needed.

Had the Brexit debate itself – which was accused of creating a toxic atmosphere – been the catalyst for Mair’s actions? Cox’s grief-stricken widower, Brendan, rejected the idea. But he told The Guardian on October 30: “I feel we have ceded that narrative about patriotism, particularly to the extreme right, and I think we need to regain that narrative to define Britain in an inclusive way that brings it together, rather than blame the migrant or the refugee or the Muslim for what might be going on in our country at any individual time.”

Many speculated that the murder of Cox, who is to have an area of Brussels, home of the European Parliament, named in her honour, would prove a check on the forces of Brexit. But, despite the human tragedy, the wheels of the referendum continued to turn and a vote Leave result was declared.

Whether British politics changes for the better following Cox’s death is a moot point. That it took a senseless murder to face up to the at-times nasty conduct of UK politics is, surely, a tragedy in itself.

Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist who has worked across Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

Updated: December 28, 2016 04:00 AM