However the issue is addressed, Britain still looks deeply divided over Brexit, Sir John Curtice writes.
First published in November 2020.
Last year the headlines were dominated by Brexit. This year the issue has only sporadically made it onto the news agenda. This is despite the fact that an agreement has still not been reached between the UK and the EU about their future relationship – and the cliff edge that will come with the end of the transition period at the year’s close is now well within sight.
Much of the explanation for the inattention lies, of course, in the public health crisis occasioned by COVID-19. At the same time, however, the political parties have seemingly been content for the issue to be left alone. So far as the government is concerned, Brexit was ‘done’ at the end of January, while the talks are presented as being less than crucial because the UK is willing to exit without a deal anyway. Meanwhile both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have given the impression that they would now prefer to avoid an issue that they feel contributed to their defeat in last year’s general election. From their perspective, it looks much easier to focus on the government’s apparent difficulties in dealing with coronavirus.
Against this backdrop one might conclude that despite the intensity of the debate just a year ago, Brexit has gone off the boil – and that consequently voters’ interest and attention has moved on too. After all, given that Brexit has happened and the parties are no longer discussing the issue, one might not unreasonably anticipate that the passion and division that Brexit once occasioned among the public has also begun to wane too – and that perhaps Remain voters in particular have begun to accommodate themselves to the fact that Brexit has happened.
This is the question that is addressed in a new analysis paper, in which we report the largely hitherto unreported results of five surveys about Brexit that have been administered on NatCen’s mixed mode random probability panel during the last eighteen months, including most recently in July this year. In many instances these surveys repeated questions that also appeared on one or more of six surveys that we conducted previously during the initial negotiations about the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. As a result, the report also presents a unique record of how public attitudes towards Brexit have evolved during the course of the four years since the EU referendum.
There is some evidence that Brexit may not be quite the divisive issue it was a year ago. In particular, there is a noticeable tendency for voters now to be more likely to opt for the middle option in response to our questions. For example, voters are now more likely to say that leaving the EU will not make much difference either way to the economy and that Britain will secure neither a good nor a bad deal. Similarly, voters have become more likely to say that they are neither in favour nor opposed to requiring EU migrants to have to apply to come to the UK (and thus end freedom of movement) and that they neither support nor are against the introduction of tariffs on goods imported from the EU.
It is also the case that the sense of commitment to being a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’ has weakened somewhat. As many as 14% now say that they do not identify with either label – up from the 9% that we consistently recorded during 2019. At the same time, the proportion who say they are a ‘very strong’ Remainer or a ‘very strong’ Leaver has dipped from a high of 46% to 39% now.
Even so, people are still far more likely to say that they identify ‘very strongly’ with one side or the other in the Brexit debate than they are with any of the political parties. Only 9% feel that way about a party. As many as 28% do not identify with a party at all.
Meanwhile there is only limited evidence that Remain voters are beginning to adjust to the fact that the UK has left the EU. Faced with the same choice between Remain and Leave with which they were presented in 2016, as many as 87% of 2016 Remain voters say they would vote the same way as they did four years ago. This figure is little different from the one we obtained before Brexit happened (and is somewhat above the 80% of 2016 Leave voters who say they would vote the same way). True, when presented with the choice between ‘rejoining’ or ‘staying out’ of the EU, the proportion of Remain voters who say they would vote to rejoin slips to 80% (while 84% of Leave voters would back staying out), but even so it is evidently still very much a minority of Remain voters who, whatever their original preference, would now stick with the new status quo.
At the same time, there is no consistent evidence in the responses to our more detailed questions that Remain voters’ perceptions of what Brexit will bring or their preferences for what they would like to see emerge from the Brexit talks have converged towards the views already held by Leave voters. In short, however the issue is addressed, Britain still looks deeply divided over Brexit.
Moreover, this divide is even more strongly related to how people voted in last December’s election than most analysis has previously suggested. In our post-election survey, we found that 75% of those who backed Leave in 2016 voted for the Conservatives, while just 20% of those who had supported Remain 2016 did so, figures that are in line with those of other surveys. However, if instead of looking at how people voted in 2016 we analyse how people voted according to their current view on Brexit, the gap between these two figures is even bigger – 79% of those who would currently support Leave voted Conservative and just 15% of those who would back Remain.
A similar pattern is also in evidence in respect of Labour’s support. While our survey found that 45% of 2016 Remain voters backed Labour in the election, that figure rises to 48% among those who currently support Remain. Conversely, the party’s already low level of 15% support among 2016 Leave voters dips to just 12% among those who would currently vote Leave.
Although among voters as a whole relatively few have changed their minds about Brexit, those whose vote in the 2016 referendum was at odds with their party preference in 2019 were more likely to do so. Some 24% of those who voted Labour in 2019 after having voted Leave in 2016 had in the meantime switched in favour of Remain, while as many as 28% of those who voted Conservative after having supported Remain in 2016 were now in the Leave camp. Some of those voters whose vote choice was at odds with their vote in the Brexit referendum seemingly resolved the tension by changing their minds on Brexit.
Against this backdrop, it may be asked how long will the party political truce about Brexit last – especially now that it seems possible that next year will bring a resolution to the coronavirus crisis. The Conservatives’ fortunes would appear to be very heavily invested in delivering what Leave voters come to regard as a successful Brexit. That has long been clear. But equally, while Labour would like to reconnect with its lost working-class Leave voters, the party is now very heavily dependent on a pro-Remain electorate that so far at least shows relatively little sign of being resigned to Brexit – and which may expect its views to be represented in post-Brexit post-pandemic Britain.🔷
Sir John Curtice, political scientist, Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University.