Brexit and Public Opinion 2019
(This report was published on 22 January 2019)
“Introduction. Public opinion has always been central to democratic politics. All the more so when the most important public policy decision of our time is being taken on the basis of a plebiscite, which returned a verdict different to that desired by a majority of our elected representatives. ‘The will of the people’ has become a catch-all phrase bandied about by all and sundry, as a means of legitimising whatever claim they care to make.
What, then, is the reality? What do we know – and equally what do we not know – about the state of public opinion when it comes to Brexit and issues related to it? This is what we seek to ascertain in the various contributions that follow.
Our contributors present findings which point to an electorate reshaped by Brexit. Bobby Dufy points to the dysfunctional nature of the debate on Brexit and the fact that it has limited cut through with the public. Similarly, Noah Carl uncovers evidence of ‘motivated reasoning,’ whereby voters across the Brexit divide select options that are most psychologically comforting for them. He also underlines that there is no evidence to suggest that Remain voters were better informed than their Leave counterparts.
Paula Surridge cautions against premature claims the traditional left-right division in British politics is no longer relevant. She also makes the point that the relationship between values and political behaviour depends on the context of the vote in question. That being said, as Evans and Schafner report, there is strong evidence of the enduring power of ‘Brexit identities’.
Indeed, the social and emotional intensity of these is far higher than those for parties. Moreover, Brexit identities effect how voters see the world. In Hobolt and Tilley’s fascinating contribution, they say that those on either side of the Brexit debate interpret new information in ways that reinforce their pre-existing views. This echoes the point, made by Bobby Dufy, about the limits ‘new facts’ serve in convincing anyone of anything.
Brexit is not the only source of division. Heath and Richards point out that the nations of the UK are themselves divided, with national identity shaping attunes towards Brexit. Place also maters, as Jennings, Stoker and Warren remind us in their revealing analysis of cities and towns.
Moreover, public attunes are both more subtle and more fluid than many imagine. Sunder Katwala reports the results of the National Conversation on Immigration, and finds that most people are balancers – acknowledging both the positive and negative impacts of immigration –while being distrustful of both the government and the media when it comes to this issue.
Meanwhile, Rob Ford detects a major shift in public sentiment over immigration since the referendum of 2016, measured both in terms of its salience and perceptions of its economic and cultural impact. sense, they are representative in that, as Wager and Cowley report, each party mirrors the divisions in society at large. Albeit that – as Bale, Polet and Webb underline – the positons of the leadership, particularly on Brexit, diverge from those of their own members. Less often discussed, but equally interesting and important, Coree Brown Swan underlines the dilemma that Brexit poses for the SNP: making the case for independence more compelling, whilst potentially making that independence more difficult.
These represent, as I suggested above, merely a taster of the rich analyses that follow. John Curtce underlines claims of widespread support for another referendum must be taken with care. Innovative ‘stated choice’ experiments set out to understand the trade-offs the public are willing to make in defining a new relationship with the EU. Fascinating insights into the geography of public opinion – in the four nations, and the EU – are sketched out. What follows is both comprehensive and hugely informative. Perhaps the best and easiest thing for this introduction to do is, simply, to commend what follows to you.”
Friday 15th February 2019
Jorge Emilio Núñez