It has now become commonplace to say that attitudes towards Brexit are polarised. One reason is that the country remains more or less evenly divided between the merits of Remain and Leave, as our recently launched EURef2 Poll of Polls shows. Another is that different kinds of voters typically have very different views. Most younger people and university graduates would prefer to stay in the EU, while most older people and those with few, if any, educational qualifications back leaving.
But perhaps there is also a third reason. This is that many voters are very strongly committed to their side of the argument. Indeed, so strong is this commitment that these voters now think of themselves as a ‘Remainer’ or ‘Leaver’, in much the same way that somebody might think of themselves as, say, a ‘Manchester United fan’ or a ‘Manchester City supporter’. Being a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’ has become part of their self-identity, and a label to which they feel an emotional bond and which serves to underpin and reinforce their support for staying in or leaving the EU irrespective of the arguments and counter-arguments about what Brexit will or will not bring.
Such an idea is not new to the study of politics. The idea that somebody might say ‘I’m a Conservative’ or ‘I’m Labour’ has been recognised by academics ever since the advent of the scientific study of voting in the immediate post-war period – and doubtless it was part of everyday discourse long before that. However, ever since the 1970s one of the key findings of academic surveys of voting behaviour has been a gradual but persistent decline in the proportion who say that they identify with a party, and an especially marked drop in the proportion who say that they do so strongly.
So, it might be thought something of a surprise if an electorate that has become increasingly disengaged from our political parties should now demonstrate a strong emotional commitment to being a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’. On the other hand, it has often been remarked that the debate about Brexit in Britain is part of a wider resurgence of the ‘politics of identity’ as manifested in everything from the rise of populist anti-immigrant parties in a number of European countries to the (tonally very different) demands for independence in, for example, Scotland and Catalonia. Perhaps, then, many a voter does feel a strong emotional attachment to their side of the Brexit debate, thereby adding another dimension to the polarisation engendered by Brexit.
That, at least, is what Professor Sara Hobolt and her colleagues have argued on the basis of their work on voters’ attitudes towards Brexit as part of the ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ programme. Today we publish an analysis paper that reports on our efforts to test and assess their claim, and in particular to compare how many people feel a strong Brexit identity with how many say nowadays that they identify strongly with a party. The paper is based on data collected during the summer as part of the most recent wave of questions on attitudes towards Brexit to be asked on NatCen’s mixed mode random probability panel.
There is one clear headline. Our research strongly supports the claims of Professor Hobolt and her colleagues. Nearly nine in ten members of our panel said that they were either a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’, whereas less than two-thirds of them claim to identify with a political party. Meanwhile, no less than 44% say they are a ‘very strong Remainer’ or a ‘very strong Leaver’, whereas only 9% claim to be a very strong supporter of a political party.
Strong identifiers are to be found on both sides of the Brexit debate. They are, though, a little more prevalent on the Remain side. While 45% of Leavers say they are a very strong Leaver, no less than 53% of Remainers report a very strong identity. It is sometimes suggested that, given the importance of immigration and sovereignty to many voters on the Leave side, their views are rooted above all in emotion and identity. However, the large proportion of very strong identifiers on the Remain side suggests that in practice emotion and identity underpin the views of many a Remainer too.
These who identify strongly with one side or the other have some distinctive views. Very strong Remainers are more likely to oppose than support the idea that prospective EU migrants should have to apply to come to Britain in the same way as non-EU migrants do – no other group of voters takes that view. Meanwhile very strong Leavers are especially likely to be critical of how the EU has been handling the Brexit talks. The two groups are clearly looking at the Brexit process through very different and partisan lenses.
But nowhere is this more clearly the case than in respect of the perceived economic consequences of Brexit. Very strong Remainers are almost unanimous in believing that Brexit will make Britain’s economy worse off. In contrast, the vast majority of very strong Leavers believe that the economy will be better off. It is, then, little wonder that after more than two years of debate about what Brexit should and could mean, relatively few voters on either side have changed their minds about the relative merits of Remain or Leave. For even if the head is uncertain, the heart remains sure.