To date, the opinion polls have left us a very uncertain picture of the referendum race. Most phone polls suggest that Remain are well ahead, while nearly every internet poll reckons the two sides are more or less neck and neck. Meanwhile, relatively few polls have asked enough questions about people’s perceptions of the consequences of being in or out of the European Union (EU) to give us much clue about what are the key motivations behind voters’ inclinations to Remain or to Leave.
That latter gap is filled today by the publication of a paper on attitudes to the EU that is based on previously unpublished data collected by the 2015 British Social Attitudes survey (BSA). Unlike opinion polls, BSA is not conducted over just a day or two, but rather over months – in this case between July and the beginning of November last year. The 2015 survey thus cannot tell us anything about the latest twists and turns in referendum vote intention – indeed the question that will appear on the ballot paper was not even settled when interviewing for BSA began. However, we do have the reassurance that, as attested by the survey’s ability to replicate last year’s election result, BSA’s more measured approach is, in contrast to the polls, able to obtain a politically representative sample. Meanwhile, because the survey asked a wide range of questions about the EU, it casts new light on what might perhaps the key question about what voters will do in this referendum – what turns a Eurosceptic into a backer of Brexit?
For the level of support for the two propositions is certainly very different. First of all, when BSA asked whether ‘Britain should continue to be a member of the European Union or should it withdraw?’, just 30% said it should withdraw. Twice as many, 60%, said continue. Such figures suggest that antipathy towards the EU is decidedly a minority mood, albeit one that is more common now than it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Yet scepticism about Europe is widespread. Apart from asking whether or not Britain should remain in the EU, BSA also presented its respondents with five different options for Britain’s relationship with Europe. The most popular by far, chosen by 43% was that Britain ‘should stay in the EU and try to reduce the EU’s powers’ – which perhaps is precisely what David Cameron has been trying to achieve in his renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership. In addition, 22% insisted that Britain should leave the EU, even when presented with the option of backing a less powerful EU.
In short although less than one in three voters believe that Britain should ‘withdraw’ from the EU, nearly two in three (65%) can be regarded as Eurosceptics, that is they want Britain to have a looser relationship with the institution than it enjoys at present, if indeed it has any relationship at all.
This sharp contrast suggests that the outcome of the referendum will turn on how many Eurosceptics can be persuaded to vote to Leave. So what distinguishes the two groups?
The answer can be found by looking at the pattern of responses to two of the in-depth questions included in the 2015 survey. The first of these addresses people’s views about the ‘cultural’ impact of the EU, that is its perceived impact on Britain’s distinctive sense of identity, not least perhaps because of the implications of EU membership for sovereignty and immigration. Concern about this issue appears to be widespread. Nearly half (47%) agree that ‘being a member of the European Union is undermining Britain’s distinctive identity, while only 30% disagree.
But while many are concerned about the cultural consequences of being in the EU, many are also seemingly worried about the economic consequences of leaving. No less than 40% say that Britain’s economy would be worse off if it were to leave the EU, while just 24% believe it would be better off. So far this is an argument that the Leave side have not managed to win.
It is a crucial argument. Eurosceptics share the widespread concern about the cultural consequences of EU membership but many of them remain to be persuaded of the economic case for leaving. And unless they are, they seem unlikely to vote to Leave.
Almost everyone (86%) who is concerned about the cultural consequences of EU membership is a Eurosceptic. At the same time, nearly two-thirds (62%) of all those who are Eurosceptic express concern about this issue – so pervasive is Euroscepticism that even some people who are not particularly concerned about the impact of EU membership on Britain’s sense of identity would also like Britain to have a looser arrangement with the rest of the EU.
But many who express concern about the impact of EU membership on Britain’s identity do not back withdrawing from the EU; only somewhat over half (56%) actually do so. Something is evidently holding many of them back from converting that concern into support for withdrawal. In contrast, amongst the minority who think the country would be better off economically, support for withdrawal stands at nearly three-quarters (72%). However, crucially, only around a third of Eurosceptics (32%) actually think that Britain’s economy would be better if the country left the EU. Indeed, at least as many (34%) actually believe it would be worse.
The implication is clear. The outcome of the referendum is likely to turn above all on which option voters eventually decide offers the better economic prospects – remaining in the EU or leaving. If they were to be persuaded – as many have yet to be – that Britain would be better off leaving then the country is highly likely to vote to Leave. But if they are not so convinced, they may well overcome their not inconsiderable doubts about what much of the EU says and does, and opt to Remain. Both sides have an awful lot of persuading and reassuring to do in the weeks ahead.
By John Curtice
John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.