The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

07 Nov 2016


UK-EU Relations


New research uncovers the reasons why the Remain campaign failed to convince enough voters of economic case to stay in the EU

A combination of a lack of trust in politicians and experts and a failure to believe in the economic benefits of EU membership mean that it is not inevitable that the public would turn against Brexit if faced with an economic downturn, Prof John Curtice argues in a new paper published today by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).

Findings from a host of post-referendum polling show that if you thought the economy would be worse after Brexit you voted Remain and if you thought it would be better you voted Leave. As a result, had the Remain campaign convinced more than 50% of voters that Brexit would undermine the economy, Britain would most likely have voted to stay in the EU.

However, during the referendum polls and surveys consistently found that well under half the public believed that Britain’s economy would suffer if the UK left the EU.

The paper published as part of the ESRC-funded What UK Thinks: EU project uncovers the reasons why the Remain campaign failed to convince enough voters of the economic case to stay in the EU:

  • Past EU performance: The public were not convinced that Britain had benefitted economically from the EU in the past or would do so in future. This made it harder to persuade them that the economy would suffer if we left.
  • Remain leaders failed to convince: More people liked and trusted Boris Johnson than either David Cameron or George Osborne. Moreover, even those who liked David Cameron were not persuaded that leaving the EU would damage the economy. In contrast, those who liked Boris Johnson were more likely to believe that Brexit would not lead to an economic downturn.
  • Enough of experts: Many voters were disinclined to trust the views of the views of “experts” from the worlds of finance and economics on the question of Britain’s membership of the EU.
  • An inseparable debate: Concerns about immigration and identity were so central to the public’s views about the EU that they influenced the way people saw the economic case for Brexit too. Voters were not necessarily willing to focus on the economic arguments alone.

Prof John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow, NatCen argues: “We should not assume that the public will turn against Brexit if economic difficulties follow the vote to leave the EU. Many of those who voted to Leave exhibited a distrust of financial institutions and experts that suggests they could well point the finger of blame instead at those same institutions and experts if markets react adversely to Brexit. That said, they are looking to the government to negotiate a deal that ensures that in the end the consequences are at least economically neutral.”


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