Who first proposed that the UK should leave the EU, and why? How did this movement grow in support?

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    Welcome to HistorySE @Maria_mimi! What has your research shown you so far? Where have you already searched? Please help us to help you. You might find it helpful to review the site tour and help center. You may improve your question to comply with site guidelines with an edit and the help of How to Ask. Thanks!
    – MCW
    Apr 11, 2019 at 17:05
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    Perhaps it would help if you edited your question to explain what you think is missing from, or incomplete about, the Wikipedia article? Apr 11, 2019 at 17:14
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    I want this to be re-opened. 1. This is not really "off-topic"! The word is new and the political events now tantalising, but the process is older and the Q asks for origins. A wrong close reason could be reason to RO alone. 2. But it still lacks some quality: prior research demonstrated — that should be included into the Q via an edit. I vote to re-open now, in the hope that maria_mimi improves the question and that then others will also vote to RO. Apr 13, 2019 at 11:38
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    @NeMo I agree it is a very poorly written question that lacks any evidence of prior research (see my comment above), but I'm not sure that it is actually off-topic. In any event, a question with upvoted answers remains on the site indefinitely whether the question itself is closed or not. For more info, check the details on the SE Roomba process Apr 13, 2019 at 16:15
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    I've edited the question to focus more on the past instead of current events. OP, if you feel that this question no longer represents what you want to know, you can change it back, or delete the question. I think the question as I've written it stands a better chance of being reopened, but it's still your decision.
    – Ne Mo
    Apr 14, 2019 at 10:22

5 Answers 5


It started with the people. Eurosceptics have always been around in the UK, but you can probably make the case that the Maastricht treaty is what ignited the long sequence of campaigns and events that eventually led Cameron to promise and organize the Brexit referendum. (The wiki article has a fairly good summary of the latter.)

Basically, in 1991 a group called the Anti-Federalist League formed to campaign against the Maastricht treaty. It eventually became the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in 1993, which played an instrumental role in the run up to Brexit, in part by securing more votes than any other UK party in the 2014 EU elections. Both groups were founded by Alan Sked, who before that belonged to the Bruges Group, an eurosceptic think tank established in 1989 and still is at the front lines of Brexit today.

Replying to the questions in your comment:

U're saying that the government did what the ppl wanted...

Basically, yes.

what if what the ppl wanted was wrong?

That happens often. It's part of the democratic game. What you think is right, someone else might think is wrong; and vice versa.

Would the government do it anyway?

If they plan to get re-elected, that's usually a good idea.

Is the government obliged to do whatever the ppl wanted

In this case, technically no, since the referendum was indicative. But it would have been grotesque to simply ignore the expressed will of the people.

or did it share the same impression towards the EU which made it eventually agree on the ppl's demands?

Depends on who in the government. May, the Prime Minister, actually campaigned for Remain. Her government has members who campaigned for both sides during he referendum.

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    "what if what the ppl wanted was wrong?" I That's the age-old problem with democracy! ;-)
    – TheHonRose
    Apr 11, 2019 at 17:11
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    @Maria_mimi You ask "what if what the ppl wanted was wrong?" In that context, it is worth remembering that “Understanding is a three edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth.” - JMS Apr 11, 2019 at 17:34
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    This is crossing the line from history to politics. History doesn't (generally) contain judgments for "right" and "wrong". History discusses what happened. In this case, a democratically elected government offered a policy option; the people endorsed it and the government is carrying it through. Might have been the wrong option, might have been the wrong endorsement, might have been more sensible to abandon the initiative. none of those are historical questions. Other sites discuss "right" - we just document history.
    – MCW
    Apr 11, 2019 at 19:29
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    @MarkC.Wallace Another example of the problems inherent in that blurred line between current events and history? Apr 11, 2019 at 19:56
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    @DenisdeBernardy Actually, I'm old enough to remember the 'first Brexit referendum' in 1975 (although I wasn't old enough to actually vote in it). Most of the arguments were led by politicians, not the people, so I'd say the answer really isn't that clear-cut. However, that wasn't my point. The subsidiary questions in the OP's comment, and now incorporated into your answer, move the question away from History and into politics. As noted above, judgements about "right" or "wrong" are also probably better suited to a politics site than a history one. Apr 11, 2019 at 20:18

This is a site about History, so I'll try to offer an answer based on the history of the debate around Britain's membership of the European Community (EC) / European Union (EU).

It's a very complicated subject, so even the very brief overview I present here is going to be a longish read.

tl; dr

The idea of a referendum on 'Brexit' originated with the Labour opposition in 1973 (the same year that the UK joined the European Communities). This led to the first Brexit referendum in 1975 (the UK voted to remain on that occasion).

From that date until 2015, neither the British people, nor any British government have expressed any strong desire for another referendum on the UK's membership of the EC/EU.

Despite this, pressure from other quarters (including within the UK Parliament, various lobby groups, and sections of the UK media) made a new referendum almost inevitable at some point.

Because neither people nor government had really wanted the referendum, neither people nor government had any clear idea of what Brexit would actually look like. They had no plans on how to achieve it, and nor did any of the groups who had pressed for a referendum!

Who came up with the idea of Brexit?

The simple answer to the question in your title:

Who came up with the idea of Brexit?

is: The 1973 Labour opposition.

The Labour Party's National Executive Committee and the Labour Party Conference had both disapproved of the terms under which The UK joined the European Communities (EC). They therefore called for a re-negotiation of those terms and a referendum on the continued membership of the UK.

It is worth noting that the UK had joined the EC under a Conservative government. For reference, the timeline of events was:

  • 18 June 1970: a Conservative government, led by Ted Heath, was elected in the UK General Election.
  • 28 October 1971: the House of Commons voted 356-244 in favour of joining the EC.

Just 69 pro-Market Labour MPs (out of a total of 288 Labour MPs) voted with the Conservative government in favour of entry into the EEC in that vote.

  • 22 January 1972: Britain agreed to an accession treaty.
  • The accession treaty was ratified by the European Communities Act 1972, which received Royal Assent on 17 October of that year.
  • 1 January 1973: The United Kingdom joined the European Communities.
  • 28 February 1974: A Labour minority government was elected at the General Election.
  • 10 October 1974: A Labour majority government was elected at the General Election.
  • 5 June 1975: United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum

At that time, the drive towards 'Brexit' was led mainly from the left-wing of the Labour party, with support from diverse other parts of the UK political spectrum (see below).

A referendum became part of the Labour Party manifesto for the February 1974 UK General Election, and subsequently became government policy when the Labour Party were elected as a minority government. A referendum on the UK's continued membership of the EC was again government policy when Labour were re-elected, this time with a Parliamentary majority, in the October 1974 UK General Election.

This led to the first Brexit Referendum (The '1975 United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum') on 5 June 1975. This was not only the first referendum on 'Brexit', but also the first national referendum ever to be held throughout the entire United Kingdom (the next one wouldn't be until 2011).

I'm old enough to remember that referendum (although I wasn't old enough to actually vote in it). The debate, such as it was, wasn't led by 'the people', but by politicians (including many trade union leaders), the media, and even the Church of England!

Interestingly, the government of the day declined to make an official endorsement of the Remain position.

Most of the adults that I knew openly admitted to not understanding the issues or arguments. Lindsay Aqui's observation:

"... the referendum threw into question the basis upon which Britain joined the Community and injected even more uncertainty into a largely ill-informed public debate."

certainly matches with my memories of the time.

The 1975 referendum was the first time that I encountered the myth that the reason our economy and industry was in such a poor state, particularly when compared with the West German "economic miracle", was that the RAF and USAF had bombed most of the German factories flat, and they had then re-built with the latest technologies paid for with Marshall Aid dollars. In the meantime, Britain, as the victor, had to struggle on with bomb-damaged factories full of worn-out and outdated kit.

As I have pointed out in another answer here on History:SE, this is all complete nonsense, but it was pretty typical of the level of that 'largely ill-informed public debate' in 1975.

That referendum certainly wasn't something that 'the people' had asked for, or (in my experience) something that most really wanted. However, perhaps unsurprisingly given the media coverage, most people certainly seemed to recognise that the subject was important. This explains the relatively high (by UK standards) turnout.

The result of that referendum largely reflected the political divide of the UK at that time, with those on the far left and the far right tending to vote for what we would now call 'Brexit', and those in the centre tending to vote for 'Remain' (based on correlations between voting patterns in the referendum and voting for candidates in local council elections across the UK) [see for example The referendums of 1975 and 2016 illustrate the continuity and change in British Euroscepticism from the London School of Economics blog, and British Election Study : EEC Referendum Survey 1975, from the UK Data Service].

Just over 67% of the people that voted in the referendum in 1975 voted to remain in the EC (with 64.6% voter turnout).

Almost immediately, there were claims that the 1975 referendum result had been 'stolen' (perhaps not entirely without justification - see for example, A majority attained by fraud? The government information unit and the 1975 referendum by Lindsay Aqui in Britain and the European Union: Lessons from History, published by Queen Mary College, University of London).

Such claims have persisted, and continue to be repeated. As Lindsay Aqui observes in the paper cited above:

Those who pressurised David Cameron to commit to a renegotiation and referendum made it one of their claims that the 1975 referendum was a sham.

Nigel Farage in particular believes it was a ‘majority attained by fraud’.

Political opposition in 1975

Although just over two thirds of the population voted to remain in the EC at that time, several outspoken politicians (including Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Barbara Castle, the Reverend Ian Paisley, and Enoch Powell) from the fringes of mainstream UK politics had campaigned against the UK's continued membership of the European Community. In addition, many trade union leaders had actively campaigned for a 'No' vote.

The current leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who was then a local councillor in the London borough of Haringey, has said that he voted to leave in 1975.

(Other groups, including the National Front, Sinn Féin, and the Kremlin had also urged people to vote 'No' in the referendum).

For anyone at all familiar with UK politics, or with the names mentioned above, this should give you some idea of just how divided the 'No' campaign was in 1975!

Unsurprisingly, for many of these individuals and groups, the referendum result simply meant that they now had a solid base (the people who had voted 'No' in the referendum) to build on while working towards a future exit from the EC/EU.

It is hard to find a debate about Britain's relationship with Europe since 1975 in Hansard (the 'substantially verbatim' report of what is said in the UK Parliament) where one or more of these people / groups (or their successors) doesn't take the opportunity to argue for Britain being held-back by its EC / EU membership or that we would be somehow better-off outside the EC / EU. However, importantly, in the context of your question, these represent neither 'the people' nor 'the government'.

[To illustrate the point, a search just for the phrase 1975 referendum between the dates of 1 January 1976 and 31 December 2018 returns 397 references and 12 written answers]

Political opposition since 1975

Since 1975, there has been a decline in the fortunes of the far-left in British politics, and a consequent political shift to the right. This is part of the reason why the most obvious manifestations of Euroscepticism in the UK Parliament today can be seen in the ranks of the Conservative Party.

In common with many other European countries, the 'post-Maastricht-Blues' phenomenon has seen a decline in support for European integration in the UK. This is reflected in both the political-classes and in public opinion polls, but perhaps most-importantly in the media (see below).

Only two main parties have actively campaigned for a referendum on the UK's relationship with the EU: James Goldsmith's short-lived Referendum Party, and the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP. It is worth noting that in 1997 (the only General Election that they contested), the Referendum Party only attracted 2.6% of the national vote and failed to win a single seat in the House of Commons.

At its high-point in 2015, UKIP attracted just 12.6% of the total vote at the General Election. Further, UKIP has only ever managed to get 1 candidate elected to the UK Parliament (the former Conservative Eurosceptic MP, Douglas Carswell, in 2014).

However, perhaps ironically, UKIP have done well in Elections to the European Parliament (although this may be because turnout for European elections is historically very low in the UK).

So, it is highly debatable whether there has ever really been any significant demand for a referendum on the UK's continued membership of the EU by the people of the UK between 1975 and 2016.

Despite this, there have been several promises of a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU.

For example, on 20 April 2004, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made a statement to the House of Commons which concluded as follows:

"All that is what the opponents of this treaty would put in jeopardy for the sake not of any real British interest, but of a narrow nationalism, which no British Government have ever espoused or should ever espouse if they have the true interests of the British people at heart. In the end, the final say will be with the British people in a referendum. But in that debate, we will argue that this constitutional treaty represents a success for the new Europe that is taking shape, is a success for Britain ..."

  • (my emphasis)

The 2005 Labour Party manifesto also included the following statement on page 84:

"It is a good treaty for Britain and for the new Europe. We will put it to the British people in a referendum and campaign wholeheartedly for a 'Yes' vote to keep Britain a leading nation in Europe".

  • (my emphasis)

These promises for a referendum were, of course, never fulfilled. However, this led to demands (more often than not from UKIP and their backers, but also within the UK Parliament) that a future government should deliver on those promises of a referendum.

As mentioned above, it is debatable whether there was really any significant demand for a referendum on the UK's continued membership of the EU by the people of the UK. There was, however, very significant political pressure on various governments from sections of the UK Parliament. This is why David Cameron's decision to commit to holding a referendum in the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto is frequently portrayed as being an example of him putting the interests of his party before those of the country.

There was also considerable political pressure, from external lobby-groups, and, increasingly, from large sections of the media.

The media

Unlike 2016, the media coverage in 1975 was heavily biased towards the 'Remain' campaign. Newspapers backing a Yes vote included The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Telegraph, The Times (pre-News International), and almost all the leading provincial newspapers.

The only national papers backing a ‘No’ vote were The Spectator and the Communist Morning Star.

However, as the paper 'The UK media, Euroscepticism and the UK referendum on EU membership' observes:

"... just as Labour and the Conservatives were coming round to the idea of a European future for Britain, press opinion began moving in the opposite direction."

As mentioned earlier, much of this shift in press opinion simply reflected the 'post-Maastricht-Blues' phenomenon, but it made the political tightrope that UK governments had to walk on Europe much more complicated.

It is often claimed that UK citizens are the least likely to feel a sense of 'European' identity of all EU member states (see, for example the Wikipedia article on Euroscepticism in the UK, cited earlier). National sovereignty is also seen as being important to British people (again, perhaps to a greater degree than in many other European countries). Both these attitudes were reflected in the UK media's increasingly Eurosceptic attitude to Europe.

UK governments are fully aware of these sentiments, and they impacted on UK government relations within the EU. This has contributed to the perception of the UK as An Awkward Partner within the EU.

By February 2016 (when the article cited above was written), despite the increasingly Eurosceptic tone that had been adopted by the media, only one national newspaper - The Daily Express - had committed to campaigning for the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

For anyone interested, an analysis of the coverage of the 2016 Referendum by the UK media is presented in the 2017 paper, UK media coverage of the 2016 EU Referendum campaign, by Martin Moore and Gordon Ramsey of King’s College London’s Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power.

So, neither the government, nor the people, were pushing for a referendum on the UK's relationship with Europe in 2015. Nevertheless, the pressure on David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party from other quarters was such that he felt a referendum should be a manifesto commitment ahead of the 2015 UK General Election.

Those involved at the time, both in the UK and in the EU, contributed to a recent BBC documentary on the subject as part of the series Inside Europe: Ten Years of Turmoil. One of the key remarks was that David Cameron didn't expect his party to win an outright majority, and so didn't expect to have to deliver on that manifesto promise.

The electorate decided otherwise.

In the final analysis, the fact that neither the government, nor the people, had been pushing for a referendum on Brexit explains why it has been so hard for the government and the UK Parliament to agree on what they actually want from the UK's future relationship with the EU. Nobody had actually planned for what a post-EU future should look like for the UK before the referendum was held. Long after the UK government had triggered Article 50, public expressions of government policy were limited to soundbites like "Brexit means Brexit". And, ultimately, that is the reason why they:

"... want to break up with the EU and ask for extensions at the same time?!!!"

  • Let's move this to chat. Apr 13, 2019 at 11:07
  • This is very interesting! Your comment about the Marshall Aid money particularly so. The talk of "Empire 2.0" some time ago is probably indicative of the rationale for the current dominant faction of Brexit - that they still haven't let the empire go.
    – James
    Apr 18, 2019 at 11:49
  • @James Very likely so. And I suspect that (amongst many other lies and delusions) is something that will feature heavily when historians are writing about Brexit in the future. Apr 18, 2019 at 11:55
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    David Edgerton has written an interesting piece about the delusional memories of empire and suggests it's a national obsession for a variety of reasons, and has been attached to Brexit rather than an inspiration for it. members.tortoisemedia.com/2019/04/25/the-shadow-of-empire/…
    – James
    Apr 25, 2019 at 10:23

The UK joined the European Economic Community on 1st January 1973. This became the European Union in 1993. The decision to join the EEC was controversial at the time and the desire to reverse that decision never went away. In a sense then, nobody came up with the idea of Brexit, as if it were a new idea previously not thought of. It is an idea that never went away, although the level of support for it varied over time, and the people who supported it changed too.

The first UK=wide referendum was in 1975, offering people the chance to leave the EEC. Just over two-thirds of people voted to stay in. There was a majority in all counties and regions except for the Shetland Islands and the Outer Hebrides.

The only other UK-wide referendum, until the Brexit Referendum of 2016, was in 2011. This was whether to change the voting system for Parliament to a particular form of proportional representation. The government at the time was neutral (although individual members were pro or anti) and the Act to hold the Referendum also contained the changes to the electoral system which would come into effect automatically if the referendum approved the change. It didn't.

The Brexit Referendum of 2016 was a government initiative. Of course it would not have happened if there hadn't been some demand for it amongst much of the population. It is not the case, however, that there was a process initiated by the public which resulted in a referendum having to be called. This may be the rule in some countries (Jos mentions the Netherlands), but not here.

Typically a Referendum is called when a government wants to do something but requires public endorsement. The government says "this is what we want, please let us do it". In the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 the Scottish Government published detailed plans and, if the referendum had resulted in a "Yes" vote they would have proceeded with their plans.

Similarly the Republic of Ireland votes on such things as Divorce, Abortion and Same-Sex Marriage. The 1997 referendums in Scotland and Wales to approve plans for devolution; and the referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland about the Good Friday Agreement, were all examples of the government saying what it wanted, and the people saying Yes or No.

Plebiscites occurred in various localities to see if a particular area wished to be part of a neighbouring borough, or to allow or prohibit Sunday drinking. In all these cases the choice was clear.

In this context we can see how different was the 2016 Brexit Referendum. Although many MPs, and government ministers supported Brexit, the government itself was opposed to it. The aim of the Referendum was to remove Brexit from the political agenda, for a generation at least. Mr Cameron expected that Brexit would be decisively rejected; and that as a result people would no longer vote for UKIP. The government were not saying - please can we do this - but please can we rule this out once and for all.

When the result was announced Mr Cameron resigned because as a Remainer he felt he could not lead a government which withdrew the UK from the EU. However the Conservatives chose another Remainer, Mrs May. Much of the disarray of the last three years has been that the Referendum said that the people wanted the government and Parliament to do something that most MPs do not actually want to do. There was nobody or group that can be said to have won the Referendum and have a mandate to implement it; as would have been the case in Scotland in 2014 for example.

Taking a much longer historical perspective though, it is arguable that the concept of Brexit goes back at least as far as the fourteenth century (e.g. the Statute of Provisors; and takes in the Reformation. Fundamentally it is perhaps a geographical thing in that the British Isles are close to, but not part of, the Continent.

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    Short version: they realized hey no longer have any advantage being in it, while having many disadvantages.
    – Overmind
    Apr 12, 2019 at 11:06
  • You might want to add that it was a Conservative party manifesto committment for the 2015 general election, but that there wasn't an expectation that the Conservatives would win it outright.
    – James
    Apr 12, 2019 at 14:51

Yes, it was certainly not an idea of the government. Of any European government for that matter. The UK and other European nations (a.o. The Netherlands) passed a plebiscite law. Under that law the people could ask for a referendum. Which is what the British did. As well as the Dutch and other nations.

The Dutch referendum law was advisory, not legislative. In other words, the Dutch government could reject any referendum - and they did. Each and every one of them.

The British government, to their credit, didn't. (I don't know if their referendum was legislative.) The problem began immediately after the referendum when the government fell. Theresa May became prime minister. Before the referendum she was opposed to Brexit, and didn't hide it. Both camps are about equal in size. That makes any kind of Brexit very difficult.

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    "Under that law the people could ask for a referendum." - that is not true in the UK. The only way for a referendum to happen in the UK is to elect people to parliament who will pass the necessary legislation (each referendum requires a separate act). The Conservative party campaigned in the 2015 election on a manifesto which contained a commitment to hold a Brexit Referendum; they won a majority and the rest you know. Apr 12, 2019 at 10:42
  • The UK Brexit referendum was advisory not legislative - but the government of the day promised to carry out the decision. The government did not fall; David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister, but there was no new general election. Apr 12, 2019 at 10:45

Right from the beginning when the EU was contemplated it was understood that any kind of political union would be infeasible given the varied political and cultural histories of the nations of Western Europe. However, given the tragic history of the two world wars - where fifty million died - it was felt such a project had to be attempted for the future peace, security and prosperity of Europe.

Initially, only an economic union on coal and steel was contemplated. This was the ECSC. It’s success eventually led to the Treaty of Rome and the establishment of the European Communities (EC).

It was to this that Edward Heath Conservative government signed upto in the 70s. The following Labour government under Callaghan believed the terms unfavourable and called for a referendum on the EU. All but two counties decided to remain in the EU.

Brexit occurred under the single issue UKIP party which campaigned simply on this issue and had capitalised on increasing criticism of a technocratic and globalising neoliberalism - it’s not surprising, really, given the historical foundations of the EU in an economic union that such a technocratic neoliberalism took root.

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    You are mistaken about what the UK signed up to in 1973 under Edward Heath. Check the Wikipedia page on the European Communities Act 1972, if you're interested in finding what we did sign up to (link in my answer above, if you need it). Further, "The following Labour government under Callaghan ..."? You might want to check the Wikipedia pages for the two 1974 UK General Elections (links also in my answer, if you need them). Also, when do you think UKIP formed a government (as per your last paragraph)? Apr 18, 2019 at 11:36
  • @semipaiscuba: Where exactly do I say that UKIP formed a government? I don’t see that in my last paragraph. I merely said it was a single-issue party. Apr 23, 2019 at 8:47
  • You say 'Brexit occurred under the single issue UKIP party ...'. I'm not sure how else one is supposed to read that? Apr 23, 2019 at 12:29
  • @semipaiscuba: Like exactly what I wrote. I don't say that ‘UKIP formed a government’. That’s what you wrote. And you should own it rather than pushing it onto me. May 4, 2019 at 0:29
  • I have never claimed that UKIP formed a government. If you take a moment to actually read my answer you'll note that I point out explicitly that UKIP has only ever managed to get 1 candidate elected to the UK parliament. May 4, 2019 at 0:40

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