‘Better Informed?’ The Impact of the Brexit Debate on Voters’ Attitudes towards the EU

Posted on 10 July 2018 by John Curtice

Do voters know what they are doing? This is a question that is often asked about referendums, not least by those who doubt voters’ ability to grapple with major issues of policy. Since the EU referendum it has, perhaps, been regarded as a particularly pressing question by some on the Remain side. For example, the charge that many Leave voters were ill-versed in the economic consequences of leaving the EU not be explicit in analysis that has suggested that Leave voting areas were more likely to suffer economically from Brexit, but it is certainly implied. Meanwhile the claim on the Leave side’s referendum battle bus that ‘We send £350 million to the EU every week’, money that it was argued could be spent instead on the NHS, is often presented as an example of the kind of (allegedly) misleading propaganda that helped beguile voters into backing Leave.

In a chapter in the latest British Social Attitudes report, published today, we examine how public attitudes towards the EU have evolved over the longer term in the wake of the referendum campaign and its aftermath. In particular, we ask whether the public’s attitudes towards the EU became ‘better informed’ following the referendum campaign and the subsequent debate about what the shape of Brexit should be.

Of course, this immediately raises the question as to what we mean by ‘informed’. Our approach is that voters’ attitudes towards EU membership can be said to be ‘informed’ if they reflect their underlying identities and values, together with their perceptions of the consequences of staying or leaving. Voters are therefore said to have become ‘better informed’ if the relationship between their attitudes towards EU membership and those identities, values and perceptions has strengthened. Note that we do not question the foundation of those identities, values and perceptions – we are merely asking whether voters are better able to bring them to bear in making up their minds about EU membership.

To see whether this crucial relationship has changed in the wake of the Brexit process we included on the most recent British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey – conducted in the second half of 2017 – a suite of questions that had previously been asked on the 2015 survey, interviewing for which took place after that year’s general election but well before the referendum campaign had got into gear.

Included in this suite of questions is one about Britain’s membership of the EU that BSA has asked on a regular basis since the 1990s. It reads:

Do you think Britain’s long-term policy should be…

 … to leave the European Union,

to stay in the EU and try to reduce the EU’s powers,

to leave things as they are,

to stay in the EU and try to increase the EU’s powers,

or, to work for the formation of a single European government?

In 2015 only 22% chose the ‘leave’ option.  By far the most popular response, backed by 43%, was that Britain should stay in the EU but try to reduce its powers, a sentiment to which the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, seemed to be trying to appeal in his efforts to ‘renegotiate’ the UK’s terms of membership in early 2016. Now, however, as many as 36% say would prefer to leave. Sentiment against the EU has evidently hardened during the course of the Brexit process, albeit that the proportion saying Britain should leave the EU in response to this multi-option question is still less than is found when polls simply ask voters to make the binary choice between Remain and Leave.

But amongst whom is support for leaving higher now than it was in 2015? Perhaps support for leaving has increased irrespective of, for example, people’s sense of identity or what they think the economic consequences of Brexit would be. But, alternatively, maybe support for leaving the EU has increased more markedly among those who agree that EU membership has undermined Britain’s distinctive sense of identity than it has among those who disagree with that proposition. Similarly, perhaps support for leaving has increased more among those who think that leaving the EU would be good for the British economy than it has among those who think Brexit will be damaging economically.

Today’s chapter shows that, for the most part, it is the latter pattern that is in evidence. For example, among those who think that being a member of the EU has undermined Britain’s identity, there has been a 22-point increase since 2015 in the level of support for leaving the EU. In contrast, among those who disagree with the proposition, the rise in the proportion choosing leaving has only been seven points.

In a similar vein, among those who think that Britain’s economy will be better off as a result of leaving the EU support for leaving  is 18 points higher than two years ago, whereas among those who think the economy will be worse off the rise has been a more modest six points.

These are far from isolated examples. The chapter shows more generally that the increase in support for leaving the EU has been more marked among (i) those who do not feel European, (ii) those in England whose English identity is stronger than their British identity, and (iii) those who are more concerned about the cultural consequences of immigration. People’s views about the EU reflect their sense of identity more strongly now than hitherto. The same is true of people’s values, that is, whether they are a libertarian (or social liberal) who is comfortable living in a diverse society or an authoritarian (or social conservative) who prefers a more homogenous social environment. Support for leaving has grown more among authoritarians than libertarians. Meanwhile those who think that leaving the EU will enhance Britain’s influence in the world have registered a much sharper increase in support for leaving than have those of the opposite view.

So, despite the criticisms that have been made about the quality of the referendum campaign and the subsequent debate about Brexit, voters’ attitudes towards the EU have become somewhat ‘better informed’ during the last couple of years. Those whose underlying identities, values and perceptions of the consequences would lead one to anticipate that they would back leaving the EU are now more likely to express that view. Conversely, support for staying in the EU is now, relatively speaking, more popular among those who one would anticipate ought to be predisposed towards that view.

This development perhaps helps explain why attitudes towards Brexit have been relatively stable during the last two years.  Attitudes that are firmly rooted in people’s identities, values and perceptions are less likely to be labile than those that are not. But, of course, if those identities, values or perceptions themselves were to change, then maybe the future trajectory of attitudes towards Brexit would begin to look rather different. So far, however, neither side in the Brexit debate seems to have made much progress in that endeavour.

This blog is co-authored by Sarah Tipping, Research Director at NatCen Social Research

P.S. There is more! Today’s British Social Attitudes report also looks at the impact that attitudes towards Brexit had on how people voted in the 2017 general election and confirms the argument we have made previously that Brexit helped to reshape the character of Conservative and Labour support in Britain – with uncomfortable consequences for both of our two largest parties.

John Curtice

By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

4 thoughts on “‘Better Informed?’ The Impact of the Brexit Debate on Voters’ Attitudes towards the EU

  1. The investigation of public attitudes is interesting, but I kept thinking that of course attitudes changed between 2015 and today, because in 2015, exit from the EU looked very unlikely, while a re-negotiation was promised, and then Cameron went to Brussels and came back with nothing very much. The refusal of the EU to give Cameron the pretty resonable concessions he asked for, plus a promised referendum, took Brexit from the realm of the hard-to-imagine to the realm of the possible.

    I think what people now have to think about is not some “ideal” Brexit, but a Brexit proposal that the EU will agree to, and which the UK can live with. In the past seven days there has been a lot of hot air about “colonial status” but the fact is that if we adopt regulatory alignmennt voluntarily, then we do, and EU Courts have no more direct jurisidction in the UK.

    EU Courts continue to have jurisdiction over UK-EU trade, but that’s pretty much the deal when you export to any country. If the UK exports cars to the US, the cars have to conform to US environmental regulations – over which we have no control. And if the cars do not, the remedy is for the US to refuse to import cars from the UK, not to have US Courts regulate UK factories.

    It will no doubt take a few weeks, but the current Boris-style tantrums will lose energy, and business and the Government together will gradually persuade voters – and MPs – that if the Chequers proposal offers the least economic disruption in the short term, plus the ability to diverge from the EU in the long term, then it’s about the best you are going to get.

    In a sense, the longer time it is going to take to achieve more and more meaningful distance between the EU and the UK is our own fault. If in 2003 Gordon Brown, when he kept us out of the euro, and specifically did so to preserve economic flexibility for the UK, when the rest of the EU was going for more convergence, had recognized that he was really taking us out of the “real” EU, then we would be long gone by now, but that’s a river you cant cross twice.Report

  2. What utter utter nonsense based on no real facts! The fact is we are under the rule of a dictatorship, we have been destroyed by the Eu and our country has been sold off piece by piece. We have been invaded by millions of undesirables and have been taxed in to oblivion, with out Engineering, farming and fishing isdustry in tatters due to the subsidising of Eu imports from our tax payments to the Eu. Not only that but we are governed by the Eu not by the people we vote in to power! The Eu has had no positive impact on our country and has caused more damage than anything I. Our history. People who think they are richer are in debt up to their eyeballs and the only ones who are better off are those who are at the top who have committed treason and jumped i. To bed with the nazis. Report

    1. Lie 1: “The fact is we are under the rule of a dictatorship”
      It is demonstrably not a dictatorship, if it was we wouldn’t be able to leave, and Nigel Farrage wouldn’t be an MEP.

      Lie 2: “weave been destroyed by the Eu”
      So according to brexiteers the rest of the EU see us as a cash cow, need our money but have destroyed our country. Which is it?

      “our country has been sold off piece by piece”
      Yes, by our own government, nothing to do with the EU.

      “We have been invaded by millions of undesirables”
      Again, this is a policy by our own government, not the EU.

      “andve been taxed in to oblivion”
      The EU doesn’t set taxes, once again that is our own government.

      “due to the subsidising of Eu imports from our tax payments to the Eu”
      Take the trouble to look at your Annual Tax Summary, your contribution to the EU is less than 1% of your tax bill. It is by far the least of all the categories your tax is spent on.

      Lie 3: “Not only that but we are governed by the Eu not by the people we vote in to power!”
      Firstly, we are governed by the UK Parliament, which is why they can decide whether we leave out not.
      Secondly, at the moment we are the EU as much as any other country is, so either way we govern ourselves.

      Lie 4: “The has had no positive impact on our country and has caused more damage than anything”
      We were the sick man of Europe before joining. We had to ask for loans from the IMF to stay solvent.

      Lie 5: “I. Our history. People who think they are richer are in debt up to their eyeballs and the only ones who are better off are those who are at the top who have committed treason and jumped i. To bed with the nazis”
      Firstly, If people think they are richer when they are not that is no-ones fault but their own, I’m not sure why they would do so though.
      Secondly, it is the likes of JRM and Boris who want to crash out of the EU, not to help the likes of you. In fact just the opposite, they will get richer and you will get poorer.
      Thirdly, there are no Nazis in power in the EU.

      So just more ill thought out ranting by someone who has done no research, and no, reading the Sun doesn’t count research. I bet you knew exactly what you were voting for though, didn’t you?Report

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