A nation is not simply defined by borders or policy but instead by how it interacts with the world around it. In this age of globalization and interconnectedness, international systems play a crucial role in nearly every aspect of life. The main two international systems, National Atlantic Trade Organization and the European Union, have gained increasing power over the past years. International systems have many positive impacts ranging from economic benefits to world peace. Both of these international systems commenced in the latter half of the 20th century, and the United Kingdom has historically been part of both NATO and the EU.
Additionally, the United Kingdom has been heavily involved in globalization since the days of colonization. The United Kingdom has consistently held a major position on the worldwide stage where they have valued their role in the global world; however, in a shocking move in 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in a referendum held in June. This move was coined “Brexit.” Why would a nation so deeply rooted in globalization turn on an international system that has brought peace and growth to Europe as a whole? The road to Brexit is complex, and it can be traced back for many years; however, I will focus on the United Kingdom since 1973. I will emphasize the important roles of Tony Blair, David Cameron, and the party system as well as briefly share what the future is likely to hold for the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom’s European Union
The United Kingdom has been a constant outlier in the European Union community. The United Kingdom only official joined the European Economic Community in 1973, a precursor of the European Union. When a referendum was held in 1975 to decide whether to remain part of the community, only 67% of people voted in favor of remaining in the community. While many other countries joining the European Economic Community at the time were supported by an overwhelming popular support, the United Kingdom was not. From the very beginning, the United Kingdom has been skeptical of the idea of the EU model. This skepticism is not only the popular opinion among citizens; it can also be seen among legislators. Since the start, the United Kingdom has been allowed to choose which pieces of policy they want to adopt while dismissing the other parts.
One notable example is the Amsterdam Treaty, in which the United Kingdom opted out of Title IV of the Treaty that would have made migration and asylum a “community method” of decision-making. This means that formally Britain and Ireland would still make their own domestic immigration policy. This opt out does not mean Britain was no longer involved in the European Union migration and asylum policy; instead, it means that the United Kingdom can decide exactly what policies they want to adopt on a case-by-case basis. In the years before and after the Treaty, we see that the United Kingdom is never fully comfortable listening to a supranational organization. Between 1999 and 2004, there were 39 European Union migration and asylum measures, but Britain only participated in 18. Of the 7 asylum European Union measures the United Kingdom opted out of all 7.
Contrary to popular rhetoric, European Union membership did not strip Britain of its own border control. The United Kingdom maintains the right to check people at borders and apply its own law regarding the non-EU citizen migrants. European Union citizens that enter another country are held to high standards and cannot simply rely on the government to support them. Under the “Citizens’ Directive,” European Union citizens and their family members can move to another member state for three months without any documentation; however, the EU citizen will have no social assistance and extremely limited jobseekers’ allowance for the first three months. You may only stay if it has been deemed that you will not be a burden on the social assistance system. After 5 years of legal residence, the EU citizen and family can apply for permanent residence status. The “Citizens’ Directive” allows the right to refuse entry to anyone who is considered a “threat to public policy, public security or public health.”
It is important to note that non-EU citizens make up the largest majority of net migrants into the United Kingdom. The free movement within the European Union is assured by the “Schengen system” which abolishes checks on internal borders. This system began with the Treaty of Amsterdam, and the United Kingdom only opted into certain Schengen rules that it agreed with. This opt out gives the United Kingdom the power to put checks on anyone seeking to enter its territory and can apply its own laws upon entry of non‐EU citizens.
The Age of Blair
The United Kingdom has wrestled with immigration policies for many years. The two main parties, the Conservative Party and the Labor Party, have constantly switched stances on immigration policy, an issue that has caused great divides within parties. After World War II, the United Kingdom was in a time of “zero-migration”, so all three immigration laws that were passed were very restrictive. Throughout this time, there was an increase in anti-discrimination laws passed to improve race relations in the United Kingdom.
This could be attributed to similar Civil Rights Acts being passed in the United States. Between 1976 and 1997, the Conservative party dominated power, and the main theme in immigration was to curtail asylum seekers coming to the United Kingdom. This shift in focus can be credited to the rise in number of those applying for asylum in the United Kingdom because of the end of the Cold War; however, this shift in sentiment led the way for a fresh set of immigration dogma from Tony Blair in the next decade.
Even while Britain sought to keep a safe distance from the European Union by opting out of treaties, such as the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997, it subconsciously adopted many European ideas. Tony Blair was elected as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1997. Blair brought the ideas of “New Labour” as well as “managed migration” with him to the position. It is important to realize that immigration policy was not on the agenda when the Labour Party entered office in 1997.
The Labour party re-branded in 1997 to New Labour, and New Labour instilled the idea that globalization was the way forward which included the human element of globalization: immigration. Tony Blair was well known for this comment in regard to immigration, “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalization. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.” To the surprise of many, Blair’s outspoken support for globalization, specifically immigration, was a winning rhetoric in the early 2000s. However, even after Blair and New Labour came to power in 1997, immigration policy still seemed to fluctuate.
In 1998, a “covenant” with asylum seekers was passed; the Fairer, Faster and Firmer: A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum. This emphasized the need for reform in immigration policy. In 2002, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act was passed, increasing restrictions on asylum seekers and breaking the previous “covenant;” however, it is important to note that this act does support economic migration. Regardless of policy, migration was certainly on the rise in the United Kingdom. A booming economy in the early 21st century led to many labor migration openings across the United Kingdom; around 130,000 work permits were issued in 2003 alone.
In May 2004, the European Union added ten new member states mostly from Central and Eastern Europe. Tony Blair made the decision to immediately open Britain’s labor market to these new citizens. The decision sparked little debate, and it had support from both parties in Parliament. The decision was made while looking through the lens of Tony Blair’s managed migration policy; therefore, it was seen as a simple choice. The United Kingdom assumed other EU countries would do the same; however, it was only occupied by Ireland and Sweden. The United Kingdom had originally estimated that the number of migrants from these new countries would range between 5,000 and 13,000. This prediction was horribly wrong; in 2004 and 2005, 129,000 migrants entered from new EU member countries. There was no way to handle this influx successfully, so it led to political ramifications for the Labour party.
The migration numbers remained on the rise, but many United Kingdom citizens were not pleased. By the 2005 election, campaign disagreements over immigration policies were at their peak. The xenophobic sentiment in 2005 is similar to that of the 1970’s and of today. 74% of residents wanted to see immigration reduced, and this decision ultimately ignited this controversial debate on free movement that continues today. The proposed policy from the labor party did not include quotas; however, it did distinguish between low-skilled and high-skilled labor migrants. The Conservatives took this opportunity to campaign on the idea of Parliament set quotes for annual immigration and asylum and won back a majority in 2010. The Labour party has since suffered tremendously with electoral defeats in both 2010 and 2015.
Under Conservative majority rule, the tides rapidly changed against the European Union, globalization and immigration. The Immigration Act of 2014 was introduced by the current Prime Minister, Theresa May, when she was the Home Secretary. The legislation highlights three key immigration issues: removal, appeals, and access to services. The removal section gives the government the power to deport more easily and without notice. The act also completely changed the appeal process in order to make it more difficult to make appeals. Additionally, the act makes housing harder for those “without leave to remain,” and landlords are now required to check immigration status before renting a property. The government also introduced the “Immigration Health Surcharge,” making it more difficult for immigrants to access healthcare. This Act shifted the Immigration Policy of Britain to the far right.
In 1991, the UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) was formed as a single-issue party campaigning for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. Although it did not gain seats in Parliament until 2010, it is important to note that the party has existed since 1991. In other words, enough anti-immigration sentiment was present in 1991 to form an entire political party. In 2010, UKIP gained 3% of the national vote. In 2014, that number jumped to 27% of the national vote. This dramatic variation illustrates just how rapidly negative sentiment in regard to both immigration and the European Union were spreading. The Conservative party began losing far-right members to UKIP as the years continued. Many critics cite the rise in power of UKIP as one of the main origins of the Brexit referendum.
By 2015, the country was more divided than ever, and David Cameron was the Prime Minister for the Conservative majority government at the time. Cameron strongly believed in continued membership in the European Union, but he realized how divided the country and his own party had become. The Conservative party had lost many far-right members to UKIP; meanwhile, many prominent Conservative party officials began to pledge support for a Brexit, including justice secretary Michael Gove and London’s mayor Boris Johnson.
In 2013, in an attempt to unify the party, Prime Minister David Cameron promised if reelected he would hold a referendum on EU membership. The Conservative party was full of both passionate ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ and ‘Vote Leave’ members. There seemed to be only one thing left to do: hold the referendum. On June 23rd, 2016, the referendum was held. Most people predicted “Britain Stronger in Europe” would win; however, the results painted a different picture: 51.9% voted to leave while 48.1% voted to remain in the European Union. The shocking defeat ultimately led to David Cameron’s resignation.
Many people were shocked and devastated by the news of Brexit. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, nearly all polls projected that the remain vote would win. Many people blame Labour Party leader Jeremey Corbyn for the referendum results. It is a common assumption that the Labour party supports globalization and the European Union while the Conservative party does not, based purely on the history of the two parties. However, there were prominent officials, including Corbyn, from both parties that supported Brexit. The referendum emphasized the depth and strength of the divide in the United Kingdom and that membership in the European Union is not solely a party issue but a nationwide one.
The northern urban portion of the United Kingdom voted predominantly to remain in the European Union, while the southern rural portion of the United Kingdom voted predominantly to leave in the European Union. The areas that have the lowest concentration of migrants typically voted in favor of Brexit. London houses 36% of the migrants living in the United Kingdom and 75% of people there voted to stay in the European Union. The vote exhibits the deep divide in the United Kingdom and a growing shift towards anti-establishment and anti-globalization that is centered in rural, lower to middle-class areas around the globe.