The UK was due to leave the EU on March 29, exactly two years after it gave notice to the EU that it wished to leave, and over two and a half years since voters voted by 52% to 48% to leave the EU. During that time, the UK government has been negotiating a treaty that set out the terms and conditions of the country’s withdrawal and an outline agreement on its future relationship with the EU. The conclusion of those negotiations – albeit, as yet at least, one not accepted by the House of Commons – thus marks an important milestone in the Brexit process.
Today we publish two papers that examine how public opinion has evolved during the Brexit process. The first, based on data collected in January and February by NatCen’s random probability mixed mode panel focuses on the post-referendum negotiations. The survey was the latest in a series conducted on an occasional basis since September 2016. It asks how voters’ expectations of what Brexit should contain have evolved during the last two years, how their view of the consequences of leaving has changed, how well they think the Brexit negotiations have been handled, and what they think of the ‘deal’ that was agreed between the UK government and the EU. We use these data to assess whether the Brexit process appears to have been a ‘success’ or a ‘failure’ in the eyes of voters.
The second paper, which is co-authored by Ian Montagu and is based on data collected by the 2018 British Social Attitudes survey (BSA) between July and October last year, is an early release of a chapter that will form part of the next British Social Attitudes report, due to be released in the summer. It assesses the claim that not only did the EU referendum itself serve to polarise public attitudes towards Brexit, but also whether the subsequent Brexit process has served to maintain the divisions exposed by the referendum. Thus, here we are not only interested in how the structure of public attitudes towards the EU has evolved since the referendum, but also in comparing the position now with what it was before the EU referendum took place.
One of the challenges facing the Brexit process from the beginning was that the kind of deal that many voters wanted to emerge was never going to be on offer. In September 2016 nine in ten voters were willing to retain free trade with the EU. However, at the same time, nearly three-quarters felt that EU migrants who wanted to come to Britain to live and work should have to apply to be able to do so, implying that they wanted to see an end to freedom of movement. However, so far as the EU are concerned freedom of movement is an integral part of its single market.
Two years on voters have still not fully accommodated their expectations to this constraint. True, the proportion who think EU migrants should have to apply to come to Britain has fallen to around three in five. Nevertheless, just over a half (53%) of voters still say that they would like to be able to control EU migration but are happy to keep free trade. That is not a backdrop against which it was ever going to be easy for the politicians to emerge with a deal that would satisfy Britain’s voters.
And so it has proved. The longer the Brexit process has gone on, the more critical and pessimistic voters have become. This trend is in evidence, above all, among those who voted in June 2016 to Leave the EU. Indeed, Leave voters have emerged from the process almost as critical of its handling and of the outcome as those who voted to Remain.
Many voters lacked confidence in the government’s handling of Brexit from the beginning. Back in February 2017, shortly after the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in which she set out her vision of how Brexit should proceed and not long before the UK gave formal notice of its intention to leave the EU, only 29% felt that the UK government was handling Brexit well, while as many as 41% reckoned it was doing so badly. However, much of the criticism came from those who voted Remain. Among those who actually voted to leave the EU, rather more felt the government was handling Brexit well (42%) than believed it was doing so badly (27%).
But now, two years later, there is almost a consensus that the government has been handling Brexit badly. Among voters as whole, just 7% believe that the government has handled Brexit well, while 81% reckon it has done so badly. The 85% of Remain voters who now think Brexit has been handled badly are joined in that view by 80% of Leave supporters. Indeed, just how profound the loss of confidence among Leave voters has been is indicated by the fact that they are now as critical of the UK government’s handling of Brexit as they are of the EU’s role in the negotiations.
As confidence in the UK government’s handling of Brexit has fallen away, so also have evaluations of the outcome of the negotiations. Two years ago, almost as many people thought that Britain would secure a good deal from the negotiations (33%) as reckoned it would obtain a bad one (37%). Leave voters in particular were relatively optimistic, with half (50%) expecting the government to deliver a good deal, and only one in five (20%) anticipating a bad one.
These initial hopes did not survive long. As early as autumn 2017, the proportion of voters expecting a bad deal had already increased to over a half (52%). Eventual publication of the proposed deal in November 2018 did nothing to reverse that trend. In our latest survey, nearly two-thirds of all voters (63%) think that Britain has acquired a bad deal. And Leave voters (66% of whom think it is a bad deal) are just as likely as Remain supporters (64%) to express that view.
Not that all expectations of what Brexit might bring have diminished during the negotiations. In the autumn of 2016, 38% said that they thought immigration would fall as a result of leaving the EU, and that figure has more or less held steady ever since, with 39% expressing that view in our latest survey. However, a public that was relatively pessimistic about the economic consequences of Brexit has become more so. The proportion who think the economy will be worse off as a result of Brexit has increased from 45% in the autumn of 2016 to 58% now. Conversely, the proportion who think it will be better off has fallen from 30% to 19%. The trend has occurred primarily among Leave voters, though at 41% the proportion who think that the economy will be better off still outnumbers the proportion who anticipate that it will be worse off – and on this topic at least the views of Leave supporters and their Remain counterparts are very different from each other.
So also, in truth, are the reasons why Remain voters and Leave supporters dislike the deal that has been negotiated. Most of those who voted Remain (70%) feel that the deal would mean that Britain had too distant a relationship with the EU. In contrast, Leave voters are more inclined to feel that the deal would result in a relationship that was too close (39%) than believe it would lead to one that was too distant (26%), though evidently the deal has been at risk of being criticised from both ends of the spectrum so far as Leave voters are concerned. But then turning support for the principle of Brexit into backing for its implementation was never necessarily going to be easy.
The BSA chapter examines two possible meanings of ‘polarisation’. The first is that the pattern of support for leaving the EU not only became more distinctive during the referendum (as we might anticipate), but that it has continued to be so during the subsequent post-referendum debate about what Brexit should mean (when we might have expected the impact of the referendum to have dissipated). The second is that many voters have become strongly attached to either the Remain or the Leave side, and that these voters have especially different outlooks and identities. Moreover, this pattern might have emerged even though very few voters feel very strongly attached to any of the political parties, suggesting that Brexit has created a new set of political loyalties that could potentially disrupt the existing party system.
Polarisation appears to have occurred in both senses, and helps explain why relatively few voters have changed their minds about the principle of Brexit. For example, the difference between younger (aged less than 35) and older voters (aged 55 and over) in the level of support for leaving the EU increased from 17 points before the referendum in 2017, to 26 points in 2017, and now stands at 30 points. Similarly, whereas in 2015 there was a 21-point difference between those with a strong European identity and those with a weak one in their level of support for leaving the EU, by 2017 that difference had increased to 37 points and now still stands at 36 points. A similar picture emerges if we compare the attitudes of Remain and Leave voters towards the impact of immigration on Britain’s cultural life.
Meanwhile, the BSA survey confirms the finding that we reported last autumn using the NatCen panel that around two in five voters (40%) regard themselves as either a very strong ‘Remainer’ or as a ‘very strong’ Leaver. In contrast, fewer than one in ten (8%), describe themselves as a ‘very strong’ supporter of any of the political parties. Moreover, the views of ‘very strong’ Remainers and ‘very strong’ Leavers are often very distinctive. For example, ‘very strong’ Remainers are the only group among whom those with a strong European identity (63%) outnumber those with a weak identity (23%). They are also the only group where more people disagree (58%) than agree (22%) that being a member of the EU limits Britain’s ability to make its own laws. Meanwhile ‘very strong’ Leavers are the only voters among whom more than half think that leaving the EU will help make Britain’s economy better off (71%) and will ensure that Britain has more influence in the world (57%). Ardent Remainers and Leavers, including those willing to march for their respective causes (see here and here), may well be commonplace, but they are often out of tune with their fellow citizens, while crafting a deal that might satisfy them both would seem well nigh impossible.