The Geography of Brexit

The result of the recent British referendum on whether or not to stay in the European Union caused shockwaves around the world. Nearly all of the polls suggested that ‘remain’ would win by anywhere from 2% to 5%. However, the opposite turned out to be true. It is clear that in the political classes of the United Kingdom and Europe, this was an unexpected result. Even the leaders of the ‘leave’ campaign are showing signs that they really had no solid plan once the decision was made to leave the EU. The Prime Minster has already announced his resignation, and the leader of the opposition is under pressure to step down. To suggest that this is a period of political turmoil in Britain would be an understatement.

Whether or not the United Kingdom actually leaves the European Union seems to be up in the air right now, but preparations are being made in London and Brussels for the departure to begin. If Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is invoked, what will this mean for the future of both the European Union and the United Kingdom?

In the aftermath of any referendum or election, there is data to be analysed. Thankfully, the internet has proven to be once again a bountiful source of visual data and maps demonstrating voting patterns and trends across the UK. In this article, I take a brief look at these maps and discuss what these results mean for Britain and Europe, and what they can tell us about the political climate and the future of the UK.

EU Referendum Results Map, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
EU Referendum Results Map, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The above is a simple ‘leave’ (blue) or ‘remain’ (yellow) map of the United Kingdom, organised by local voting districts. These are the standard districts through which local MPs are elected in the UK. The colour of a district is simply dictated by which side of the referendum won a simple majority of the vote. Overall, it is clear to see why leave was the winning result.

When looking at this map, there is one place that immediately stands out: Scotland. While England and Wales are largely blue with some patches of yellow, Scotland is just a single colour. During the referendum, Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. This is noteworthy because Scotland had a referendum on the issue of independence from the UK in 2014, in which the Scottish people voted to remain. Additionally, Scotland receives a large amount of EU funding, and has generally perceived the EU in a much more positive light in comparison to their southern neighbours. If the UK were to go through with leaving the EU, it is very likely that the Scottish parliament would demand a second referendum on independence. This time, opinion polls suggest that the Scottish people would likely vote to leave the UK.

The importance of Scottish independence is something that cannot be overstated when it comes to the future of the UK. Scotland, while sparsely populated, makes up a large part of British territory, and gives the UK access to profitable fisheries and energy resources in the North Sea. Losing this access would be a serious blow to the UK’s economic and geographic position.

EU Referendum Results by Region, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
EU Referendum Results by Region, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This second map does away with local district and organises the results of the referendum via the larger regions of England and the rest of the UK. In this map we can clearly view the divide between the electorate in the different regions of the UK. In the south, London is highlighted as a strongly pro-remain area. In the north, Scotland is again highlighted. However, Northern Ireland also stands out as the one other region which didn’t vote to leave the European Union.

The Irish question was one of the UK’s greatest challenges during the 20th century, and only recently has violence subsided following the Good Friday Agreement. However, assuming the UK is going to leave the EU, this question may once again be asked, and tensions may rise again in Northern Ireland. Immediately after the results of the EU referendum were announced, Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness called for a border poll – a vote on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK or become part of a United Ireland. While this call was immediately rejected by Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, the issue of Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland is something that would have to be resolved if the UK were to leave the EU. Cross-border trade and freedom of movement are key aspects of the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. If these were to be disrupted, it could lead to an increase in the calls for a United Ireland by Irish Republicans on both sides of the border.

EU Referendum Results by Percentage, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
EU Referendum Results by Percentage, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The third and final map above gives us a more detailed visual representation of the percentage either side received in each district. While it may initially seem to be similar to the previous maps we looked at, further analysis shows a key trend: when leave won a majority in a district, they usually won by a large margin. Remain however, usually won by comparatively small margins. This is possibly related to voter turnout, which was low among young people, yet high among the older generations. If the ‘remain’ campaign had managed to mobilise the younger generations to go out and vote, it may well have changed the result of the referendum.

Overall, England voted to leave, and as the most populous part of the UK, it had a huge effect on the results. So the question must be asked: why did England vote to leave to European Union? This is a question that countless articles and editorials have been trying to answer in the aftermath of the referendum. From my perspective, it has a lot to do with the perceived benefits of globalisation and a diverse society.  While somewhere like London is incredibly diverse and international, it is also very prosperous. However, there are countless communities across England where the progress of modern globalised trade has had little perceived benefit. There are many towns in the UK which are home to deserted high streets and disused industrial estates. One might ask why these people would vote to remain part of a system which hasn’t improved their employment prospects or community. Some have suggested that a large proportion of the voters who chose ‘leave’ did so as a sort of protest vote, aimed at the government and the perceived direction of the UK as a whole. It is also possible that xenophobia and racism drove people to vote ‘leave’ in the increasingly multicultural England. Either way, the causes and effects of the British people’s decision to leave the EU is something that will be debated and discussed for years to come.

Flag of Europe, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Flag of Europe, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Looking toward Europe

As a result of the referendum, questions of sovereignty may be raised in southern Europe, on the rock of Gibraltar. This tiny British Overseas Territory voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union, likely because its future could be under threat if the UK were to leave. Gibraltar relies heavily on cross-border trade with Spain, and if access to this market were to disappear, its economy would suffer greatly. Furthermore, Spain considers Gibraltar to be occupied Spanish territory, and has already used the referendum results as an opportunity to call for joint British and Spanish control over the territory, despite this idea being heavily opposed by the vast majority of Gibraltarians.

For the rest of the European Union, Brexit brings its own risks and challenges. A country has never left the Union before, and Brussels must be concerned about similar referendums taking place in countries where the EU is similarly unpopular. France, Italy and the Netherlands all have their own anti-EU parties which see the referendum results as a blessing for their own efforts. The EU has faced many challenges in the past decade, with widespread economic stagnation and rising unemployment. If the UK were to leave, the EU would be losing its second largest economy. This would surely be a blow to the hopes of a short-term financial recovery in Europe.

London’s position as the financial capital of Europe places the city in a difficult situation. It may be dragged out of the European common market against its will, and there may be a move to set up Frankfurt or Paris as a new financial capital. However, such a move would take time, and would likely lead to further economic uncertainty in Europe. This uncertainty at the prospect of Brexit has already caused stock markets around the world to lose billions of dollars in value.

Brussels must walk a fine line if Brexit does come to pass. They will likely try to send a message that leaving the European Union has negative consequences for any country that would decide to do so. However, damaging the economic relationship between Britain and the EU would hurt the remaining member states too. Both the UK and the EU must handle this situation with care.


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