The pledge to hold an in/out referendum on Europe that David Cameron now has the opportunity to fulfill was the product of his party’s electoral difficulties during the course of the last parliament. An unprecedented rise in support for UKIP, a rise that appeared to come disproportionately from former Conservative voters, impelled the Prime Minister to emulate UKIP’s promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership. But does the rise of UKIP, who in the event secured 13% of the vote on May 7, necessarily indicate that Britain is now a deeply Eurosceptic country? And what, at this early stage, appear to be the prospects for the outcome of the referendum when it is eventually held?
One of the longest running time series on attitudes towards Europe is available from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey. Founded in 1983, the survey has asked people on a regular basis over the years whether Britain should continue to be a member or whether it should withdraw. In the most recent survey, conducted last year, 57% said that Britain should remain a member, while 35% backed withdrawal.
That latter figure is not unprecedented. It is actually rather less than the 45% that backed withdrawal in 1984 – shortly before Margaret Thatcher secured Britain’s ‘rebate’ in respect of its budgetary payments to the European Union, and before Labour and the trade union movement reversed what at that stage was a marked hostility towards Britain’s membership. However it is much higher than the 17% that backed withdrawal in 1991 – that is shortly before Euroscepticism became commonplace inside the Conservative party.
However, the debate about its relationship with Europe, on which Britain is about to embark, is not simply a question of whether or not it should remain a member. It also concerns what the terms and conditions of any continuing membership should be. After all the commitment Cameron has made is to hold a referendum after having renegotiated those terms and conditions -with a view to reducing the obligations they impose on Britain. Fortunately, during the last twenty years BSA has asked a second question about Britain’s relationship with Europe that invites people to choose between five different options – leaving; staying but reducing the powers of the EU; keeping things as they are; increasing the powers of the EU; and working for the creation of a single European government.
The increased scepticism of the British public about Europe becomes quite clear when we examine the pattern of responses to this question. Although just 24% choose leaving the EU, as many as 38% say they would like to see the EU’s powers reduced, making it the single most popular option of the five on offer. Meanwhile, although a little lower than in 2012 (67%) or 2013 (65%), the combined tally of 62% backing either withdrawal or a looser arrangement is higher than at any time between 1992 (when the question was first asked) and 2010.
So the mood in Britain in recent years has been as Eurosceptic as it has ever been. But it is apparently a mood that is willing to contemplate remaining in the EU if the terms and conditions of membership are right. To that extent Cameron seems to have judged public opinion correctly – so long as he is able to secure a renegotiation that is accepted by voters as reducing the extent the EU can ‘meddle’ in Britain’s affairs.
Still, as we have already noted, paradoxically this scepticism has not grown further since UKIP first made a substantial electoral breakthrough – in May 2013’s English local elections. This is even more clearly the case in the pattern of responses to a question YouGov has asked on a regular basis during the last four years and asks people whether they would vote to remain in the EU or leave. Throughout 2011 and 2012 the company consistently reported that a majority would vote to leave rather than remain in the EU. On average during this period 47% said they wanted to leave, while only 32% stated that they wished to stay.
But following David Cameron’s ‘Bloomberg speech’ in January 2013, in which he made his promise to hold a referendum, support for remaining in the EU increased somewhat. For the remainder of 2013 on average 35% wanted to stay, still below the 43% that wanted to leave but a rather narrower margin in favour of leaving than before. Apparently the possibility Britain might be able to loosen the bonds of its EU membership helped persuade some people perhaps Britain should remain in the institution after all.
However, the movement did not stop there. Opinion shifted further during the European Parliament election campaign (when many a British politician was critical of the EU), and during the second half of 2014 opinion was evenly divided, with on average 40% in favour of staying and 40% leaving. Most recently, in the run up to the general election, no less than 45% said they wanted to stay, while only 35% indicated they wanted to leave.
So although the electoral success of UKIP may be the reason why the referendum is taking place in the first place, that success does not tell us much about attitudes towards the EU amongst voters as a whole. Rather, it appears the emergence of the prospect that Britain’s terms of membership might be renegotiated has been accompanied by a swing in favour of staying in the EU. Still, if public opinion is as labile as YouGov’s data suggests, then neither side can embark on the referendum campaign confident that eventually its view will prevail.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.