Making social science accessible

24 Feb 2021

Politics and Society

So, that’s it. Brexit’s been done. The ‘will of the people’ as expressed in the 2016 referendum has been fulfilled. Britain can now put four years of intense and passionate debate behind it and focus on the opportunities thus created.

But is that what we should necessarily expect? After all, the 1975 referendum failed to end the debate. By the early 1980s Labour was campaigning for withdrawal and by the end of the decade the Conservatives were beginning to tear themselves apart over Europe.

In 1991, LSE academic Alan Sked founded the Anti-Federalist League, the forerunner of UKIP — and the rest is history.

So is the Brexit debate really over, or is its imprint likely to affect our politics for years to come?

Where are we now?

At first glance, a clear and simple answer was provided by the outcome of the 2019 general election. Promising to ‘get Brexit done’, the Conservatives won an overall majority of 80, apparently demonstrating that most voters now hoped it would be.

However, that election was fought under an electoral system that typically produces a mismatch between votes and seats. Only 47% of the votes were cast for parties that backed Brexit. Nearly all the rest (52%) went to parties willing to endorse a second referendum.

The election turned out as it did not because the vote indicated a clear majority for Brexit but because most Leave voters backed the Conservatives while the support of Remain supporters was scattered across a number of different parties.

Meanwhile, polling undertaken since the UK left the EU at the end of January 2020 has failed to provide clear evidence of a new consensus. Seventeen polls have asked people how they would vote if the 2016 referendum were rerun now: on average 52% have said Remain, 48% Leave.

On the other hand, when nine other polls have asked whether Britain should stay out of the EU or re-join, the balance of opinion has been in favour — albeit equally narrowly — of staying out. Yet, when during this period YouGov have asked whether ‘in hindsight’ the decision to leave was right or wrong, more have come to say it was wrong.

Between February and May 2020 on average 42% said it was right and 45% wrong. By October through December the figures were 39% and 49% respectively.

In short, however one looks at the evidence — and is duly mindful of the limitations of polls — Britain still looks to be more or less divided down the middle on Brexit. Indeed, we cannot even be sure that by the time the UK actually left there was still a majority in favour of leaving.

There are two other reasons why the Brexit debate may not disappear soon. First, many voters’ commitment to one side or the other is strong — much stronger than their attachment to any political party.

A NatCen survey in July 2020 found that 39% still said that they were a ‘very strong’ ‘Remainer’ or ‘Leaver’ whereas just 9% indicated that they were a ‘very strong’ supporter of any of the parties.

Second, the age profile of Remain and Leave support suggests that, other things being equal, public opinion could become more favourable to EU membership over time. Support for Brexit is highest among older voters, who for the most part will leave the electorate earlier than the younger voters who form the core of Remain support.

Where are we heading?

Of course, this evidence does no more than suggest that the potential might exist for Brexit to remain an issue on the country’s political stage. Whether or not it will also depends on how the political parties decide to address — or not address — the issue from now on.

During the last year both the Conservatives and Labour have had to adapt to an electoral landscape that has been transformed by the decision of Leave voters in 2017 and (even more so) in 2019 to fall in behind the Conservatives, while Labour has found itself increasingly reliant on the votes of Remain supporters.

In 2019, for every Remain supporter the Conservatives won, the party secured the backing of no less than five Leave supporters, while Labour relied on four Remain supporters for every Leave supporter.

As a result, the traditional class divide in party support has disappeared, and Labour finds itself the most popular party among graduates, with the Conservatives most popular among those with few if any educational qualifications.

In negotiating a relatively ‘hard’ Brexit, the Conservatives appear intent on continuing to try to ride the Leave tiger that delivered the party electoral success in 2019. To retain that support, they will now need to persuade voters that Brexit is proving to be a success.

Labour, in contrast, has seemed to want to end the Brexit debate in the hope that it can win back the support it has lost among Leave-supporting, mostly working-class voters — and thus a return to a more familiar electoral landscape.

However, there is little sign that the party’s silence on Brexit for most of 2020 has proven particularly successful in this respect, and if Brexit proves less than smooth the party may well be expected by its predominantly pro-Remain electorate to voice their concerns.

There is perhaps one reason above all why Brexit is unlikely to disappear from Britain’s political agenda. The decision to leave the EU has helped fuel an increase in support for independence in Scotland, where, in contrast to the rest of the UK, voters backed Remain in 2016 by 62% to 38%.

Sixteen polls taken since the summer of 2020 have on average suggested that 54% would now vote Yes to independence, while the figure stands at no less than 60% among those who voted Remain.

A Scottish Parliament election will be held in May 2021 at which the SNP will be seeking support for holding another independence referendum. Should they win a parliamentary majority, a whole new chapter may well be added to Britain’s Brexit story.

By Professor John CurticeSenior Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Practice at the University of Strathclyde. This piece was taken from the Brexit and Beyond: Public Opinion report.


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