UK Political Parties' Perspectives on Brexit
Updated: Mar 4
As the UK government continues to scramble for an exit deal from the European Union, we thought we'd strip it back to the basics.
What are the UK political parties' relationships with the EU? And how have they changed over time?
Let's take a look.
The UK’s membership of the European Union has always been an interesting part of politics in this country because parties’ and the public’s views on it cannot be explained by the left-right scale. On top of this, the main parties and major figures have changed their views, arguing for different things at different times.
The first time a referendum was held on whether to be in or out of the European community was in 1975. Back then, neither party had a consensus and strange alliances emerged between Labour and Tory MPs on each side. To over-generalise, Labour were more opposed to it (seeing it as an intensely capitalist project) whilst the Conservative Party were more in favour of it (seeing it as an opportunity to join a larger market).
As time went on, however, people like Margaret Thatcher (who had supported ‘European integration’) began to turn their backs on it as two things happened; they found it surprisingly restrictive and it transformed from a purely economic union to a political union as well. In the early 90s, the Tories began to face serious difficulties in the House of Commons with nightly rebellions ensuring that the UK opted out of the Euro and certain standards on policies such as workers’ rights although there were further calls for deregulation.
Whilst support and opposition to the EU has never really coincided with being left-wing or right-wing, it’s time for another over-generalisation. Eurosceptism is usually found among the more entrenched left or right wing political views and those in the centre are often more in favour of a partnership with the EU.
It was David Cameron’s election promise that triggered the 2016 referendum although he was an ardent Remainer. This was most likely an attempt to attract voters from those further to the right who otherwise might have voted for UKIP. There had also been an increasingly loud opposition to the EU within the Conservative Party and Cameron is said to have believed that by adding this manifesto promise in 2015, those opposition voices could be silenced. He was ultimately relying on another hung parliament and another coalition with the Liberal Democrats who would immediately veto the referendum. In the end, Cameron won a majority and was forced to make good on his promise.
The Tory Party, like the rest of the political elite, was more in favour of remain but did still have a very significant faction arguing for a referendum to leave the EU - this included people like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Since it was decided that politicians would be given a free vote (they would not be pressured by their party to vote one way or another), both Labour and Tory MPs could be found on both sides of the debate – just like old times.
As politics moved on from the referendum, however, and elections came around with Brexit as a central theme, parties were forced to adopt more unified stances which, essentially, tried to upset as few MPs and voters as possible – a very difficult task.
In the 2017 election, the Tories, under Theresa May, dedicated themselves to respecting the result of the referendum and did not entertain the idea of a second referendum. The manifesto indicated a softer Brexit with an emphasis put on maintaining close ties with European nations and keeping the border with Ireland as open as possible.
Importantly, Theresa May said “No deal is better than a bad deal”.
Fast forward to 2019 and the Tory Party, led by Eurosceptics, dedicated themselves to Brexit it all costs. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of phrases like ‘Get Brexit Done’ and ‘Take Back Control’ which were repeated as the party continued to push for Brexit in order to ‘unleash Britain’s potential’ which included no political alignment to the EU.
A significant reason for Labour’s dismal result in the 2019 election was that they didn’t stick themselves firmly in either the remain or leave camp and sat on the fence. Why? Well, the same reason – their voters are split on Brexit and they tried to upset as few as possible but in the process, they seem to have appealed to no one. The difficulty was that in order to get elected, they desperately needed support from both sides and alienating either one could also have been fatal.
Labour’s position changed from 2017 to 2019 (something we saw with the Conservatives) despite being under the same leader. In the 2017 election, their Brexit policy was much more focused on the type of deal, also not entertaining the idea of a second referendum. They explicitly ruled-out a No-Deal Brexit and maintained their focus on the economy, insisting that the Conservatives wanted to use Brexit to tear up regulations whilst Labour would protect workers’ rights and EU nationals.
But by 2019 the tide had turned. Corbyn ran into difficulty in the debates leading up to the election, criticised for not having a clear stance on Brexit. Instead, Labour’s promise was to negotiate a new deal, voted on by the public with the option to remain in the EU on the ballot paper. Labour, once again, categorically ruled out a No-Deal Brexit.
Well um… they support… Brexit.
The SNP’s election campaigns have remained squarely focused on getting another referendum on Scottish independence which has recently been linked to Brexit. They believe that since 62% of Scotland voted to remain in the EU, Scotland’s fate should not be decided by the Government in Westminster but by Scottish people. The legitimacy of this view depends entirely on how you view Scotland, as a sovereign nation or part of the UK.
The Liberal Democrats had a very strong position. They heavily supported Remain and campaigned vehemently for a second referendum. However, if Brexit could not be prevented, they supported strong ties with the EU and staying in the single market (the economic union).
Ultimately it seemed that the Conservative Party’s stance resonated with the electorate more than anyone else’s, winning a majority of 80 seats in the 2019 General Election. While Brexit was not the only issue for voters, the Conservatives could not have won such a majority without their stance on Brexit.
For more resources and updates, head to our dedicated Brexit section.