New report on Brexit and public opinion reveals profound divisions in the UK

The United Kingdom is a country divided: alongside divisions around class, place, age, a values divide is emerging which could dramatically impact on politics in the years to come, a comprehensive report on Brexit and public opinion reveals.

Nineteen months on from the EU referendum, the report ‘Brexit and public opinion’ by The UK in a Changing Europe, underlines the divisions in UK society:

  • The emergence of a values divide around differing attitudes to diversity
  • Brexit has created new political identities: Leavers and Remainers view the world through prisms which shape their receptiveness to evidence based arguments
  • The generations are divided: 73% of 18-24 year olds voted Remain; 60% of over 65s voted Leave. This division has grown even more stark following the general election and is turning into a political cleavage
  • Brexit exposed the growing distinction between public attitudes in towns and cities, which relates to their contrasting economic trajectories: areas that experienced the most decline in recent decades voted Leave; whereas areas of relative growth were more likely to vote Remain
  • Divisions exist between the individual nations of the UK over fundamental constitutional questions
  • Divisions are also apparent between party leaders and their MPs.

On the day the report is being released (Wednesday 31 January) The UK in a Changing Europe is holding a major conference on Brexit and public opinion which includes keynote speeches from Sir John Curtice and Chris Wilkins, Theresa May’s former strategy director and speechwriter.

The report highlights a potentially emergent divide. Those who thought equal opportunities for ethnic minorities have gone too far voted heavily for Leave; those who felt equal opportunities have not gone far enough were much more likely to have voted Remain. The report warns that the robust link between views about ethnic equality and votes in the EU referendum could be a sign of an emergent values divide in the UK.

Professor Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe, said: “The referendum highlighted fundamental divisions in British society and superimposed a leave-remain distinction over them. This has the potential to profoundly disrupt out politics in the years to come.

“There’s little evidence to support the prime minister’s statement that ‘the country has come together after Brexit’. Instead she is presiding over a divided and polarized nation.”

The 17 chapter, 56 page report is written by 27 academics and is the most comprehensive and authoritative analysis of Brexit and public opinion to date. It analyses the referendum, last year’s general election, emerging Brexit identities and the public’s views of the Brexit negotiations.

Authors make several arguments as to why it is highly unlikely people will change their minds about the UK leaving the EU for three reasons:

  1. people’s preferences about EU membership are tied up with values, which are entrenched and unlikely to shift
  2. ‘confirmation bias’ leads Remainers and Leavers to discount information that does not correspond with their values
  3. for many Leavers, the attraction of Brexit was about identity politics more than economic calculus

Most of the academics who contributed to the report are part of The UK in a Changing Europe, including John Curtice, Matthew Goodwin, Sara Hobolt, Rob Ford, Anand Menon and Maria Sobolewska.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

View all analyses
  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    It may be unlikely that most people will change their minds, but I get the impression that enough have to change the direction of voting in another referendum.

  • Tim Webster

    “for many Leavers, the attraction of Brexit was about identity politics more than economic calculus” – ie racism.

    • David Reardon

      Which pro-EU source did you cut and paste that from? I voted to leave the EU and yes, it was a matter of identity. But my identity as British, NOT European!

      • Elinor Shelley

        I live and work in France. My British identity is a very strong element of who I am but it doesn’t prevent me from being a European as well. I embrace cultural difference as well as valuing my roots. These things aren’t mutually exclusive. One doesn’t have to choose between being British OR European; it’s possible to be both simultaneously.

        • David Reardon

          I have to disagree because you seem to be confusing nationality with feeling. While it is perfectly possible to have dual nationality (e.g. French and British), Europe is a continent and not a nation. Therefore you cannot have European nationality.

          Personally, and in keeping with my first sentence above, I do not feel (and never have felt) European despite the fact that I travel to Europe frequently and speak French, German, Dutch and Italian.

          That said, I am NOT coming at this from a nationalist viewpoint but from the position of someone whose Britishness means more to him than belonging to a project like the EU, especially when the ultimate aim of that project is to eventually deprive all citizens of their national identity by subsuming the Member States into a supranational ‘country’ – as specifically detailed in all the EU treaties and in various speeches by senior EU officials such as Commission president Juncker.

          • Charles Webb

            Please tell us all what Britishness means when you are not nationalist?

          • David Reardon

            Britishness is having the belief that, while our country is no different to any other country, there is still, nonetheless, something special (for want of a better word) about these islands.

            For me it is the belief that:

            1. We may be small nation but that doesn’t stop us from having a certain prestige and importance;

            2. Again, although we are a small nation, we do more than most to help those who need it;

            3. The the totality of our history is something we can be rightly proud of – despite some very dark episodes like the slave trade;

            4. We are (and are seen as) the champions of the underdog;

            5. Despite its problems, our way of life is looked upon as something to be aimed for by many other countries;

            6. Despite the differences between us (e.g. the North/South divide), when it comes to it we all stick together – something which, for instance, the people of the French regions have never been able to do.

            There are many more but I hope you get the idea.

            Nationalism, on the other hand, is the belief that your country is better than any other, which is something that I have NEVER felt.

          • Hyerophant

            In absence of some proof, I can’t believe you speak so many foreign languages and still voted to leave.

            Your last phrase about the ultimate purpose of the EU suggests you’re nothing but a troll, there’s absolutely no mention in the EU treaties that the aim is to deprive all citizens of their national identity. I dare and challenge you to present me with a single paragraph specifically articulating that. Closer political union-yes, that’s what the UK signed for after the ’73 referendum, it was already in the acquis communautaire by the time we joined so please spare me the ‘that’s not what we signed up for’ BS.

            Lots of people have tried to definite their ‘Britishness’, none succeeded to a satisfactory level. Yours is just a pathetic reminiscence of a long-gone era when Churchill was shouting at De Gaulle ‘whenever I look you and the open sea, I always choose the open sea’.

            And just to debunk a myth your Brexit lot keeps on spewing out: “Europe is a continent and not a nation. Therefore you cannot have European nationality.” – Just go to Norway’s foreign affairs site (

            “When we use the expression ‘EU/EEA national’, we mean a citizen of one of the EU countries or Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland.
            Citizens of the following countries are defined as EU/EEA nationals in our regulations:

            Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Iceland, Italy, Cyprus, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, the UK, Sweden, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary and Austria”


            “Citizenship of the European Union (EU) is afforded to qualifying citizens of European Union member states. It was introduced by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and has been in force since 1993. European Union citizenship is additional to national citizenship.[2] EU citizenship affords rights, freedoms and legal protections to all of its citizens.”

            It is precisely this sort of unsubstantiated drivel that makes me as a Remainer hate your guts.

          • David Reardon

            Obviously, as there is little chance that we will ever meet face-to-face, there is no way that I can prove that I speak Dutch, French, German and Italian. So, on that point, you will have to take my word for it (but having read your response, I doubt you will take my word on anything!)

            But to the points you raise:

            Article 2(1) TFEU:

            When the Treaties confer on the Union exclusive competence in a specific area, only the Union may legislate and adopt legally binding acts, the Member States being able to do so themselves only if so empowered by the Union or for the implementation of Union acts.

            Article 2(3) TFEU:

            The Member States shall coordinate their economic and employment policies within arrangements as determined by this Treaty, which the Union shall have competence to provide.

            Article 2(4) TFEU:

            The Union shall have competence, in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty on European Union, to define and implement a common foreign and security policy, including the progressive framing of a common defence policy.

            There are plenty more like this in the TFEU, the Treaty of Rome, The Treaty of Amsterdam etc. But do not just the above three show that the aim of the EU is to eventually deny the national identity of the member states, and the right to decide national matters for themselves?

            As to 1973, nobody voted then to join what is now the EU because there was no vote.

            In enacting the European Communities Bill 1972 through an ordinary vote in the House of Commons, Ted Heath’s Government breached the constitutional convention which
            requires a prior consultation of the people (either by a general
            election or a referendum) on ANY measure involving
            constitutional change, and a general election or referendum must take place before any related parliamentary debate – although Britain has no straightforward written constitution, the signing of the Common Market entrance documents was, without a doubt, a breach of the spirit of our constitution.

            Just weeks before the 1970 general election which made him Prime Minister, Edward Heath declared (note) that it would be wrong if any Government contemplating membership of the European Community were to take this step without “the full-hearted consent of Parliament and people”.

            However, when it came to it Heath didn’t have a referendum because opinion polls at the time (1972) showed that the British people were hugely opposed (by a margin of two to one) against joining the Common Market. So, Heath merely signed the documents that took us into what became the European Union on the basis that Parliament alone had passed the European Communities Bill of 1972.

            So, when Heath decided to take Britain into the Common Market, he used Parliament’s legal sovereignty to deny and permanently limit the political sovereignty of the electorate. Heath and Parliament changed the basic rules and they did not have the right (legal or moral) to do so. The 1972 European Communities Bill wasn’t just another Act of Parliament and Heath’s Bill used Parliament’s sovereignty, and status as representative of the electorate, to deny the fundamental rights of the electorate.

            And NOWHERE in any of the government-issued information about what joining the Common Market meant did it mention about anyone other than our parliament deciding what laws, rules and regulations would apply; NOWHERE did it mention that some of our VAT returns were to be passed to Brussels; NOWHERE did it mention that we would have to impose tariffs on goods from third countries; and NOWHERE did it mention that the UK would have to accept trade deals because the majority of the members state had accepted them etc. etc!

            So your claim that the British people knew what they were “voting” for is plainly WRONG!

            However, in 1975, when the Government changed, Harold Wilson sought to put right the clear constitutional error by organising a retrospective referendum (which was unprecedented in British history) designed to obtain the permission of the British people for Britain to join something it had already ‘joined’.

            So Wilson’s referendum was inspired solely by the realisation that the consent of the electorate ought first to have been obtained BEFORE we joined the Common Market, and the lack of legitimacy of the European Communities Act led Wilson to hold a referendum in preference to another general election that he almost certainly would have lost.

            But, almost inevitably, the question asked in the referendum was also illegal since voters were asked: “Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?” but the problem with that was that since Heath had ignored the constitutional duties and requirements of Parliament and had signed the entrance documents illegally the words ‘stay in’ were deceptive. We couldn’t stay in the Common Market because, constitutionally, we had never entered (i.e. the UK shouldn’t have entered the Common Market because Parliament did not have the right to sign away our sovereignty).

            The referendum Wilson organised to remedy Heath’s constitutional breach misled the electorate on a simple constitutional issue and was, therefore, itself illegal.

            And you haven’t debunked the “myth” about Europe not being a continent because your very examples actually use the terms “citizen” of one of the EU countries or Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland, citizens of Belgium, Bulgaria etc. etc. Nowhere in any of these does it refer to being a citizen of Europe! Why? Because Europe is NOT a country!

            And “Citizenship of the European Union (EU)” means just that. But then again, the EU is not a country but a bloc of countries that are, apparently, working for a common cause.

            When it comes to Churchill and de Gaulle, this was an exchange of views between two statesmen who simply did not get on. But was it not Churchill who called for a kind of “United States of Europe”? Which shows, to anyone willing to look beyond the political rhetoric that he was more amenable to the idea of something along the lines of the modern EU than de Gaulle?

            Finally, you accuse me of trolling yet use terms like “hate your guts”, which is hardly a frank exchange of reasoned argument!

  • Brian Hanks

    Sir, conferencing the %ages quoted at the beginning of the article, do you mean 73% of all registered voters,etc or 73% of that age bracket who voted; likewise with +65’s. Make clear , otherwise the figures are meaningless. Brian Hanks

Sign up to our newsletter

View our latest newsletter