The issue of sovereignty lies at the heart of the debate over Britain’s membership of the EU.
According to Lord Ashcroft’s referendum-day poll, the most commonly cited reason for voting Leave was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be made in the UK”.
Likewise, when respondents in the British Election Study (BES) internet panel were asked, “what matters most to you when deciding how to vote in the EU referendum?”, the modal response among Leave voters was ‘sovereignty’ or one if its various synonyms (e.g., ‘control’ or ‘laws’).
In fact, the whole EU debate arguably comes down to whether Britain should continue pooling its sovereignty with 27 other member states, or should reaffirm its national sovereignty by leaving.
As part of our on-going study of attitudes to the Brexit negotiations, we asked respondents whether each of four policies “should mainly be decided” at the European level, the national level, the devolved level (e.g., Wales or England) or at the regional level (e.g., the North East or London).
The four policies were: ‘level of immigration’, ‘taxation’, ‘agriculture and fisheries’, and ‘protecting the environment’. Results for Leave supporters (those who voted Leave, or say they would have done so if they had voted) are shown in Figure 1, while equivalent results for Remain supporters are shown in Figure 2.
As expected, the vast majority of Leave supporters think that all four policies should be decided at the national or sub-national levels.
More surprisingly, the majority of Remain supporters also think that all four policies should be decided at the national or sub-national levels. The percentage of Remain supporters who support decision-making at the European level is 44% for ‘protecting the environment’, 31% for ‘agriculture and fisheries’, 23% for ‘level of immigration’ and only 10% for ‘taxation’.
Figure 1: Support for decision-making at different levels among Leave supporters
Figure 2: Support for decision-making at different levels among Remain supporters
These results suggest that even most Remain supporters attach quite a lot of importance to national sovereignty.
Indeed, in both Lord Ashcroft’s referendum-day poll and the BES internet panel, by far the most frequently given reason for voting Remain was the ‘economy’, rather than anything positive about the EU itself.
One possible reason why so few of the Remain supporters in our sample appear to support decision-making at the European level is that we used the phrase “should mainly be decided”, and most Remain supporters may consider the current balance of competences to be satisfactory.
Another possible reason is that some Remain supporters may be unaware that the EU plays any role in areas of policy like, say, agriculture and fisheries.
Indeed, research by Simon Hix shows that Britons are less knowledgeable about the EU than citizens of any member state. For example, nearly half of Britons were unaware that “The EU currently consists of 28 member states”.
An important caveat is that our question included only one supra-national response category (i.e., ‘European level’) but three national or sub-national response categories. Any tendency for people to avoid extreme responding will therefore have resulted in a lower overall percentage in the supra- national response category.
We were also interested in whether decision-making preferences differed between English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish people.
Support for decision-making at the European and regional levels did not differ substantially by country of residence, except that Northern Irish people were more likely to support decision-making at the European level for immigration. But support for decision-making at the devolved level was significantly different, as Figure 3 shows.
Figure 3: Support for decision-making at the devolved level by country of residence
Interestingly, support for decision-making at the devolved level is considerably higher in Scotland and Northern Ireland than it is in Wales or England. It is particularly low in England, which is probably attributable to the fact that there is currently no devolved assembly in England.
We checked to see whether support for decision-making at the devolved level differed between Leave and Remain supporters within each country of residence.
For example, we suspected that English Leave supporters might be more supportive of decision-making at the devolved level than English Remain supporters. However, all such differences were small, and the vast majority were not significant.
In conclusion, the majority of respondents in our sample think that all four policies should be decided at the national or sub-national level, rather than the European level.
Support for decision-making at the European level is somewhat higher among Remain supporters, while support for decision-making at the devolved level is somewhat higher among Scottish and Northern Irish people.
By Noah Carl, Postdoctoral Researcher at Nuffield College, University of Oxford; and Anthony Heath, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Nuffield College, University of Oxford.