Britain is only weeks away from leaving the European Union. There is limited support for the Prime Minister’s negotiated Brexit deal, and the consequences of a no-deal Brexit are increasingly apparent. It may come as a surprise, therefore, that the public isn’t having second thoughts about Brexit. A majority of the public thinks it was wrong to vote to leave the EU, but this is a very slim majority. Very few Leave voters have changed their minds about Brexit.
One reason for this stability is that the EU referendum has triggered strong identities along Brexit lines. Figure 1 below shows the proportions of people who either feel close to one side or the other (British Election Study data) or identify as a ‘Leaver’ or a ‘Remainer’ (using our survey-tracker data, collected by YouGov). Most people now have one of these identities and the proportion in each camp has changed little since the referendum.
Figure 1: Proportion of people who identify as Leavers or Remainers
Note: The BES data use a question that asks whether people feel close to the Remain or Leave side. Our Survey Tracker data use a question that asks whether people think of themselves as Leavers or Remainers
These new identities shape how people view the consequences of Brexit. We know that political identities such as party identification affect how people select and interpret new information. For example, supporters of parties in government tend to think that the economy performed well, whereas supporters of the opposition tend to think economic performance was poor. Partisan identities lead people to construct economic ‘facts’ to fit existing prejudices.
A similar process of motivated reasoning applies to people with Brexit identities. For example, as Rob Ford and Alan Wager set out in the UK in a Changing Europe’s new report on Brexit and public opinion, this can have an impact on how voters view the implications of no deal. Leavers voted for Brexit in part because they were optimistic about Britain’s future outside the EU and were not persuaded by ‘Project Fear’. In contrast, most Remainers were worried about the economic consequences of Brexit. Both groups now tend to interpret new information in ways that reinforce those pre-existing views. There is therefore a considerable gap in how Leavers and Remainers see the consequences of Brexit.
To demonstrate this gap in perceptions, we asked respondents in a series of representative surveys conducted by YouGov whether they “think leaving the European Union will have a positive or negative effect on Britain?” The figure shows that people who identify as Leavers consistently think that Brexit will have a positive effect on Britain. This has not changed significantly over the last 18 months, even as assessments of the negotiations with the EU have become progressively more negative among both Leavers and Remainers. On the other side, Remainers have remained staunchly pessimistic about the outlook for Britain post-Brexit.
Figure 2: Views of Remainers and Leavers on the consequences of Brexit for Britain
Note: 3 indicates very positive view of Brexit for Britain, -3 indicates very negative view of Brexit for Britain
We also asked people what they thought the effect would be for them personally. Again, we see a clear gap in perceptions. While the differences are smaller, there is still an obvious divide between the optimism of Leavers and the pessimism of Remainers. And again, this divide has remained extremely stable throughout the negotiation period.
Figure 3: Views of Remainers and Leavers on the consequences of Brexit for them personally
Note: 3 indicates very positive view of Brexit for themselves personally, -3 indicates very negative view of Brexit for themselves personally
Finally, we see the same patterns when we ask people to tell us in their own words what they think will be the implications of Brexit. In July 2018, 87% of Remainers mentioned some kind of negative consequence compared to only 18% of Leavers. Conversely, 61% of Leavers mentioned some kind of positive consequence compared to only 3% of Remainers. These numbers are essentially the same as in April 2017 when we first started asking these questions. Leavers remain upbeat about the prospects of new trade deals, greater sovereignty and more control over immigration. On the other hand, Remainers tend to talk about negative economic consequences.
In short, the prolonged Brexit negotiations that were meant to bring greater clarity to the future have done little to bring people together. Today, Britain remains as divided as ever on the question of what Brexit will mean for the country.
Sara Hobolt is a professor of European politics at LSE and research leader, UK in a Changing Europe
James Tilley is a professor of Politics at the University of Oxford
You can read The UK in a Changing Europe’s Brexit and public opinion 2019 report here