The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

10 Mar 2023

Public Opinion

UK-EU Relations

John Curtice analyses the latest Redfield and Wilton Strategies/UK in a Changing Europe Brexit tracker poll, examining public attitudes towards ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit options. 

The conclusion of a new agreement between the UK and the EU on  the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland  has fuelled speculation that it might pave the way for some softening of the UK’s relationship with the EU. Public attitudes towards some of the steps that might be taken in that direction was one of the subjects covered by polling undertaken by Redfield & Wilton Strategies for UK in a Changing Europe last December. This month’s polling examines the subject further.

Three of the questions on which we reported in December asked respondents about three possible ways of softening Brexit. The pattern of responses suggested that, while more popular among Remain supporters and those who would like the UK to have a close relationship with the EU, among the public as a whole there was majority support for adopting EU laws and regulations in exchange for the removal of checks, tariffs and barriers to free movement. We concluded that there might be more room for softening Brexit than politicians perhaps realised.

However, do those who support adopting EU rules reject the idea that the UK should have its own rules and regulations, which would mean checks on UK goods entering the EU? Or do we discover a degree of inconsistency in the pattern of people’s responses, raising questions about the firmness of the views that they express?

In their latest poll, Redfield & Wilton repeated the three questions about softening Brexit that were first asked in December but, in addition, also asked three new questions that posited a relatively hard form of Brexit in which the UK has its own laws and regulations rather than following those of the EU. Table 1 shows the detailed wording of and the pattern of response to both sets of questions.

If respondents had firm views on these issues, we would have anticipated that those who supported the proposals for softening Brexit would have opposed the idea that the UK should set its own rules. However, the level of support for the ‘hard’ Brexit propositions is only a little below that for the ‘soft’ ones, while the level of opposition, at around one in six, is strikingly similar in the two halves of the table.

The extent of the inconsistency in the answers given by individual respondents can be seen in Table 2, which shows the level of support for the UK having its own laws and regulations on the manufacture of goods broken down by how people responded to the idea that the UK should adopt EU laws and regulations.

While a majority of those who oppose adopting EU rules on goods also say the UK should have its own rules, as many as a half of those who say they support adopting EU rules also state that the UK should have its own rules. Overall, only 45% of respondents gave a substantively consistent response to the two questions.

The picture is much the same in respect of the other two pairs of items in Table 1. Only 50% were substantively consistent in their responses to the propositions on the regulation of food, while just 38% gave consistent answers to the questions on the movement of persons – not least because in both cases a majority of those who supported the soft Brexit proposal also said they backed the equivalent hard Brexit one.

Two possible explanations come to mind. One is a risk to which all surveys are subject – acquiescence bias, that is, a tendency for respondents to agree rather than disagree with any proposition put to them. This can be particularly evident if respondents do not have very firm views on a subject and/or are attempting to complete a survey quickly, not appreciating that the propositions they are answering are worded in opposite directions.

The other is that many voters would like the UK to have its own rules and, at the same time, for it to be relatively easy for people and goods to move from the UK to the EU – that is, they are disinclined to embrace the trade-offs that are involved in negotiating a relationship with the EU and their response to poll questions depends on which feature is being emphasised.

One way of trying to avoid these difficulties is to invite respondents to choose between opposing propositions. The latest Redfield & Wilton-UK in a Changing Europe poll also adopted this approach by asking:

Is it more important for the United Kingdom to be able to have its own laws and regulations,  or  to be able to trade easily with the European Union?

While 39% said it was more important to trade with the EU, 47% chose the UK having its own laws and regulations. As we might anticipate, those who currently support staying out of the EU are heavily inclined (by 72% to 21%) to say that it is more important for the UK to have its own laws and regulations.

However, while those who would vote to rejoin the EU are, in contrast, more likely to say that trading easily with the EU is more important, the balance of opinion (56% to 32%) is rather more even. This perhaps helps to explain why those who back rejoin are particularly unlikely to give substantively consistent answers to the hard and soft Brexit options in Table 1.

What, though, are the implications for the continuing debate about Britain’s relationship with the EU? First, even after seven years of debate about what Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU should be, many voters appear not to recognise the trade-offs involved.

Second, much depends on framing. Those who want a closer relationship need to persuade voters of the value of being able to trade easily with the EU, while those who prefer a harder Brexit need to focus their attention on sovereignty. The outcome of that debate about priorities is far from guaranteed.

By John Curtice, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe, Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Social Research, and Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde.

This blog is also posted on the What UK Thinks website.

You can download the February 2023 Brexit tracker data tables in full here.


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