How has public opinion toward the perceived costs and benefits of Brexit shifted over the past eighteen months? As Harold D. Clarke, Paul Whiteley and I argue in our book, how people think about Europe is partly influenced by calculations regarding the perceived costs and benefits of being a member of the EU.
At the time of the referendum, a plurality of voters felt that remaining in the EU would be beneficial in terms of helping to keep the peace in Europe. But a plurality also felt that remaining would encourage terrorism, erode sovereignty, and damage Britain’s culture. Leaving the EU, meanwhile, was seen by a plurality of voters as economically costly but beneficial as it would lower immigration.
Clearly, these broad strokes hide big differences between Remainers and Leavers. For Leavers, the benefits of Brexit were more about lowering immigration, reducing the risk of terrorism and regaining control over the national economy.
How have these assessments changed since the referendum? First, voters at large have become a little more pessimistic about the economic effects of Brexit, although this conceals strong differences between Remainers and Leavers.
Shortly before the referendum, YouGov asked voters whether they felt that Brexit would leave Britain’s economy better off or worse off. Nationally, 22% said ‘better off’, 37% said ‘worse off’, 25% said ‘no difference’ and 15% said ‘don’t know’ (leaving a net score of -15).
Yet Leavers and Remainers held very different views; while 78% of Remainers were convinced Brexit would leave the economy ‘worse off’, Leavers were split evenly down the middle; 45% said ‘better off’, 43% said ‘no difference’, while 3% said ‘worse off’ (excluding don’t knows).
It is worth underlining that even before the vote a large chunk of Leavers did not expect leaving the EU to improve the economy.
Fast forward eighteen months. In December 2017, YouGov asked the same question. This time, among all voters, 25% expected Brexit to leave the economy ‘better off’, 42% ‘worse off’ and 18% ‘no difference’ (a net score of -17). Therefore, while the headline figures have not changed all that much, there has been a slight increase in pessimism among the electorate at large.
Again, Leavers and Remainers hold different views; while 78% of Remainers feel that Brexit will leave the economy worse off, Leavers are actually a little more optimistic than before the vote: 52% now feel Brexit will leave the economy ‘better off’ (up seven points), only 28% say ‘no difference’ and 8% say ‘worse off’ (up five).
This leaves a net score of +47 compared to +42 ahead of the vote, suggesting that, on balance, Leavers are actually a little more optimistic.
YouGov asked the same question about immigration, namely whether leaving the EU will mean more or less immigration, or make no difference. Overall, before the vote 54% of all voters said ‘less immigration’, 30% said ‘no difference’, and 4% said ‘more immigration’. Again, Leavers and Remainers held very different views; while 54% of Remainers said ‘no difference’, 27% said ‘less’ and 8% said ‘more’.
The vast majority of Leavers, 85%, said leaving would mean ‘less immigration’ and 11% said ‘no difference’.
How have these figures changed? Today, among all voters, 54% say ‘less immigration’, 29% say ‘no difference’ and 3% say ‘more’, so basically things are unchanged. However, among Remainers 43% nowfeel Brexit will mean ‘less immigration’ and 42% say ‘no difference’, revealing how a larger number have become convinced that leaving will mean less immigration.
Leavers, meanwhile, have changed in an interesting way; now only 72% feel that Brexit will mean less immigration while the percentage that think it will make no difference has nearly doubled to 20%.
So, while the headline figures have not changed all that much, Remainers have become a little more convinced that leaving will mean less immigration while Leavers have become a little more convinced that it will make no difference.
Given that the fundamental perceived costs and benefits have not (yet) changed all that much, a big swing in public opinion seems unlikely for three reasons. First, people’s preferences about EU membership are wrapped up in their underlying values, which are entrenched and unlikely to shift.
In Europe more generally, opposition to European integration has been shown to form part of a broader worldview, including hostility to immigration, distrust of established politics and pessimism about the future. These, in turn, reflect conservative and/or authoritarian values, which put a high premium on stability, order, tradition and authority.
Second, while ‘confirmation bias’ will lead Remainers and Leavers to discount information that does not correspond with these underlying values, many of the gloomy short-term economic forecasts produced during the referendum have since proven inaccurate.
Leavers – who, as we have seen, have become slightly more optimistic about the economy – can point to the lowest unemployment for four decades, the strongest manufacturing output since the financial crisis and, though lagging behind other countries, continued economic growth.
While this picture may well change as Britain passes through the end of the Article 50 period, and depending on the trading relationship with the EU that emerges, the general picture supports the argument that we made in our book – namely that Britain’s economy would, at least in the short-term, prove to be more resilient than many were arguing.
A third and final reason why we are unlikely to see major shifts in public opinion takes us back to the perceived costs and benefits and the fact that, for many Leavers, the benefits of Brexit were far more about identity politics – and, in particular, about lowering immigration.
As we have seen, a large majority of these Leavers continue to believe that leaving will mean less immigration, even if they are less convinced than they were at the time of the referendum.
Over the past eighteen months, net migration figures have started to fall against the backdrop of the vote for Brexit and the comparatively strong performance of Eurozone states. Yet comprehensive immigration reform is still absent. Pressure for the Conservative Party to deliver on this – and a hard Brexit more generally – will likely intensify.
While Theresa May failed to secure a majority at the 2017 general election, her voters are now more pro-Brexit and more supportive of immigration controls than the electorate that underpinned David Cameron’s Conservative Party. Alongside the general stability of British public attitudes on this issue, this means that a hard Brexit is significantly more likely than Brexit being reversed altogether.
By Professor Matthew Goodwin, Brexit research investigator at The UK in a Changing Europe.