The Economics of Brexit in Voters’ Eyes

Posted on 7 November 2016 by John Curtice

Or, Why the Remain Campaign Failed.

During the EU referendum, the centrepiece of the Remain campaign was that it was in the UK’s economic interest to continue to be a member of the European club. Yet, in the event, this argument proved insufficient to win the day for those advocating a Remain vote. In a new analysis paper published today, we look at why this proved to be the case – and what the lessons might be for how the public are likely to view the debate that is now ensuing about the relative merits of a ‘hard’ and a ‘soft’ Brexit.

One point is immediately clear. Perceptions of the economic consequences of Brexit did matter to voters. Polls consistently found that at least nine in ten of those who thought that Britain’s economy would suffer if it left the EU voted to Remain while, conversely, nine in ten of those who thought the economy would profit from exiting voted to Leave. The Remain side did not lose because people simply preferred to ignore the economic consequences of leaving.

Rather, its problem was more profound. Too few people accepted the Remain side’s argument that the economy would lose out in the event of a vote to Leave. True, voters were more likely to think that the economy would suffer than believed it would prosper.  But this observation was to miss the vital point that it was still the case that well under half actually thought the economy would suffer. Many simply reckoned it would not make much difference either way – and they were much more likely to vote to Leave than to Remain.

So why was the Remain campaign relatively ineffective at getting its economic argument across? The paper identifies three key explanations.

First, voters were not especially persuaded that the EU had brought Britain much economic benefit in the first place, or that it would do so in future. Just as many held a sceptical view of the economic consequences of membership as reckoned they were beneficial. Inevitably it was more difficult to persuade these sceptics that leaving the EU would be a risky endeavour.

Second, both the politicians and the ‘experts’ that were prominent in promulgating the Remain side’s economic case proved relatively unpersuasive. Around one in three voters said they preferred to trust the wisdom of ‘ordinary people’ than the opinions of experts. Around two in five said they distrusted the views in the EU debate of economists, well-known businessmen and the Bank of England. Again such scepticism disinclined people to accept the view that leaving the EU would be an economically harmful step to take.

Meanwhile, David Cameron was less well liked and less likely to be trusted than Boris Johnson. Equally, George Osborne was outshone by Michael Gove. But even more importantly, those who liked the then Prime Minister were no more likely than those who did not to be persuaded that the economy would be worse if Britain left the EU – suggesting that Mr Cameron struggled to take his usual supporters with him on the question of EU membership.

Third, the Remain side’s hope that voters could be persuaded to focus on the economic arguments for staying in the EU and put aside whatever other doubts they might have proved to be forlorn. Those who felt that immigration should be reduced and those who felt that being in the EU undermined Britain’s sense of identity were also less likely to believe that Britain would lose out economically if it left the EU. Voters seem to have evaluated the EU as a collective package rather than a set of separable advantages and disadvantages that should be weighed up against each other.

These findings have important implications for the debate about the form that Brexit should take. First, a deal with the EU in which Britain secures membership of the single market in return for accepting the EU’s current freedom of movement provisions seems unlikely to secure popular approval. There would, at present at least, seem to be too few voters who are convinced of the economic benefits of the EU for that to be a widely acceptable outcome. Meanwhile, if Brexit does result in economic turbulence perhaps we should not assume that voters will change their minds on the merits of leaving rather than point the finger of blame at those financial institutions and experts whom many are apparently disinclined to trust in the first place.

Still, that said, few voted on June 23rd in the belief that their choice would make Britain poorer. Most reckoned that their choice would be economically neutral. Ensuring that this is what happens in the wake of Brexit is the challenge with which a majority of voters have apparently presented their government.


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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