A Short History of Brexit Summary By Kevin O’Rourke

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From post-war anxieties to chaotic Brexit negotiations, this book provides an in-depth look at the complex history between the United Kingdom and Europe.

A Short History of Brexit (2019) is a comprehensive overview of how migrations and economic agreements have faded into political divisions that are still impacting Europe today.

This book looks back upon a turbulent yet enlightening period, as it takes readers on a journey through the UK's relationship with Europe from past to present.

Exploring topics from revolving from WWII to the current state of Brexit negotiations, this book provides up-to-date insight for any reader wishing to understand more about the UK's journey towards - or away from - European integration.

A Short History of Brexit

Book Name: A Short History of Brexit (From Brentry to Backstop)

Author(s): Kevin O’Rourke

Rating: 4.3/5

Reading Time: 29 Minutes

Categories: Politics

Author Bio

If you want to learn more about the complex history of Brexit, you need look no further than Kevin O’Rourke.

Not only is he a professor of Economic History at the University of Oxford, but also a former research director of the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

His credentials speak volumes in his field and makes him an excellent source on the history of Brexit.

O'Rourke has coauthored the book Globalization and History, as well as coedited The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe - both are considered highly informative sources on the topic.

His expertise makes him an ideal author to help shed light on Brexit's complicated past.

A Short History of Brexit: Unpicking the Factors Behind Britain’s Divisive Referendum and Its Bumpy Road to European Departure

History of Brexit

For those who want to understand the events that led up to the referendum and what has followed, A Short History of Brexit is a must-read.

This book provides readers with an in-depth crash course on the different factors that have contributed to Brexit’s bumpy history.

From learning about Britain’s perspective on European integration, understanding why “hard” and “soft” Brexit mean, and comprehending why the Irish border has become a core issue in negotiations; this book covers it all.

It explains these topics and more in an accessible language so readers from all backgrounds can understand the complex dynamics of Brexit.

A Short History of Brexit is a comprehensive guide to get you up to speed on one of today’s hottest global political issues.

Understanding Brexit Begins with a Long-Standing British Anxiety Over Losing Sovereignty to European Integration

The UK’s attitude toward European integration has been ambivalent ever since the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) back in 1951.

At that time, the UK government favored cooperation between its European neighbours, but not at the cost of losing some degree of national sovereignty.

This fear was primarily due to concerns that increased European supranationalism would interfere with coal and steel imports from the British Empire.

Additionally, Labour had recently paid a large sum to nationalize the coal industry, so they were clearly nervous about relinquishing control to a higher authority outside of their jurisdiction.

To further emphasize this stance, Britain chose not to join this first iteration of what would eventually become the EU.

Ultimately, it would take decades for Britain to re-evaluate its views and decide upon a ‘Brexit’ plan of leaving it in June 2016.

Thus, Britain’s interaction with European integration – whether political or economic – has always been tepid in comparison with other member countries.

It can be said then that from its initial reluctance to join the ECSC all those years ago until 2016 when it finally left the EU, that UK’s attitude toward European integration has always been ambivalent.

The Controversial Legacy of the British Empire: Balancing Commonwealth Connections and European Trade

British Empire

The UK has a long and complicated relationship with the European project.

This is due, in part, to its imperial past.

The British Empire had many colonies across the world, and transferring power to these colonies nonetheless took place fairly peacefully after World War II.

Many of these countries then became a part of the Commonwealth—an association of equal and independent nations united through history and culture.

As a result of this long-standing relationship, Britain favored preferential treatment for Commonwealth trade partners over those from continental Europe.

When it came time for the ECSC countries (especially France) to join hands in forming the European Economic Community (EEC), tensions arose between Britain’s loyalty towards former colonies and its desire to be involved with a continental trading bloc.

For Britain to participate in the EEC without resenting its Commonwealth relationships, it needed exemptions from certain EU policies like tariffs on imports.

These exceptions were opposed by France, which felt they would undermine the custom union agreement they wanted at that time.

Ultimately, British politicians failed to reconcile their loyalty toward Commonwealth nations while wanting more European trade links and signed economically off when signing the Treaty of Rome in 1957 — resulting in resentment over being outvoted by other members of EEC nations who strongly supported the customs union agreement allowing free trade among themselves with minimal tariffs towards external partners like Canada & Brazil and minimal border controls with France leading it all­—all while feeling left out when some important policy decisions were made that did not favor noncompliance with ECSC regulations or unfairly compromise theirs stance on maintaining relations with former colonies as Britain had desired but failed to negotiate .

The Legacy of British Imperialism in the Formation of the European Free Trade Association

When Britain opted out of the ECSC and the EEC, it threatened to create an international trade war between Europe and itself.

With this in mind, British politicians pushed for the creation of a different organization: the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

This organization was designed to allow free trade only in industrial goods rather than agricultural goods, which meant that it would suit the UK’s needs more than forming a customs union or joining a supranational body such as the EEC.

British negotiators tried to get EFTA off the ground by focusing solely on what their country wanted out of this new agreement–something that other countries in Europe disagreed with.

There was also opposition from France, who feared that EFTA would undermine their newfound political unity within the EEC.

Despite these challenges, Britain continued to push forth and eventually entered negotiations at Geneva alongside Scandinavian countries, Austria, Switzerland and Portugal.

In 1960, these countries all signed the Stockholm Convention which established EFTA as a viable alternative to full customs union with an emphasis on government cooperation instead of rules set by higher authorities.

So while Britain opted out of both ECSC and EEC, their ambition didn’t stop there.

They sought instead to craft a free trade zone designed for industry goods that could benefit them and help avoid destructive trade wars between them and other members of Europe, something that eventually became known as EFTA thanks to British diplomatic efforts.

The UK’s History of ‘Cakism’: How Britain Tried to Have Its Cake and Eat It with the European Union

UK's History of 'Cakism

When the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) failed to achieve a Europe-wide free trade agreement in 1961, the UK decided to take a bold step forward: they applied for membership in the European Economic Community (EEC).

This was unexpected for many foreign diplomats and politicians of the time, but there were several pragmatic reasons behind the decision.

First, UK trade with EEC countries had already surpassed that of EFTA members.

Since an EEC-EFTA trade deal wasn’t possible, the British faced long-term tariffs when trading with EEC nations.

Second, Commonwealth countries were beginning to industrialize and develop their own sectors, reducing Britain’s export potential even further.

Third, and of most importance – the EEC was experiencing an economic boom that become increasingly attractive and lucrative; lacking such progress at home made it all the more urgent for Britain to join.

These motivations proved contentious however; upon submitting their 1961 application France’s president Charles de Gaulle vetoed it out of fear that British interests would represent those of America more than their own.

It took 8 more years before, under new leadership, France lifted its veto – allowing Britain’s entry in 1973 along with Ireland and Denmark.

The Iron Lady and the Making of the European Union: How Margaret Thatcher’s Vision Led to an Integrated Single Market

When Margaret Thatcher was inaugurated as Prime Minister in 1979 the European Community (EC) had seen better days.

A global recession had taken the wind out of its sails, with Britain being one of the worse affected.

With an emergency loan from the IMF required to keep going, it was clear that a radical action was necessary.

The solution chosen was to create a more integrated European market to increase productivity and commerce by reducing both physical, technical and fiscal barriers between states.

Thatcher appointed her own minister to Brussels whose white paper identified these three types of obstacles and proposed ways to tackle them.

Initiated in 1985 and completed in 1993, this process for higher integration saw uniformity begin to grow between nations; however not everyone was entirely on board.

Through her own rhetoric and speeches leading up to the reunification of East and West Germany, Mrs Thatcher’s stance become increasingly hostile towards Europe’s centralised power at Brussels and even went against her former pro-integration sentiment.

Eventually her own party rebelled against her anti-European views forcing her to resign in 1990.

How David Cameron’s Political Blunder Led to the UK’s Exit from the European Union

European Union

When Conservative David Cameron ran for re-election in 2015, he made a promise to renegotiate the UK’s membership inside of the European Union and hold a referendum about whether to stay on these terms or not.

This decision was largely made as a response to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)’s growing popularity.

UKIP was an anti-EU, right-wing political movement led by Nigel Farage that had been gaining support since 2004 when the EU expanded into eastern Europe – bringing high levels of immigration to Britain which caused backlash among some of the population.

When Cameron returned from Brussels with his concessions, he also announced he would be campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU in the upcoming referendum.

But despite his efforts, on June 2016, British public voted by a 52 percent majority to leave the EU and firmly marked an end of David Cameron’s premiership.

The Reasons Behind Brexit: An Overview for Future

The reasons for Brexit are complex.

It’s a combination of the Great Recession, globalization, and austerity measures put in place by the Conservative government in 2010.

It all starts with the global financial crisis from 2007-2008.

This recession had negative impacts on many countries but their recoveries afterwards were quite different.

The UK government responded quickly with quantitative easing programs and got back to full strength in 2012, while the Eurozone only achieved that status four years later.

This contrast gave anti-EU politicians the opportunity to criticize Brussels during the referendum campaign.

Globalization also played a role in creating a Brexit sentiment; there has been much growth in international trade since the 80s, making it easier for products to move around the world within days.

But it did more than just create prosperity; it left some people behind, particularly those unskilled workers whose jobs have been relocated abroad and thus feeling threatened by immigrants – one 2017 study found that regions with high unemployment and a strong tradition of manufacturing were more likely to vote Leave.

Finally, when David Cameron came into Office he rolled out an austerity program which cut public services budgets by over £14 billion, producing an impression among voters that too much was given away to Brussels while they received less benefits at home.

The Political Instability of Brexit: How UK Negotiations Have Suffered From Uncertainty, Red Lines and Snap Elections

The UK government pushed for a hard-line Brexit plan which was ultimately set out by Prime Minister Theresa May.

This plan included leaving the Single Market in order to end free movement of people and exiting the customs union so free trade agreements with other countries could be made.

However, this plan resulted in huge problems for certain sectors of the British economy such as the financial services industry.

This industry is centered in London and trades with Europe on the condition that all countries have compatible financial regulations – something a hard Brexit would undo.

Despite these difficulties, May still held firm by red lines she had set out: no staying inside the Single Market due to its acceptance of free movement of people, and no getting privileged access to European markets through a free trade deal with the EU like Canada has achieved.

How The EU’s Customs Union and Single Market Helped Make a Soft Border Possible in Ireland


When the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were created in 1921, it caused a divide between Catholic republicans and Protestant unionists who fought for decades over the future of their country.

This led to a historic peace agreement being signed in 1998 aptly known as the Good Friday Agreement.

It ended decades of fighting and most importantly, it made the border between Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland “invisible”.

That’s because they were both members of the European Union’s (EU) customs union and Single Market.

And when Britain decided to leave the EU – through its Brexit referendum – this “soft border” between NI and ROI suddenly became central to the entire process.

Nobody wanted a physical border on their island, so the ROI and EU demanded that Britain find a solution that would keep them within their borders.

Thus, The UK issued a report in December 2017 that stated if they couldn’t find an alternative solution, the backstop would be put in place; which meant that regulations would remain aligned with the EUs while still avoiding a physical border on their land.

This infuriated many Brexiteers due to implications on loss of sovereignty but was accepted as Britain had backed itself into a corner.

Brexit Episode Leaves UK At Crossroads Heading Into 2019

When it became clear that in order to protect the invisible Irish border and keep May’s red lines intact, an EU proposal for an Irish backstop was necessary.

This was problematic because it also involved implementing border controls within the UK – something that would be extremely unpopular within her own party.

Thus, Theresa May summoned a number of her ministers to Chequers where she proposed her new plan – the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement.

It allowed for the whole UK staying in the EU customs union, while Northern Ireland would maintain single market access – but this time only for goods.

The plan seemed to solve many issues as it respected most of May’s red lines on ending free movement of EU citizens and avoiding a physical border in Ireland – however, it also meant that the UK would not be able to sign its own trade deals, thereby causing discontent and division among her party members.

Even so, a parliamentary vote on her Chequers plan was due in December 2018 and it seemed like light at the end of the tunnel – until news broke out that hard core Brexiteers were enraged by NI remaining in Single Market as well as unable to form independent trade deals.

Realizing her impending defeat, Theresa May delayed the vote ultimately leading to a vote of no confidence which she won by 200 votes to 117.

Nevertheless, this left her severely bruised; entering 2019, Brexit remains uncertain with Britain standing at a crossroads unable to decide which direction to take.

Wrap Up

The Brexit referendum of June 2016 was the culmination of a long period of underlying discontent amongst both British Government and citizens.

It was driven, on the one hand, by a desire for economic opportunities that accompanied European integration and, on the other, an aversion to giving away any of its own power over matters.

This mix of views among people in the UK led to a formidable “No” vote in the poll.

Since then, many convoluted and bewildering debates have taken place surrounding a final deal to be established with Europe but, most importantly, a solution still lingers concerning the Irish border predicament.

The Book’s final message is simple: understanding all the preceding history before Brexit – and especially leading up to the referendum – is therefore essential to comprehending why it happened.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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