The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

25 Jan 2021

Politics and Society

There is no doubt that the choices made by voters in the 2016 referendum have continued to shape public opinion in the period since, but these choices were themselves a reflection of long term social and political changes in the UK.

Those who voted Remain were more likely to have degree-level qualifications, were on average younger and were more likely to occupy socially liberal positions on issues such as immigration and law and order.

Meanwhile those who voted Leave were less likely to have experienced higher education, were on average older and occupied less liberal positions on social issues.

These divides had long been present in the electorate, but the referendum gave the divides a name and clear boundary allowing them to become a source of political identity as well as political preferences.

In our Beyond Brexit report several of the pieces on public opinion point to the relative strength of identification as a ‘Leaver’ or ‘Remainer’ relative to identification with a political party.

Party identity had been in decline for some time prior to the 2016 referendum, with voters both less likely to identify with a party, and less likely to do so strongly than they had been in the mid twentieth century, Brexit identity on the other hand was felt keenly and a constant source of political division in the period from 2016 – 2019.

Given the strength of Brexit identities and the pattern of voting in the 2019 General Election, it seemed at the start of 2020 that UK politics had largely realigned itself along these lines and that the two-party system was set to dominate English politics again, this time aligned more closely to a divide that some saw as similar to the so-called ‘culture wars’ that were prevalent in US politics.

Patterns in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also related to Brexit identities but in different ways.

Ed Fieldhouse describes the Brexit referendum as one of a series of ‘electoral shocks’ that have occurred in British politics over the last 20 years.

The global coronavirus pandemic, that changed so much about the lives of the electorate in 2020, may also be thought of in these terms.

Duffy shows how this new crisis has both the potential to unite the electorate, as it did in the early weeks of the lockdowns in the UK, and to divide the electorate along new lines.

However, research drawing on data collected so far in the pandemic suggests that within the electorate there is not a simple relationship between the ‘Brexit’ divides that dominated at the end of 2019 and views about the pandemic that now dominate discussion in the public sphere.

In terms of the social and political values of the electorate, the response to the pandemic correlates more closely to the ‘old’ divides of left and right than the ‘new’ divides of Leave and Remain (or social liberal-authoritarian more generally).

This, coupled with a deep economic aftershock following the pandemic, seems likely to ensure that economic divides are more prominent in the next four years than they have been in the previous four, but at the same time it is unlikely that the Brexit divide will entirely disappear.

With the effects of the Brexit deal beginning to be felt in 2021, and the potential for the deal to be revisited at around the time of the next general election it seems very likely that both divides will be important for understanding public opinion over the next period.

This is more likely to lead to distinct fragments within the electorate, highlighting divisions within the leave and remain coalitions in a similar way that the Brexit divide revealed fault lines within the economic left and right, and the coalition of voters in the Conservative and Labour parties.

Long-term demographic change also matters for understanding how this divide might develop over the coming years.

Those eligible to vote for the first time at a General Election in 2024 were just 10 years old at the time of the referendum, and have been hard-hit by the crisis related to the pandemic even before the impact on the economy is felt more widely.

The pandemic also has a more complex relationship with other demographic trends, notably ethnicity.

As Jennings argues the coming year will see an interaction between different competence judgements (on Covid-19 and on Brexit) in the context of declining public trust in politicians. All this suggests that simple readings across from Brexit to attitudes to the Covid-19 crisis should be avoided.

While the electorate have become more fragmented and, in many cases, ‘cross-pressured’ with their economic and social (or Brexit) positions at odds, one key binary issue remains unresolved, the issue of Scottish independence.

As Ailsa Henderson and John Curtice argue, the relative unpopularity of Brexit and the Conservative Government (particularly Boris Johnson) have led to a further increase in support for the SNP in Scotland, who are likely to win a comfortable majority of the vote in the Scottish Parliament elections (due in May 2021) adding to pressure for a new Scottish independence referendum in this Parliament.

While Brexit may be ‘done’, the long-term differences which were crystallized around it will continue to shape British politics but they are far from the only influences.

How the electorate responds to politics over the next four years will depend not only on their Brexit identities, but also their economic values, their welfare preferences, their experiences of the pandemic and post-pandemic recovery and how the parties seek to mobilise these different elements to build their own coalitions from the fragments of the political space.

By Paula Surridge, Deputy Director of the UK in a Changing Europe and Senior Lecturer at Bristol university. You can read the full report ‘Brexit and Beyond’ here.

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