One Year to Go: Is Britain changing its mind?

In late March 2019, Britain will reach the end of the Article 50 period and is scheduled to officially leave the European Union. Is that fate sealed? Matthew Goodwin looks at changing attitudes toward the EU, the Brexit process and the ongoing divisions in the UK. 

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March 28, 2018
John Murphy flies the European flag outside his home near the border village of Forkhill, Northern Ireland, on December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Twenty-one months have passed since Britain shocked the world by voting to exit the European Union. It was a revolt against the status quo that few saw coming. Shortly before the June 2016 referendum, one survey of more than 300 journalists, scholars and opinion pollsters found that around nine-in-10 expected their fellow citizens to vote to remain in the EU. Yet, in the end, 52 percent opted for Brexit (though this figure climbed to 54 percent in England, 60 percent among the working-class and to a striking 74 percent among people who have no formal educational qualifications).

Since then, there has emerged a lively debate not only about the root causes of the Brexit vote but also whether ‘Leavers’ are changing their minds, whether there might be a second referendum and, if not and Brexit goes ahead, what Britain’s new relationship with the EU will look like. There are no straightforward answers to these questions, but by using a large range of survey and polling data we can throw light on where Britain is today and where it may be headed tomorrow.

Are people changing their minds? Since the vote, many ‘Remainers’ have hoped that Leavers will reverse their position. Indeed, it is fair to say that the consensus after the referendum was that there would be a changing of minds as the economic consequences of the Brexit vote became clear. After all, in the shadow of the referendum the pound plunged to its lowest level for three decades, higher inflation dampened real household spending power and although Britain’s economy has continued to grow it has lagged behind the rates of growth seen in most other advanced G7 nations.

Against this backdrop, some Remainers launched a more concerted effort to shift public opinion and encourage ‘Bregret.’ While former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major have called on voters to rethink their decision, campaign groups like Best for Britain and Open Britain have sought to highlight what they claim are the already damaging effects of the Brexit vote on the national economy. Others have launched entirely new political parties or sent funding to pro-EU members of parliament to try and galvanize a Brexit backlash.

Nearly all of these voices are bracing for a crunch moment that will likely arrive in late 2018 or early 2019, when parliament will be given a vote on the final Brexit deal that Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has, by that point, negotiated with the EU.

While the implications of a ‘no’ vote are still unclear, if May loses the parliamentary vote some argue that her political capital will be so diminished that it will pave the way for a fresh general election (which would be the third in five years). While the Conservative Party would look to replace May with a new leader while avoiding a general election, many on the opposition benches would no doubt make the case for such an election, which would almost certainly have to happen should the new Conservative administration not manage to secure the confidence of parliament.

Another possibility should May lose the parliamentary vote is that she decides to stay and, with support from her party, agrees to hold a second referendum. This seems very unlikely, not least because May has consistently opposed this idea on the basis that a second vote would undermine the negotiations. It is also unlikely that the Brexiteers in the Conservative Party would ever sanction such a gamble.

"All of this hinges on a deeper question, namely: are British voters actually changing their minds? The longer answer does contain some ray of hope for Remainers."

Also unclear is whether a second referendum would ask voters to accept or reject the terms of the deal or instead return to the ‘remain or leave’ question. It seems more likely that were such a vote to happen it would be on the terms of the deal, rather than going back to square one. But what would happen were the people to reject the terms is anybody’s guess. Those on the Remain side would likely argue that it validates the case for overturning Brexit. Those on the Leave side might argue that it underlines the case for further negotiations.

Those outside of Britain are watching these events closely for good reason. If at least some of these events transpire, however unlikely they feel in early 2018, then they could in theory introduce the possibility of a major change of direction.

For the EU, this would remove worries over the longer-term effect of Brexit on a continent that is already divided over the refugee crisis, economic disparity and the future of the integration agenda. For those in the United States and Canada, it would remove worries over what a weaker post-Brexit Europe means for their security and economic prosperity.

But clearly much of this is speculation.

Indeed, all of this hinges on a deeper question, namely: are British voters actually changing their minds? Unless they are then much of the above is redundant. The short answer is: not really. But the longer answer does contain some ray of hope for Remainers.

Breaking down the numbers

As it stands now — in March 2018 — the reality is that since the referendum very few people appear to have changed their minds. The most useful public opinion tracker is conducted by the polling company YouGov, which several times each month asks a nationally representative sample of the population: “In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the European Union?” This was first asked in August 2016, shortly after the vote for Brexit. At that time 46 percent said it was right, 42 percent said it was wrong and the remainder were undecided.

Fast forward a year to just before May’s Florence speech, in which she set out her vision of Brexit. At that point in 2017, 44 percent said the Brexit vote was right and 44 percent said it was wrong. Now fast forward to where we are today, with one year to go until the end of the Article 50 period: 43 percent think it was right and 45 percent think it was wrong. When you also consider that the margin of error in polling is just over three points, we can see how there has been no significant change and that, contrary to what many observers expected, public opinion about the Brexit vote has stayed remarkably static. Britain is still neatly divided into two big and opposing blocks.

However, this broad view is also misleading in two respects. First, it hides some major differences of opinion among different groups in society. And second, it glosses over some significant changes that we have seen in regard to how people think about other Brexit-related issues, including its likely impact on the economy and how the incumbent Conservative government is seen to be managing the issue.

Younger voters, Labour voters, people in Scotland and London, and the more economically secure middle-classes are all consistently the most likely to think that Britain was wrong to vote for Brexit. This is perhaps unsurprising given that these groups also provided the bulk of support to remain in the referendum, with Scotland breaking 62-38 and London 60-40 in favour of remaining. Now, these groups are the most convinced that Britain is heading in the wrong direction. For instance, in March 2018, 71 percent of Labour Party supporters, 64 percent of 18-24 year olds, 57 percent of voters in Scotland, 54 percent of the middle-class, and 52 percent of London felt that Britain had been wrong to vote for Brexit.

Scotland Brexit
A piper leads protesters as they take part in a demonstration to demand a vote on the Brexit deal in Edinburgh, Scotland, March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne
The picture looks very different when you look at the groups who are instead among the most likely to think that the Brexit vote was the right decision — a view held by 73 percent of Conservatives, 67 percent of pensioners, and 52 percent of the working-classes. A plurality of people in non-London southern England, Wales and the Midlands also still see the decision as the right one. These numbers reflect how the experience of Brexit is entrenching deep divides in Britain — between the young and old, different social classes, London and the rest, and left and right. That all said, Brexit should not be dismissed as merely a revolt of angry old white men. It should be remembered that just over one in three black and minority ethnic voters sided with Brexit, as did one in four 18-24 year olds.

This dilemma has been especially acute for Jeremy Corbyn and his opposition Labour Party, which despite officially campaigning to remain awoke after the referendum to find that around 140 Labour-held districts had voted to leave, and often by overwhelming majorities. This tension is reflected in the fact that whereas over 80 percent of voters in a London-based Labour seat like Hornsey and Wood Green voted to remain, over 70 percent of voters in a more northern and working-class Labour seat like Stoke-on-Trent North voted for Brexit. On one level this is about Brexit, but on another level it speaks to a divide between socially liberal middle-class professionals and socially conservative blue-collar workers that lies at the heart of the crisis that is currently facing social democracy across the West.

Yet while Britain remains highly polarized over Brexit, there is some evidence that larger numbers have become more pessimistic about key aspects of the country’s rupture with the EU. First, based on the opinion polls it does appear that today a slightly larger number of people than at the time of the referendum feel pessimistic about the perceived economic effects of Brexit. Shortly before the referendum 37 percent of Brits told YouGov that Brexit would leave Britain’s economy ‘worse off.’ But today that figure has increased a little to 41 percent, although again the difference is fairly marginal. 

A second trend is more visible. There is now significantly more public dissatisfaction with how the current government is managing the Brexit process. This time last year, for example, when people were asked how well or badly they felt the government was doing at negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, 32 percent said ‘well’ and 39 percent said ‘badly.’ But today we see a very different picture — only 25 percent say ‘well,’ while a much larger 61 percent say ‘badly.’ Clearly, this question could be tapping into all kinds of things, like public disquiet with how long the process is taking or Leavers’ disapproval with a softer-than-planned Brexit deal. But the general picture is that today the British are unhappier than they once were with how the process is being managed.

Why economic implications are failing to persuade Leavers

This raises an intriguing question, namely why, despite these more specific changes, are people generally not changing their minds about the fundamental question of whether Brexit was right or wrong? Why has the economic turbulence since the vote and also the efforts of Remainers not cut through?

One answer to this question is that the vote for Brexit was never principally an economic vote to begin with. As almost every study since the referendum has shown, including our own, those who ticked ‘Leave’ on the ballot paper were mainly driven by their intense concerns over immigration and their strong desire to reclaim national sovereignty from the European Union. We surveyed thousands of voters ahead of the referendum and found that most Leavers believed that by exiting the EU Britain would be able to lower immigration numbers, while remaining in the EU would further erode Britain’s sovereignty, damage British culture and leave the country at greater risk of terrorism. 

These concerns were no doubt amplified by the fact that former Prime Minister David Cameron decided to hold the vote against the backdrop of 2015, which included the eruption of a pan-European refugee crisis and a record number of terrorist attacks in the EU, including the atrocities at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the mass attacks in Paris only a few months later. For a campaign that was trying to make the case that remaining in the EU would make Britain safer, this was an awkward backdrop.

"Nearly 40 percent of Britain’s working-class felt they had no say in government, yet there has still been no major national debate about why this was the case."

Given that these concerns over immigration, borders and security were absolutely central to the Brexit vote, it is therefore unsurprising that most people have not fundamentally changed their minds and that an anti-Brexit campaign that has remained almost exclusively focused on the claimed economic damage has not cut through. We can add this to the fact that even ahead of the referendum large numbers of Leavers were not convinced by the widespread claim that the economic effects would be both immediate and highly negative. That a prophesized recession and sharp rise in unemployment did not materialize has further weakened Remain’s hand and introduced the question of whether they might have made more progress after the referendum by changing gear.

For instance, even though ahead of the referendum, according to British Social Attitudes data, nearly 40 percent of Britain’s working-class felt that ‘people like them’ had no say in government, there has still been no major national debate about why this was the case — how we might get more working-class people into politics, or whether it is time to deliver meaningful political reform, such as replacing the House of Lords with a Citizen’s Assembly, moving it and other institutions outside of London, and devolving further powers down to the people. But we have not debated these issues. Instead, Britain has remained almost entirely focused on what the City of London wants, what financial services want and, in essence, what the middle-class want.

One final question to consider, should the government lose its crunch parliamentary vote in late 2018 or early 2019, is whether or not there is support for a second referendum. While many in parliament and perhaps also the EU appear very open to this idea, the public are more divided.

One important caveat to insert is that the response to this question tends to vary according to how you ask the question. For instance, according to a recent experiment by the pollster Lord Ashcroft, the Brits break 51-38 against ‘a second referendum on Brexit,’ 47-40 against a ‘new referendum on whether or not to continue with Brexit,’ 42-40 against ‘a referendum on whether to go ahead with Brexit or not after the negotiations,’ but 39-31 in favour of ‘after the negotiations, a referendum on whether to accept the terms or leave without a deal.’

This reveals not only why the British are basically divided on this question but also why we should not read too much into a single snapshot from a single poll. That said, one series of questions run by YouGov does suggest that people are today a little more supportive of the idea of a second referendum. In response to the question, “Once the negotiations are complete and the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU have been agreed, do you think there should or should not be a referendum to accept or reject them?” the percentage who think there should not be a referendum has dropped since October 2017 by three points to 43 percent, while the percentage who think there should has increased by four points to 36 percent. This perhaps suggests that while there is not widespread support for a second vote, the general mood may be starting to move in this direction, although as always we should not read too much into shifts that are still quite small.

Therefore, as May and her government continue to try and steer Britain through the aftermath of the Brexit vote, there is no doubt that they are leading a nation that is today very much divided about what happened in June 2016, but will likely be just as divided about where Britain is headed tomorrow.

As Britain now heads toward the official exit door, one deeper question will rumble on: while it might be able to forge a new deal with its continental neighbours, how can it foster a new union between its own people?