Britain Divided? Who Wants to Leave and Who Wants to Remain

Posted on 21 October 2015 by John Curtice

Do we all think the same about Europe? In one sense the obvious answer to that question is, ‘No’. After all, as our Poll of Polls shows, support for the two sides in the EU Referendum campaign that is now beginning to get into gear is almost evenly matched. At the moment at least Britain appears to be split down the middle on whether to leave or remain.

But this is not the only way in which we can address our question. We can also ask how far different sections of British society are inclined to hold different views about Britain’s membership. This is the perspective adopted by the first in a series of analysis papers to be published on this website as part of its attempt to provide impartial information on public attitudes to Europe in the run-up to the EU Referendum.

There is, after all, good reason to anticipate that some key differences and divisions will exist. Two in particular come to mind. First, we might well anticipate that on balance younger people will hold different views from older people. Second, we might reckon that graduates in well-paid jobs are typically happier about the prospect of remaining in Europe than are those with few, if any, educational qualifications for whom finding and keeping an adequately paid job can be more of a struggle.

Younger people have been brought up in a rather different world than the one in which their parents and grandparents were raised. For them there is nothing new about living in a racially, linguistically and religiously diverse society. They are thus less concerned about immigration – and concern about immigration is one of the key motivations behind many people’s opposition to staying in the EU. At the same time, they have grown up in an age of widespread international travel and communication, an experience that may well have left them more inclined to accept the principle of international collaboration that, for its advocates at least, is exemplified by the European Union.

At the same time, younger people are also more likely to have enjoyed a university education. This experience itself is likely to make them more aware of diverse cultures. But, crucially, such an education also means they are better equipped to secure employment in a labour market in which people from Britain can find themselves in competition for jobs with those living abroad. Indeed, they are also more likely to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the EU’s freedom of movement provisions to find work in another member state. In contrast, those with fewer educational qualifications who are in less secure, less well paid employment may well feel that what the inflow of migrants from the rest of the EU means greater difficulty in finding a job and a lower rate of pay when they do.

Our paper shows that recent polls and surveys consistently confirm that these differences exist. For a start, typically those aged under 35 are around twenty percentage points more likely than those aged 55 and over to say that they will vote to remain in the EU. There appears to be a big ‘generation gap’ in attitudes towards the EU.

But this is not the biggest gap. According to both the British Social Attitudes survey and the British Election Study, the difference between the views of graduates and those without any educational qualifications is even bigger, at somewhere between 30 and 40 percentage points. Graduates are mostly inclined to vote to remain, while many of those without any educational qualifications say that they want to leave. More broadly, remaining in the EU is relatively popular amongst those with at least some kind of post school leaving age qualification, whereas leaving is relatively popular amongst those whose highest qualification is that which would normally be obtained by the age of 16.

These big differences in attitudes indicate that the referendum is not just a debate about Britain’s relationship with the EU. It also reflects important social divisions within Britain. On one side of the divide are those who are capable of doing well in today’s globalised world and who are relatively comfortable with the cultural diversity this world can create. On the other side are those who feel they lose out from globalisation and are less comfortable with its cultural diversity. The eventual outcome will not only determine whether or not Britain remains in the EU, but will also tell us a lot about what kind of country we think we should be.

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Read the full analysis paper:

Britain Divided? Who Supports and Who Opposes EU Membership



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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