The Three Tribes of the Referendum

Looking back at the referendum it is now clear that there were not two sides; but three. Three different groups with very different views of Britain’s place in the EU – and in the wider world. But these differences are becoming so stark, so polarised, that we really are now looking at three tribes, confident in their own visions and not prepared to accept the others. Whatever happens now, though, two of them are going to be severely disappointed.


Perhaps the clearest of the three and certainly the ones that offered the clearest vision of our relationship with the EU. They wanted – still do want for the most part – to be a member of the EU. There was, of course, some diversity in why they supported this – some idealistic, some practical in specific opportunity or support, some focusing purely on the economic benefits – but the interests overlapped and didn’t contradict. So they stayed united, if perhaps lacking in passion – at least initially; but defeat has given them an enthusiasm that perhaps didn’t exist before.

This tribe formed one clear side of the Referendum with one campaign and one message. And they won 48% of the vote. An impressive total in most elections; but not a majority.

Liberal Leavers

This tribe is the smallest – though still passionate in their views. Nationalist in its outlook, it wants Britain to forge its way independently in the world with no European interference. However, they are strong economists and realise that there is a significant cost in disentangling ourselves from the Single Market that Britain pushed for and which has become such an important part of our economy. This tribe therefore looks to an EEA-style Norway solution – at least in the short term – to avoid ripping the UK out of the single market.

Fairly liberal in its nationalism, this tribe is tolerant of immigration and can even see its benefits economically; and are certainly prepared to pay that price to minimise the economic consequences of Brexit. As part of those who voted Leave, their exact size is hard to quantify exactly; but is probably about a third of the Leave vote, so about 17% of the total.

Hard Brexiteers

The last tribe consists of those who don’t want anything to do with the EU. They either don’t consider there to be any economic benefits or they believe that its too great a price to pay for the political domination that Britain endures.

There are obviously different views in the tribe; but they are more likely to view the European Union as totally undemocratic with a secret plan to create a single European state and eradicate a British identity. They have a tendency to believe that the Germans are trying to impose by stealth what they couldn’t achieve by war and that our very freedom is at risk.

They are more prone to believe there is a conspiracy against them (witness the claims of MI5 rubbing out votes so take pens on polling day) and discount any evidence as biased or expert opinion as bought off. They simply know that the EU is wrong and they want out on pretty much whatever terms are necessary to get out now.

Within this group there are probably also people who don’t have such passionate views but just see it was a waste that does nothing for them and that the money it has can be better spent elsewhere. Considering it a pointless exercise that can easily be disposed of.

And we must not forgot those who just feel abandoned and left out of the benefits of modern Britain. They see only negatives from globalisation and migration, feel no one cares what they think and consider that they are patronised by urban elites. For these, this was a chance to finally exercise some control over what rulers kept saying was best for them.

But what unites this tribe more than anything is the desire to just get out of the European Union, “take back control” and stop immigration! Any economic warnings are considered nonsense and there is the strong belief that everything will be fine and Britain will be great again! So again strong nationalist belief; but little economics. This tribe represents about 2/3 of the Leave vote so about 35% of the total.

So why do we care?

This is the key quesiton. After all, for whatever reasons people voted, Leave won. End of story. Well, if Leave had a unified coherent vision like Remain – and that vision was actually possible (like Remain’s) – then yes, that would be the end of the story and we would all be embarking on a post Brexit future. Some reluctantly; but all on board with a clear decision.

Unfortunately, it’s not like that.

The three tribes of this referendum represent three distinct and incompatible visions of the future. And that is the problem. Whichever option we go for, more than half the population are going to be mad as hell. Perhaps that should not be surprising given the promises that have been thrown around and the complexity of the EU issue and of an actual Brexit.

People have been told the impossible is possible. People have been told they have won, when no one has won because the vote is split three ways, none of which has a majority.

So what the hell do we do? It’s not democratic to ignore what people have voted for; but what have they voted for? On a straight First Past the Post, Remainers won, Hard Brexiteers came second and Liberal Leavers came third. A solution to this in normal politics would be to have a run off between the top two options so that the people who came third can make a devil’s choice of which of the other options they dislike the least. Not perfect; but at least then there would be a clear mandate for the final option. Or the vote could have been done under a transferable vote where the options could have been numbered to achieve the same effect but without the run off. But it’s done.

So what now? Well, the one uncertainty in this is that we do not know what the Brexit deal will be. Whatever the Liberal Leavers or Hard Brexiteers wanted, it’s a negotiation and the UK will not necessarily get what it wants – if it can decide what it actually does want! So let the negotiations commence, let a deal – at least in principle – be struck so that the three tribes can look at what the reality is and then vote again. This time, there will be no confusion. There will be only one Leave vision based on an actual deal rather than promises. And if that still gets more than 50%, then that will finally be a clear mandate.

Then perhaps we can all move on.


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