The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

Brexit did not come out of nowhere: it marked a culmination of social and political trends emerging over many years, with tensions between an increasingly globalised society and national autonomy, between young and old, and between ‘liberals’ and ‘authoritarians’. Such forces underlie not just Brexit, but also, in different context and in different forms, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of populist parties in Europe.

They also – in different ways – underlined the unexpected result of the 2017 election. In particular, views on both the EU and domestic politics appear to contrast sharply between the generations, with younger voters (particularly students and graduates) more drawn to Remain and the Labour Party.

But while the government was committed to implementing the Brexit vote (albeit with internal divisions about the leaving arrangements), the Labour Party issued what could kindly be described as mixed messages.

This complicated picture suggests dissonance in the views of the younger generation in relation to Brexit and domestic politics, raising several interesting questions: what influenced younger people in their attitudes towards the EU and Brexit; how did such views relate to political preferences in the General Election; and how do they see the prospects for the country and people’s livelihood on leaving the EU?

Our Attitudes to Brexit Questionnaire surveyed current nursing and midwifery pre-registration students at King’s College London. This was a small and by design unrepresentative sample – but we believe it nevertheless sheds considerable light on these questions.

The vast majority of our sample favoured Remain (about 80%) and Labour (70%), as we expected.  But the interesting result was why they did so.  Over three-quarters cited free movement as a benefit of EU membership, with human and employment rights and European identity also ranking highly. Economic benefits lagged far behind.  It was a similar story for the downsides of leaving, with “nationalism and racism” chosen by more than 70%, and the loss of free movement by over 60%.

Figure 1: Voting in EU Referendum

Meanwhile, while the majority of Labour voters saw Brexit policy as quite important in determining their vote, they were split as to what that policy actually was, with a majority thinking that Labour wanted a soft Brexit, but more than a quarter thinking that Labour favoured a second referendum.

It is notable that those who were firmly against Brexit and would like its reversal largely voted for Labour, despite this party’s ambiguity on Brexit and despite the presence of definitively anti-Brexit parties. It is unclear whether this was because they hoped or expected that Labour would shift its stance (which it has done to a limited extent since the election, because they saw no other viable option (the Liberal Democrats still suffer from their association with tuition fees) or because of wider issues.

What is most striking about the results is the importance of values. The perceived benefits of EU membership mostly related to identity and rights (free movement, employment law and human rights), while the economic impact of leaving the EU, including the Single Market and Customs Union, came well down the list.

This contrasts sharply with both the Remain argument in the referendum (in which the supposed economic benefits of EU membership and costs of Brexit were by far the most important element, as emphasised by the Stronger In campaign) and public discourse.

There was similar divergence on the disadvantages of EU membership. Free movement (and perceived lack of control over immigration) was clearly the most unpopular feature of EU membership in the electorate, including among Remain voters.

Figure 2: Voting in General Election 2017

Opposition to free movement was central to the Leave campaign, but in our survey, five times as many respondents regarded free movement as an important benefit of EU membership as perceived it as a significant concern.

Moreover, there was a strong tendency in our sample to not only attribute the Brexit vote to immigration, but also to regard such attitudes as xenophobic.  This suggests that, rather than the EU and Brexit being primarily about economics, trade, and political and regulatory structures, respondents perceived a cultural schism, with Remain on the liberal side and Leave on the illiberal side.

Remain voters in this sample, while promoting values of tolerance and inclusivity, tended to see Brexit voters as inward-looking or racist. Arguably, casting such aspersions is itself divisive, and likely to contribute to ongoing distrust and conflict. Brexit voters in universities and “liberal” circles have persistently complained of being ostracised.

This presents an interesting counterpoint to much public discussion of the Brexit vote, often portrayed as a conflict between the rational, economics-based arguments for Remain (trade and investment), and the identity or values-based (sovereignty and democratic control) arguments for Leave. Our analysis suggests that in this heavily Remain sample, values trump economics.

This ascent of identity and values-based motives over practical concerns is a significant challenge for those (on either side) who frame Brexit as primarily an economic or structural concern, and for those who hope that divisions within British society exposed by Brexit can be bridged in the years ahead.

By Professor Jonathan Portes, senior fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe and Dr Niall McCrae lecturer with research interests in mental healthcare of older people and role development in mental health nursing at Kings College London. This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, which also contains details of the survey instrument and detailed results. In addition, Dr McCrae’s personal view of the wider implications of the results can be found here.


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