The Evolution of Public Attitudes During The Brexit Process

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


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,, 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,, 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.


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