Public Preferences and Reactions during the Brexit Process

Lead Research Organisation: National Centre for Social Research
Department Name: Research Department

Abstract

The UK government is now attempting to implement the instruction to secure the UK's withdrawal from membership of the European Union ('Brexit') given it by the electorate in the referendum held on June 23 2016. This withdrawal represents one of the most momentous changes in UK government policy since 1945. However, it has still left open a wide range of possible options for and decisions to make about the future relationship between the UK and the EU, while the merits of various different options are the subject of intense debate. At the same time, Brexit potentially has important implications for the territorial integrity of the UK and for the future of its political parties.

This project will, first of all, track and analyse what kind of future relationship between the UK and the EU voters would like to see put in place and monitor voters' reactions to the progress of the negotiations between the UK and the EU. In so doing it will focus in particular on whether voters' preferences and reactions are shaped by the perceived transactional (and especially economic) costs and benefits of withdrawal, or whether they reflect voters' prior predispositions (such as how they voted in the referendum) and sense of identity. Of particular interest is whether there is any evidence that, as a result of having held the referendum, the latter may have become more important in shaping voters' attitudes towards the EU.

At the same time, the project will assess the potentially disruptive consequences of Brexit for Britain's political future. Unlike England and Wales, Scotland voted to remain in the EU and the Scottish Government wishes to maintain a close relationship with the EU - perhaps by seeking membership for Scotland in its own right. The project will track and analyse both whether there is public support north of the border for a closer relationship with the EU and the impact that Brexit is having on support for Scottish independence. Meanwhile, the supporters of all political parties (apart from UKIP) were divided between backing Remain and voting Leave in a contest in which attitudes towards the merits of having a more less diverse society displaced arguments about whether government should be more or less active in pursuing a more equal society that usually dominate in a general election. If Brexit remains (as seems likely) the central focus of British political debate, it is possible that the existing coalitions of support enjoyed by the Conservatives and Labour will be frayed or even fracture. The project will thus analyse whether there is any evidence that this is proving to be the case.

In pursuit of these objectives, the project will both undertake its own new survey research and monitor and make easily accessible the results of published opinion polls. The new survey research (undertaken both across Britain as a whole and Scotland in particular) will focus both on short-term changes in voters' attitudes and evaluations during the course of the negotiations and on the long-term impact the Brexit process is having on the structure of political attitudes in the UK. All data and analysis will be made freely and regularly available to anyone with an interest in the subject via two well-established websites, activity that will be supplemented by public and private seminar presentations. As a result, the project is designed to ensure that all those with responsibility for taking decisions in respect of Brexit have easy access to the best available information on public attitudes towards the process of withdrawal, while at the same time helping to ensure that there is adequate academic investigation into the impact of Brexit on the distribution and structure of political attitudes in the UK.

Planned Impact

The decision to leave the European Union is one of the biggest policy decisions made by the UK in the post-war era. How that decision is executed potentially has fundamental implications both for the future of the UK in particular and for the EU as a whole. Equally, a wide range of sectoral organisations within the UK and the EU have a vested interest in the outcome of the negotiations. Consequently, this research will be of interest to a very wide audience, including the following:

UK government ministers and civil servants
Scottish government ministers and civil servants
MPs and Lords of all parties
Diplomatic representatives of other EU countries (and by extension, their governments)
European Commission
European Parliament
Journalists in the UK and in the rest of the EU
Think tanks, lobbying organisations, businesses and trade unions with an interest in Brexit
The interested public

The decision to leave the EU was precipitated by UK public opinion, and thus the Brexit negotiations are the product of an instruction given to their government by UK voters. The government is thus under pressure to deliver an outcome that satisfies those voters, and for which it will be accountable at the next UK election. Thus to be effective public policy needs to be informed by an understanding of how the UK public wants the decision to leave carried through, and how voters are reacting to the progress of the negotiations. That implies in turn that those with whom the UK government is negotiating also need to understand the public pressures to which that government is trying to respond, as do those sectoral organisations who are trying to shape the UK's negotiating stance. Meanwhile, given that the Scottish Government is pursuing the possibility of a 'soft' Brexit settlement for Scotland and is potentially making a decision on whether or not to hold a second independence referendum conditional on whether that objective is achieved, both it and the UK government need to be aware of the particular contours of public attitudes towards Brexit north of the border and how the reactions of voters in Scotland to the Brexit negotiations are or are not influencing their attitudes towards how Scotland should be governed.

Thanks to its importance, the Brexit negotiations can be expected to secure widespread media coverage. Meanwhile, much of the public debate about them will be filtered through the partisan lens of those who campaigned for and against leaving the EU. Journalists and their audience will thus be in need of impartial evidence on where public opinion does stand on the key issues at stake.

This project will address these needs by providing impartial information and analysis on what the UK public expects from Brexit and how voters are reacting to the negotiations as they develop. It will do so, not only by generating and analysing its own research data but also by collating, making accessible and providing commentary on the findings of relevant opinion polls. All of the data and analysis will be made available speedily via two well-established websites that already have many users from the above communities and are promoted via social media, and thus will be able to inform the policy process as it unfolds. In addition, the project will present its findings at a number of public and private seminars aimed at key stakeholders, with many of whom the project already has close connections.

The project aims to inform rather than influence the decisions made and stances taken by stakeholders. Its 'impact' will thus rest on the use that those stakeholders decide to make of the research. However, the publicity attracted by and the interest shown in the work associated with Prof. Curtice's Senior Fellowship gives every reason to believe that stakeholders will wish to appraise themselves of the findings.
 
Description This grant is currently active, and thus this is only an interim report. The author has engaged with a wide range of policymakers and politicians during the first 21 months of this award, some examples of which are given in the details of engagement activities.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description None
Amount £70,000 (GBP)
Organisation Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2017 
End 08/2018
 
Title whateuthinks.org/eu 
Description Website that provides a searchable collation of all UK polling data on attitudes of relevance to the referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union (EU), together with selected relevant data from the rest of the EU. The site also provides graphical display facilities, occasional commentary in the form of blogs, and longer analysis papers. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2015 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The site is being widely used by journalists and policy makers in order to follow the evolution of public opinion in the run-up to the referendum, including not least by the Communication Directorates of the European Commission and the European Parliament in Brussels. 
URL http://whatukthinks.org/eu/
 
Title whatscotlandthinks.org 
Description A unique continuously updated collection of opinion findings (from 2007 onwards) and data from the Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey (from 1999 onwards) of relevance to the debate about Scotland's constitutional future. The collection is fully searchable and contains a variety of tabulation and data visualisation facilities. The site contains a data explorer facility that enables the user to construct crosstabulations of the SSA data. There is also a blog that provides regular commentary on new poll results and academic research findings. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2013 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact In the run up to the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014, the site came to be very heavily used and was frequently quoted by journalists, academics and other commentators who were seeking to follow and write about the forthcoming ballot. It thus made a major contribution to the public debate about and Scotland's constitutional future. 
URL http://whatscotlandthinks.org
 
Description All Party Parliamentary Social Science Group March 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Presentation on attitudes towards Brexit to All Party Social Science Group, Palace of Westminster.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://esrc.ukri.org/collaboration/working-with-policymakers/all-party-parliamentary-group-on-socia...
 
Description Brett: What the Nation Really Thinks 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Consultant to and onscreen expert on Channel 4/Renegade Production programme on public attitudes towards Brexit
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.channel4.com/press/news/c4-survey-uk-would-vote-remain-eu-majority-54-46
 
Description Brexit: The Public's Half-Time Scorecard 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Presentation in the Palace of Westminster of the latest findings from the research being conducted by the project on public attitudes towards Brexit. Audience consisted of MPs, peers, parliamentary researchers, think tank researchers, journalists and interested members of the general public. Stephen Kinnock MP responded to the presentation. The research informed subsequent media discussion and commentary on how an apparent increase in pessimism about how good a deal Britain will get from the Brexit negotiations has not so far resulted in any marked change in attitudes towards the merits of remaining in or leaving the EU.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://whatukthinks.org/eu/comment-analysis/analysis/
 
Description Dundee Courier Business Breakfast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Keynote presentation on public attitudes towards Brexit at Breakfast seminar for local businessmen
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.thecourier.co.uk/fp/business/business-news/824460/professor-sir-john-curtice-shares-brex...
 
Description Institute and Faculty of Actuaries Spring Lecture 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited lecture on public attitudes towards Brexit hosted by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries. Lecture given in Edinburgh, beamed to audiences in London (2) and Glasgow, and streamed on the internet.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.actuaries.org.uk/learn-develop/attend-event/spring-lecture-2019-edinburgh-sir-john-curti...
 
Description Just 15 months to go: What do Scots make of Brexit? 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Presentation of the project's latest research on public attitudes in Scotland towards the Brexit process and how these attitudes compared with those in the rest of the UK. Particular attention was paid to attitudes towards who in future should make decisions about devolved issues that are currently largely run by the European Union, and towards the possibility that further new powers should be to devolved to Scotland in order to facilitate a variegated relationship with the EU across the UK. Patrick Harvie MSP responded to thew presentation, while the project's evidence on the latter issues were of particular interest to the audience. The publication of the associated written report attracted considerable media publicity.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://whatukthinks.org/eu/comment-analysis/analysis/
 
Description Keynote Presentation at 2018 UKICE Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Keynote presentation at UK in a Changing Europe Annual Conference, 29 March 2018
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://ukandeu.ac.uk/event/article-50-one-year-on/
 
Description Keynote Presentation at Austria Connect Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Keynote presentation on public attitudes towards Brexit at annual conference aimed at Austrian companies located in the UK
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.advantageaustria.org/gb/events/austria-connect-uk-2018.html
 
Description Keynote presentation at UKICE Public Opinion Conference, January 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Keynote presentation on public attitudes towards Brexit at conference on Brexit and Public Opinion organised by UK in a Changing Europe
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://ukandeu.ac.uk/event/brexit-and-public-opinion-2/
 
Description Launch of Analysis Paper on How Voters View Brexit Two Years On 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Launch of analysis paper based on original research into public attitudes towards the Brexit process two years after the referendum. Contributed to media coverage of the paper.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://whatukthinks.org/eu/comment-analysis/analysis/
 
Description One Year On: How Voters Have Reacted to Brexit To Date 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited keynote talk on public attitudes to Brexit at the Annual Conference of the UK in a Change Europe initiative at Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre on the first anniversary of the triggering of Article 50.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://ukandeu.ac.uk/event/article-50-one-year-on/
 
Description PR and The Scottish Conservatives 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited speaker at fringe meeting organised by the Electoral Reform Society on the revival of the Scottish Conservative Party. Presentation discussed inter alia the link between the revival and attitudes to both the constitutional question and Brexit north of the border. Text formed basis of a blog at http://blog.whatscotlandthinks.org/2017/10/the-three-characteristics-of-the-scottish-conservative-revival/, and analysis summarised in subsequent discussions with journalists.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/join-the-movement/events/pr-and-the-scottish-conservatives-conse...
 
Description Presentation at Foreign & Commonwealth Office, December 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited presentation on public attitudes towards Brexit given at FCO but open to civil servants from across Whitehall
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Presentation at Foreign & Commonwealth Office, May 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited seminar on public attitudes towards Brexit given at Foreign & Commonwealth Office but open to civil servants from across Whitehall
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Presentation at Government Research Organisation (North) Annual Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Presentation on public attitudes towards Brexit to government researchers located in Scotland and the North of England
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Presentation to Members of the Scottish Parliament and their staff 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Presentation on public attitudes towards Brexit given at the invitation of the Scottish Parliament Information Centre
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Process and Preference: How Voters are Reacting to Brexit 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited keynote lecture on how attitudes towards Brexit have evolved during the course of the negotiations between the UK and the EU. The lecture given at an event on 'Bexit and Public Opinion' held at the Royal Society and organised by the ESRC's UK in a Changing Europe initiative. The lecture and the associated blog posted on the whatukthinks.org website generated a number of media requests, including an interview with the BBC's Westminster Hour (Radio 4), a 'speed data' article for Prospect magazine (https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/other/speed-data-just-how-much-appetite-is-there-for-a-second-eu-referendum) and a commissioned blog on the BBC News website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-43336351)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://ukandeu.ac.uk/event/brexit-and-public-opinion/
 
Description Public Attitudes towards Scotland's Challenges 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited presentation at the annual conference of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the collective representative body for local authorities in Scotland. Presentation covered public attitudes towards a range of policy challenges facing Scotland including the delivery of public services to an ageing population, the use of Scotland's devolved tax powers, Brexit and Scotland's constitutional status. This was a repeat invitation and recognises the perceived utility of the work by one of the key institutions in Scottish politics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.cosla.gov.uk/events/2017/10/cosla-and-annual-conference-2017
 
Description Public Bubble Seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Presentation on public attitudes to Brexit organised by The Public Bubble, which organises a cross-Whitehall programme of seminars for civil servants
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://thepublicbubble.wordpress.com/recent-speakers/
 
Description The 2017 General Election 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited presentation (in July 2017) on the outcome of the 2017 general election, focusing in particular on the impact of attitudes towards Brexit, to members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Science and Policy
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.esrc.ac.uk/collaboration/working-with-policymakers/all-party-parliamentary-group-on-socia...
 
Description Wilton Park Conference on The Future of the UK's Bilateral Relations in Europe 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited speaker on why Britain voted to the EU and public attitudes towards Brexit at this international private conference of key stakeholders from across Europe organised by the Foreign and Commnwealth Office. Aim was to enable non-UK members to understand better some of the political backdrop to the Brext vote and prcess in the UK.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.wiltonpark.org.uk/event/wp1603/