Britain still looks more or less evenly divided on the issue, much as it did before Brexit Day, Sir John Curtice writes.
First published in April 2020.
One of the questions with which historians can be expected to grapple in future is whether the implementation of Brexit at the end of January did or did not reflect the view of a majority of voters. If they conclude that it did, then despite its many twists and turns, the Brexit saga might come to be regarded as a successful exercise in direct democracy. On the other hand, if they decide it did not, historians might be reflecting on how and why the UK left the EU even though by the time the decision was implemented there was no longer a majority in favour.
It might be thought that the outcome of the 2019 general election provides a clear answer to this question. After all, the Conservatives won an overall majority of 80 on the back of a promise to ‘get Brexit done’. However, only 47% of the votes cast in Great Britain were cast for parties (that is the Conservatives and the Brexit Party) that were in favour of the implementation of Brexit. In contrast, 52% were cast for parties that were willing to put the issue to another referendum. Meanwhile, the last half dozen polls of how people might have voted in another referendum to be conducted before the UK’s departure on 31 January on average put Remain on 53% and Leave on 47%.
In short, it is far from immediately obvious that the majority for Brexit that was registered in June 2016 was still in place three and a half years later.
However, there is another way in which we can approach this issue. Even if we might wonder whether there was a majority in favour of leaving when the decision to do so was implemented, it might still be the case that once Brexit happened voters soon accommodated themselves to the new reality. As a result, maybe it is already clear that, now we are out of the EU, a majority of voters approve of what has happened.
“Now that we have left, the substantive issue at stake is no longer whether the UK should remain in or leave the EU, but rather whether it should stay out or re-join.”
Meanwhile, of course, events since January – in the form of the coronavirus pandemic – might themselves have had an impact on attitudes towards leaving the EU. Maybe the pandemic has raised new doubts in voters’ minds about the merits of a globalisation process (of which the EU is an exemplar) that seemingly made it very easy for the disease to spread rather rapidly around the world. Or perhaps it has raised doubts about whether the UK is wise to leave the EU single market in a world that could well prove economically more uncertain and fragile than seemed likely a few short weeks ago.
In truth, the coronavirus pandemic has probably made it more difficult to assess how attitudes towards Brexit have evolved since the end of January. Unsurprisingly, the attention of the media and the resources of the polling industry have focused on how the public is reacting to the lockdown, while Brexit has gone on the backburner. As a result, relatively few polls of where the public now stand on Brexit have been undertaken. However, there is just enough evidence for us to come to at least an interim, initial conclusion.
Attempting to assess where public opinion now stands on the principle of the UK being in or out of the EU is far from straightforward. Now that we have left, the substantive issue at stake is no longer whether the UK should remain in or leave the EU, but rather whether it should stay out or re-join. It might therefore be thought that this is the choice that should now be put before respondents. That has certainly been the approach adopted by BMG Research, who on three occasions since the beginning of February have asked people whether the UK should ‘join’ or ‘stay out’ of the UK. Each time rather more have said ‘stay out’ than ‘join’ – on average by 47% to 42% (or 53% to 47% once Don’t Knows are left aside). In contrast, on the last half dozen occasions before the end of January that the company asked the question that appeared on the 2016 referendum ballot paper, on average Remain was ahead of Leave by 54% to 46%.
There is a scattering of other polling that has taken a similar approach – but with rather inconsistent results. Number Cruncher Politics has reported that only 38% now think the UK should join the EU, while 47% indicate that it should not. However, the company never asked people how they would have voted in a second EU referendum on Remain vs. Leave. In contrast, when in early February YouGov (as part of its Eurotrack series) asked people whether they would vote in a referendum to ‘remain outside’ or ‘to join’ the EU, slightly more indicated they would vote to join (42%) than to stay outside (40%). That said, those figures compare with an average level of support of 46% for Remain and 41% for Leave in three Eurotrack polls conducted between October and January, so even this reading might be thought to hint at some reduction in support for EU membership.
In so far as this is the case, BMG’s polls indicate that the principal reason is that those who voted Remain in 2016 are less likely to say that they would vote to join the EU now that the UK has already left than they were to indicate that they would vote Remain prior to the implementation of Brexit. On average, only just under three-quarters (74%) of Remain voters now say they would vote to join the EU, whereas immediately before Brexit 87% said that they would vote Remain. In contrast, Leave voters are as firm as ever in their belief that the UK should be out of the EU – 87% say they would vote to stay out, the same as the 87% who previously said that they would vote to Leave. In short, it appears from this evidence that some Remain voters have indeed accommodated themselves to the prospect of Britain being outside the EU.
However, any survey research is sensitive to the wording of the question asked. Any change to the wording of a question can result in a change in the distribution of responses – and perhaps especially so when, as in this case, the change inverts which option is presented as the status quo (albeit that the change reflects reality). If attitudes really have changed, we should also be able to identify that change when the same question has been asked both before and since the implementation of Brexit.
One question that certainly can and has been asked the same way is YouGov’s oft repeated question that reads, ‘In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?’. In a half dozen readings that the company took between mid-October (after the European Council meeting that agreed to a revised withdrawal deal) and the end of January, on average 41% said that the decision was right and 47% that it was wrong – figures that were little different from those the company had been obtaining for some considerable time. In contrast, in three readings taken since the beginning of February the figures have averaged 43% and 45% respectively. In short, this polling suggests that there might have been some increased support for Brexit since its implementation, but not necessarily on the scale implied by BMG’s research – and not necessarily sufficient to ensure that a majority now believe that the right decision was made.
True, a very similar question to the one posed by YouGov was also recently fielded by Number Cruncher Politics at the end of March. It, in contrast, found that 48% thought that the decision to leave was right while 40% believed it was wrong – different to the position two years previously. On the other hand, when, uniquely, in March Kantar included on their poll a question on whether people would vote to Remain or to Leave, it found that 37% would vote Remain and 34% Leave (the remainder said Don’t Know or that they would not vote), figures that match those that the company had obtained in September and little different from those of 38% Remain, 37% Leave, reported in October. All that we can say is that these fragmentary pieces of evidence do not provide a reliable basis upon which to caveat the picture that has been painted by YouGov.
Like BMG, YouGov’s data suggests that some Remain voters may now have accommodated themselves to Brexit. In the company’s more recent polls 84% of Remain voters said that the decision to leave was wrong, whereas in its last half dozen polls before the end of January that figure stood at 88%. However, this suggests that the proportion who have done so is much smaller than implied by the data collected by BMG. Meanwhile, it may also be the case that a few more Leave voters are now convinced of the choice they made back in 2016; 85% now say that the decision was right, compared with 83% before the end of January.
All in all, the evidence leaves plenty of room for dispute about the extent to which so far at least voters approve of Brexit now that it has happened. While it seems very likely that there has been some increase in support for Brexit, such that a majority might now vote to stay out, whether as a result a majority now think that the decision to leave was the right one is far from clear. All that we can say with any certainty is that Britain still looks more or less evenly divided on the issue, much as it did before Brexit Day. Meanwhile, the division so far at least has proved immune to the coronavirus pandemic. Both the most recent reading from BMG and that from YouGov more or less replicate the results of the polls they conducted between the beginning of February and the introduction of the coronavirus lockdown. It may currently be hidden from view, but the Brexit division is still with us.🔷