What motivations led British voters to choose Brexit?

Thursday’s Brexit vote was largely a victory for right-wing British politics. But both “Leave” and “Remain” supporters had a plethora of political and emotional motivations. For a closer look at what drove the British majority to decide to exit the European Union, Judy Woodruff talks to former EU official Sir Michael Leigh and Tim Montgomerie of The Times of London.

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    We take a closer look now at what drove those voters with Sir Michael Leigh, a former senior official with the European Union's executive arm, the European Commission. He's now a consultant to the German Marshall Fund. And Tim Montgomerie is a conservative columnist for The Times of London.

    And we welcome both of you to the program.

    Tim Montgomerie, to you first. What was your reaction?

    TIM MONTGOMERIE, The Times of London: Surprise, first of all.

    I think few people expected that Brexit would actually prevail. And it was a close result, just under 4 percent, but a decisive result. And I think what has been impressive during the course of the day is the number of MPs who had campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Union saying, the British people have spoken and they will respect the result.


    Sir Michael Leigh, what about you?

  • SIR MICHAEL LEIGH, Former European Union Official:

    My main reaction was one of deep sadness.

    Part of it is personal, I acknowledge. I worked for three decades in the European institutions. And during that period, I believe the European Union was a major peace project for Europe. Britain had a decisive influence on the way the EU developed. I saw Britain influencing the single market, enlargement.

    So, the E.U., I really felt was an institution, a set of institutions that worked in the interest of the U.K. and of Europe. And, therefore, I was deeply saddened by this result.


    Tim Montgomerie, what do you believe was driving the vote result here?


    I think what Sir Michael says about the European project's past contribution is correct, as the European nations traded with each other, and they found themselves together.

    And the war that has characterized the continent in the past was put to an end. But that European project died. It became much more ambitious. It decided to abolish national currencies and wanted to abolish national borders. And with the Eurozone crisis and the huge unemployment and austerity it created, the sense that the passport-free zone, Schengen zone, was ideal for terrorist activity, I think the British people decided that the European Union was no longer working.

    As 28 member states, it was a dysfunctional organization that couldn't take decisions. And the major cause for the Brexit vote was a freedom of movement regime, which meant that Britain didn't know from one year to the next how many immigrants would be entering the economy and it meant an inability to plan for public services like schools and hospitals.


    Sir Michael, is that how you see what went into people's thinking?


    The issues that Tim mentioned are in fact quite pertinent. And he's right that the E.U. faces many real challenges.

    I only wish that the campaign, particularly on the leave side, had focused on these issues. Instead, it focused single-mindedly on people's fears of immigration, even in areas with virtually no immigrants, and it concentrated on backward-looking arguments related to sovereignty, which have little real meaning in this globalized world.

    So I feel the decision wasn't taken after a serious debate of the pros and cons, but rather than emotional argument that looked backwards, rather than forwards. It looked backwards to an imagined past, a golden age that will not come again.


    You're describing a misleading campaign?


    I would say it was seriously misleading.

    One of the main leaders of the leave campaign, Nigel Farage, had acknowledged today one of his main arguments, that the EU was costing the UK 380 million pounds, and that this money could be redeployed and spent for the National Health Service, was a mistake.

    It was also argued, for example, that Turkey was about to join the European Union, and we would be flooded with Turkish immigrants. Everyone knows Turkey will join in a decade, if ever.

    And other such arguments that played more on fears than on the legitimate issues that Tim raised, where there should have been a proper debate on the relative merits.


    Tim Montgomerie, was it a misleading campaign then after all?


    I think some of the criticisms Sir Michael makes of the leave campaign are fair.

    I think it's also the case, however, that the remain campaign didn't ever really try to sell a positive view of the European Union. It was also based on scares. The prime minister said that leaving the European Union would put a bomb under the British economy. There was even hints that it might lead to a world war.

    And the British people felt that was insulting to their country. The British people are a proud people. And I think it was also the case that when President Obama came to London and said to the British people that, if they didn't stay in the European Union, they would go to the back of the queue, the back of the line in terms of trade negotiations with America, if you are rude and insulting to a people, which I think David Cameron and President Obama could both be accused of being guilty of, people fight back.

    And I don't think the American people would accept what the British people have to accept as members of the European Union, a right, for example, if it was in the American situation, for Mexicans and Canadians to be able to work and live in America freely without restriction, or for a supreme court in Ottawa or Mexico to rule over the U.S. Supreme Court.

    And I think the British people weren't willing to put up with that anymore either.


    I want to get your response and I want to ask both of you if you see this result as permanent, as a result that will stand.


    This pretty strong language concerning President Obama that we have just heard sadly typified the leave campaign and is deeply to be regretted.

    President Obama came to Britain as a friend of the United Kingdom. And friends do give advice to other friends. This is something that they do. If they think that their friends are about to take a misstep, whether in public or private life, they say so. That's what friendship is all about.

    But to come to your second question, I do think this decision is irreversible. There has been a campaign. There has been a referendum based on universal suffrage. I think there's no turning back.


    Tim Montgomerie, is there a turning back?


    I think that's right. I hope that's right. The British people, against the weight of advice of all of the party leaders in the British political system, against IMF and international institutions, the president of the United States and other world leaders, they ignored all of that because they really did feel that the European Union was an insufferable organization to continue to belong to.

    The EU has a habit of ignoring the referenda decision of member states, but I don't think Britain will allow their vote to be ignored.


    Tim Montgomerie, Sir Michael Leigh, we thank you both.

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