Brexit Revives Trust in Government – Among Leavers

Posted on 21 October 2021 by John Curtice

The latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) report, published today, has as one of its central themes the impact of Brexit. One chapter by Alex Scholes and myself at the impact that the delivery of Brexit at the end of January 2020 has had on people’s attitudes towards how they are governed.  Meanwhile a second chapter, by Ceri Davies, Jim Fishkin, Robert Ford, Alice Siu and myself unveils more findings from the Future of Britain project that is examining attitudes towards post-Brexit public policy using Deliberative Polling. In this instance, we focus in particular on attitudes towards immigration.

It has been argued that one of the motivations behind the majority Leave vote in 2016 was a general disenchantment with how the country was bring governed. Meanwhile, a chapter in last year’s report, based on data collected during the parliamentary stalemate over Brexit in 2019, suggested that trust and confidence in Britain’s political process had reached an all-time low. In short Brexit has been portrayed as both a symptom and a cause of political disenchantment.

This year’s report revisits the issue using two sources of data – a survey conducted in July 2020 via NatCen’s mixed mode random probability panel as part of a project on the impact of COVID-19 on social and political attitudes, and the latest BSA survey undertaken (online because of the pandemic) between October and December last year. Both surveys were of necessity conducted differently from previous BSAs (conducted face to face) but the risk that any changes since previous years are simply a consequence of the change of method is mitigated by the fact that we can point to the evidence of not one, but two 2020 surveys that themselves were conducted differently from each other.

Both certainly point in the same direction so far as the level of trust and confidence in government are concerned. First, it is much higher than it was during the Brexit stalemate, and across multiple measures is now at least back to where it was before the EU referendum. Second, nearly all of this increase has occurred among those who voted Leave in 2016, suggesting that the rise is a consequence of their favourable reaction to the eventual delivery of Brexit in January 2020. As a result, whereas for a long time before the referendum it was those who were sceptical about Britain’s membership of the EU who were least likely to express confidence in how they were being governed, now it is those who regard the EU favourably among whom doubts are most widespread.

These two patterns are illustrated by how people have responded when asked whether they trust ‘British governments of any party to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their own political party’. In 2019, a record low of just 15% said that they did so ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time’. In contrast, both our 2020 surveys put the figure at 23%, a little above the average of 19% recorded in the four BSAs conducted between 2010 and 2013.

However, among Leave voters the figure has risen from 12% in 2019 to 29% and 31% in the two surveys conducted in 2020. In contrast, just 17-19% of Remain voters say they trust governments at least most of the time, no more than a modest increase on the 14% figure recorded in 2019. In contrast, twenty years ago those who were sceptical about EU membership (26%) were noticeably less likely than those who held a favourable view (33%) to say they trusted governments at least most of the time. One pattern of division has been replaced by another.

Today’s report also takes a look at whether the experience of the Brexit referendum has undermined the level of support for using referendums more generally. Of this, however, there is little sign. In fact, support for deciding the Commons electoral system via a referendum rather than by MPs is rather higher now among those who are supportive of EU membership (66%) than it was when BSA last asked about the issue back in 2013 (57%). Of course, this does not necessarily mean that the willingness of politicians to hold referendums has been similarly unaffected.

In last year’s BSA report we analysed the results of three general population surveys that the Future of Britain project had collected in 2019 and 2020 on people’s attitudes towards various aspects of post-Brexit public policy. However, the heart of the project is to ascertain the views that people express when they have had the opportunity to deliberate about the options and to quiz experts on the subject. Following on from an initial publication released at the start of the year, in this year’s BSA report  we both portray the character of the discussions about immigration policy that took place in two online weekend events held in 2019 and 2020, and analyse the impact of the deliberation on the views of those who took part.

The deliberation, which featured arguments both for and against various ways of controlling immigration, did make a difference to the balance of opinion – but not in a consistent direction. On the one hand participants – and especially Leave voters – became more likely to say that immigration is economically and culturally beneficial for Britain. On the other hand, participants – and primarily Remain voters – became somewhat more likely to favour tighter immigration control, including most notably treating EU migrants in much the same way as non-EU migrants. To that extent there was some meeting of minds across the Brexit divide, although the impact of the deliberation had waned somewhat by the time that participants were re-interviewed some months after their deliberative event.

One implication of this movement is that deliberation reinforced rather than undermined support for the UK government’s decision to end freedom of movement. But that does not necessarily mean that the details of the government’s post-Brexit immigration policy are necessarily fully in tune with public opinion. In particular, the government may be somewhat wide of the mark in the strength of its emphasis on income and skill as criteria for entry. For example, many voters say that care workers (low paid and supposedly unskilled) should have priority in the immigration queue whereas relatively few say the same about (highly paid and skilled) bankers, a pattern that became even more marked after deliberation. Voters’ evaluations of the value of occupations does not always lie in the salary that they can command or the skills that they supposedly require. Meanwhile, the view was often expressed in the discussions (which took place long before the current debate about labour market shortages) that priority should be given to those who would help fill shortages in the domestic supply of labour. The government’s apparent reluctance in recent weeks to adapt its immigration criteria to meet immediate need may have been unduly cautious, at least so far as public opinion is concerned.

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.

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