The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

18 Mar 2018

Politics and Society


Sovereignty lies at the heart of the debate over Britain’s membership of the European Union. 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 taken in the UK’.

Likewise, when the British Election Study Internet Panel 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.

In fact, the whole EU debate arguably comes down to whether Britain should continue pooling its sovereignty with 27 other member states, or whether it should reaffirm its national sovereignty by leaving.

However, ‘sovereignty’ is not simply a question of whether decisions should be made by the EU or UK. There are at least two other levels of decision-making to which powers could be repatriated after Brexit: the devolved administrations, and regions/cities.

A number of prominent Leave campaigners (including the head of Scottish Vote Leave) argued during the referendum campaign that Brexit would inevitably lead to an expansion of powers in the devolved territories.

Likewise, a post-referendum petition calling for London to declare independence epitomised growing calls for greater autonomy for Britain’s largest cities, where the Remain vote was strongest.

As part of our on-going study of attitudes to the Brexit negotiations, we asked a nationally representative sample of Britons whether each of four policies ‘should mainly be decided’ at the European level, the national level (Westminster), the devolved level (for example, the Welsh Assembly) or at the region/ city level (such as the north east, or London).

The four policies were: ‘protecting the environment’, ‘agriculture and fisheries’, ‘level of immigration’ and ‘taxation’. The majority of both Leave voters and Remain voters think that all four policies should be decided at the national or sub-national levels.

For example, the percentage of Remain voters who support decision-making at the European level was 44% for ‘protecting the environment’, 31% for ‘agriculture and fisheries’, 23% for ‘level of immigration’ and only 10% for ‘taxation’.

Unsurprisingly, the corresponding percentages for Leave supporters were all much lower. The low level of support among Remain voters for decision-making at the EU-level is rather striking. There are two possible explanations.

First, we used the phrase ‘should mainly be decided’, and most Remain supporters may consider the current balance of competences to be satisfactory.

Second, some Remain supporters may be unaware that the EU plays any role in areas of policy like, say, agriculture and fisheries. Research by Simon Hix shows that Britons are less knowledgeable about the EU than citizens of any other member state.

We are also able to compare support for decision-making at different levels across five major areas of the UK: London, the rest of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Figure 1 shows the results for ‘protecting the environment’; Figure 2 for ‘agriculture and fisheries’; Figure 3 for ‘level of immigration’; and Figure 4 ‘taxation’.

Note that we restricted the sample to citizens of the UK, Ireland and the British Commonwealth (those who are eligible to vote in UK national elections).

Figure 1: Protecting the environment, support for decision-making at different levels

Figure 2: Agriculture and fisheries, support for decision-making at different levels

A number of broad conclusions can be drawn from the charts. First, in all five areas of the UK, the most popular level of decision-making is the national level (the only exception being ‘agriculture and fisheries’ in Northern Ireland, where devolved decision-making is the most popular).

Second, with the exception of ‘level of immigration’, where for obvious reasons Northern Irish people are the most supportive of European decision-making, Londoners are the most supportive of decision-making at the European level. This is of course consistent with the narrative that London is to some extent sui generis in terms of attitudes to the EU.

Figure 3: Level of immigration, support for decision-making at different levels

Figure 4: Taxation, support for decision-making at different levels

Third, Scottish and Northern Irish people are the most supportive of decision-making at the devolved level, especially when it comes to ‘agriculture and fisheries’ and, to a slightly lesser extent, ‘taxation’.

Londoners and other English people are the least supportive of decision-making at the devolved level, which could be attributable to the fact that there is currently no devolved assembly in England. Somewhat surprisingly, Welsh people are only slightly more supportive of decision-making at the devolved level than the English.

Fourth, very few people in any of the five areas support decision-making at the region/city level. In particular, contrary to the notion that there is a great appetite for new tax-raising powers in the capital – and despite the policy case that Andrew Carter sets out in Brexit: Local and Devolved Government – only 7.5% of Londoners support decision-making at city level. Though it should be noted, of course, that our question refers to the ‘region or city’ level in general, rather than to London specifically.

While concerns over sovereignty played a crucial role in the UK’s vote to leave the EU, it remains to be seen precisely where different powers will be repatriated after Brexit. Support for decision-making at the devolved level appears to be highest in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

As Michael Keating has shown, despite these higher levels of support for devolved decision making, there are fears within the Scottish government that Brexit will allow Westminster to carry out a political power grab.

Londoners are somewhat more likely to support European decision-making than other English people, but are only slightly more likely to support decision-making at the region/city level.

Our stand-out finding, then, is this: almost everywhere, by far the majority of people in the UK prefer for decisions to be made at the national level.

By Noah Carl, Postdoctoral Researcher at Nuffield College, University of Oxford; and Anthony Heath, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. You can download the full report, ‘Brexit: Local and Devolved Government’, here.


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