The Evolution of Public Attitudes During The Brexit Process

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

Abstract

Although two and a half years have passed since the EU referendum, many of the key decisions about the UK's future relationship with the EU have yet to be made. The way in which the Brexit negotiations have been structured means that, for example, discussion of the extent to which the UK has access to and aligns itself with the single market, whether or not it has some form of customs agreement with the EU, whether it is able or unable to pursue its own trade policy, and whether UK citizens will still have access to such everyday arrangements as the European Health Card, has yet to take place. Meanwhile there is still some uncertainty as to whether the UK will reach an agreed deal with the EU on the terms of its departure - or whether the decision to leave the EU itself might be reopened.

Because the decision to leave the EU is the product of the choice that a majority of voters made in a referendum, claims and counterclaims about whether people in Britain still want to leave the EU and, if so, what kind of Brexit they want, are a potentially valuable currency in the political and policy debate about Brexit. It is therefore important that these claims and counterclaims are subjected to critical scrutiny. This fellowship will undertake and facilitate such scrutiny. Using a mixture of publicly available polling data and its own survey research, it will chart and analyse public preferences, evaluations and identities of relevance to the debate about Brexit during a period that will be crucial in shaping the UK's future relationship with the EU. In so doing its aim is to inform the development of public policy on the EU and enhance the quality of the evidence used in the public debate about Brexit.

The fellowship will focus in particular on the following questions:

1. Is the eventual outcome of the Brexit process one that satisfies a majority of both Remain voters and Leave supporters, or is the apparent polarisation between these two groups and the intensity of feeling among them left unresolved?
2. Is the original decision to leave the EU still supported by a majority of voters at the end of the Brexit process, and what are the implications of the evolution of attitudes during that process for the debate about the use of referendums in liberal democracies?
3. Why do voters change - or not change - their minds about the desirability and consequences of Brexit?
4. What impact does the Brexit process have on attitudes towards and levels of trust in how the UK is governed, including in particular on attitudes towards Scottish independence?
5. What impact does the Brexit process have on the pattern of support for the UK's political parties?
6. How would voters like the UK to use the greater policy autonomy that it is likely to possess as a result of leaving the EU?

The fruits of the fellowship will be made available primarily via two websites. The first, whatukthinks.org/eu, provides a comprehensive and easily accessible and searchable collection of polling data of relevance to the debate about Brexit, together with blogs and longer analysis papers. The other, whatscotlandthinks.org, provides similar facilities and information in respect of public attitudes towards how the various parts of Britain should be governed, with a particular emphasis on the constitutional debate in Scotland. In addition, and working in collaboration with the ESRC's 'The UK in a Changing Europe' initiative, the fellowship will use social and conventional media, public and private presentations, chapters in the annual British Social Attitudes series, and academic papers and presentations in order to disseminate its findings to academics, policy-makers and the wider public.

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. Whether and how that decision is executed potentially has fundamental implications both for the future of the UK and for the EU. 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
Financial institutions
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 (and opposition) is thus under pressure to deliver an outcome that satisfies voters, not least because it is one for which it has and will be held accountable at the ballot box. Thus to be effective public policy needs to be informed by an understanding of whether and how the UK public wants the decision to leave carried through, how voters are reacting to the progress of the negotiations, and what public policies voters would like to see pursued in the wake of Brexit. 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 takes a very different stance on Brexit and is leaving open the prospect that it will push for a second independence referendum at some point during the Brexit process, 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.

The Brexit negotiations have come to dominate media coverage of British politics. However, much of the public debate is filtered through the partisan lens of those who are for or against leaving the EU. Journalists and their audience are thus in need of impartial evidence on where public opinion stands 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. Thus from its inception the fellowship 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 work on Brexit to date gives every reason to believe that stakeholders will wish to appraise themselves of the findings.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description This project is pursuing much the same agenda as 'Public preferences and reactions during the Brexit process', and this text provides an update of the findings for that project.

Public attitudes towards the principle of Brexit remained relatively stable in the months leading up to the 2019 general election. However, those who did not vote in 2016 continued to be more likely to say that in a second referendum they would vote Remain rather than Leave. However, the revised withdrawal treaty negotiated by Boris Johnson was markedly more popular among Leave voters than the one agreed by Theresa May, and was backed by some of those whose first preference had hitherto been to leave without a deal.

The stability of attitudes towards Brexit itself was accompanied by remarkable instability in electoral preferences, as voters seemingly changed their minds about the best way of expressing their views about Brexit. Following the failure to deliver Brexit in March 2019, there was a marked increase in support for both the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats - the former winning votes more or less exclusively among those who voted Leave and the latter from those who voted Remain. It looked as though both parties might pose a significant challenge to the traditional dominance of Britain's two largest parties.

In the event, by the time of the general election in December 2019, most Leave voters had switched back to the Conservatives, who were now advocating a 'harder' Brexit than in 2017. Meanwhile, Labour, who now supported a second referendum, recovered some of the ground it had lost to the Liberal Democrats among Remain voters, but made little progress in reversing its losses among Leave voters. As a result, support for the Conservatives among Leave voters was even higher than in 2017, while the party's support among Remain supporters fell once again. Meanwhile, Labour's vote fell more among Leave voters than it did among Remain supporters.

Brexit therefore shaped and reshaped the pattern of support for the two largest parties - and especially the Conservatives once again. However, the outcome of the election reflected the fact that Leave voters heavily backed the Conservatives, while Remain voters were more divided in their sympathies. It did not necessarily reflect the current balance of support between Remain and Leave. In any event, the reshaping means the division between social liberals and social conservatives is now reflected as much as the left/right in how people vote, while the traditional class divide in party support appears to have disappeared.

In Scotland, the alignment between views on Brexit and attitudes towards independence has strengthened further. However, this process is no longer neutral in its net impact on support for Yes and No. Rather the increase in support for Yes among Remain voters now outpaces the increase in No support among Leave voters. As a result, support for independence has increased, such that there may now be a narrow majority in favour of independence.
Exploitation Route As will be evident from the entries under engagement activities and publications, this project, like 'Public preferences and reactions during the Brexit process', has disseminated its findings widely to non-academic audiences, and will continue to do so.

In the wake of its electoral defeat, there is clearly a substantial debate taking place inside the Labour party about its future electoral strategy, including not least in respect of Brexit. Our findings on some of the reasons for this defeat are being disseminated to Labour politicians and strategists who may find the evidence useful.

Our findings, also raise questions for the Conservatives. The government has indicated a wish to heal the Brexit divide. However, its electoral base is heavily skewed towards Leave voters, and the polarisation between Remain and Leave voters may not be easy to reverse. This is something of which ministers might be wise to be mindful.

Our research indicates that the pursuit of Brexit is now undermining popular support for the Union in Scotland. This is of importance to the future hopes and aspirations of both the UK and the Scottish Governments, and the project is aiming to reach both audiences.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

URL http://whatukthinks.org/eu
 
Description To date, the findings of this project has been used in much the same vein been used in much the same vein as in the project on 'Public Preferences and Reactions to the Brexit Process' to which readers are referred.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description Invited Witness - Commons Committee on Exiting the EU
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
URL https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/exiting-the-european-uni...
 
Description Invited Witness - Lords EU Committee
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
URL https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/eu-select-committee-/news-...
 
Description Appearance in the UK in a Changing Europe Beer and Brexit interview series 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Discussion on the prospects for the general election and its potential implications for Brexit in conversation with the Director of the UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE), Prof. Anand Menon. Part of a regular series organised by UKICE.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://ukandeu.ac.uk/event/beer-and-brexit-with-sir-john-curtice/
 
Description Invited Keynote Lecture, part of ARK's 20th birthday celebrations, on the impact of devolution on public attitudes towards the Union 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Invited keynote lecture on the impact of devolution on trends in public attitudes in Great Britain towards the Union since 1999, including the impact of Brexit.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Invited Presentation at Chatham House on Brexit and the Future of British Politics 
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 at Chatham House on public attitudes to Brexit and the political implications thereof as part of the Director's Breakfast Briefing series.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.chathamhouse.org/event/brexit-and-future-british-politics
 
Description Invited Presentation on how Brexit has polarised Britain at Humanists UK Annual 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 Invited presentation on how Brexit has polarised public opinion at the annual conference of Humanists UK, Leicester.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://humanism.org.uk/events/convention2019/
 
Description Invited guest on Remainiacs podcast - discussion on Brexit and British Politics 
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 Invited guest on podcast series primarily aimed at those sympathetic to the Remain side in the EU referendum.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://audioboom.com/posts/7404232-intermission-impossible-with-guest-john-curtice
 
Description Invited speaker at event organised by Reaction on the 2019 UK election 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interviewed by the Director of Reaction, Iain Martin, on the prospects for the 2019 UK general election and the potential implications for Brexit.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://reaction.life/john-curtice-live/
 
Description Keynote Talk at UKICE Article 50: Two Years On Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Keynote presentation on public attitudes to Brexit at UK in a Changing Europe Conference on Article 50: Two Years On at QEII Conference Centre, London SW1
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://ukandeu.ac.uk/multimedia/article-50-two-years-on-conference-professor-sir-john-curtice/
 
Description Panellist at Ian Dale All Talk Show at Edinburgh Fringe Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Appeared as invited panellist on one of a series of shows hosted by Ian Dale at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Discussion focused, inter alia, on Brexit and British politics - remarks made subsequently secured media publicity.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://tunein.com/podcasts/News--Politics-Podcasts/All-Talk-with-Iain-Dale-p1240122/?topicId=133187...
 
Description Presentation at These Islands Conference 
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 the impact of Brexit on attitudes towards Scotland's constitutional status at a conference of politicians, policymakers, academics and the general public interested in maintaining the Union.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.these-islands.co.uk/publications/i345/more_speakers_announced_for_newcastle_conference.a...
 
Description Presentation on Brexit and the Future of British Politcs, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, July 2019 
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 attitudes to Brexit and their impact on party politics given at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office but open to civil servants from across Whitehall (and to other officials via videolink).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Presentation on the future of British Politics at Universities UK Annual Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Invited presentation on the future of UK politics at the Annual Conference of Universities UK.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/ac-2019
 
Description Presentation to APPG Social Science Group on 2019 European Elections 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Presentation to All-Party Parliamentary Social Science Group on the implications of the results of the 2019 European elections for British politics
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://esrc.ukri.org/collaboration/working-with-policymakers/all-party-parliamentary-group-on-socia...
 
Description Presentation to APPG Social Science Group on 2019 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 Presentation to All-Party Social Science Group on the impact of Brexit on the outcome of the 2019 UK general election.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://esrc.ukri.org/collaboration/working-with-policymakers/all-party-parliamentary-group-on-socia...
 
Description Presentation to Bright Blue Think Tank, January 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Invited talk to members of Bright Blue on the impact of Brexit on the outcome of the 2019 general election.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://brightblue.org.uk/drink-tank-anand-menon-2-2/
 
Description Presentation to House of Commons Committee Clerks, January 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited private presentation to Committee Clerks of the House of Commons on the impact of Brexit on voting in the 2019 election and attitudes towards post-Brexit public policy.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Presentation to House of Lords Committee Staff 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Private presentation to House of Lords Committee staff on 'Brexit and the Future of British Politics'.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Presentation to NE Chamber President's Lunch 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Presentation to North East Chamber of Commerce on how Brexit has reshaped the character and geography of party support.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.neechamber.co.uk/updates/chamber-news/sir-john-curtice-tells-ne-leaders-reason-for-the-r...
 
Description Presentation to staff for Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the impact of Brexit on attitudes to how Scotland should be governed 
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 to all staff in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Public Presentation on the Evolution of Public Attitudes during Brexit 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presentation as part Agile Rabbit 2019/20 public lecture series in Exeter.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.agile-rabbit.com/event/the-evolution-of-public-attitudes-during-brexit/
 
Description Talk on Brexit to conference in Lisbon on Challenges of Europe in Transition, Jan 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited talk (via videolink) on public attitudes to Brexit at conference organised by Cruz Vilada Advogados.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.cruzvilaca.eu/en/news/Os-desafios-da-Europa-em-transicao-debatidos-na-Primeira-Conferenc...