Brexit: initial reflections

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Series Details Vol.92, No.6, November 2016, p1297–1318
Publication Date November 2016
ISSN 1473-8104
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International Affairs is a leading journal of international relations. Members of Chatham House have access to current and previous issues.

Non-Chatham House members can subscribe via Wiley-Blackwell. Electronic access to the full text of the article via the source url above is only available if you (or the network by which you access ESO) already subscribes to Wiley-Blackwell and your network uses a link resolver.Even though the opinion polling before the British referendum on membership of the European Union showed a narrow gap between the two sides, the actual result—a vote to leave—on the morning of 24 June 2016 came as a surprise to many. Yet in truth both the referendum and its outcome had deep roots in British politics.

In this article we cast an eye over the history of Britain's relationship with the EU, which has long been marked by a mixture of awkwardness and successful influence. We trace the origins of the referendum in long-run tensions between, and within, the political parties, and in the lukewarm public support for European integration. We also examine more contingent, short-term factors relating to the referendum campaign itself.

We conclude by commenting on the divisions exposed by the vote along lines of geography, education, class and wealth, and suggest that reconciling these with the continuing tensions in the party landscape make a clean and speedy exit from the EU unlikely.

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