Brexit means Brexit. When I studied law, that’s what we called a “circular definition”. The question of what it does mean – that is, how Brexit is to be carried out and what future relationship with the EU we are aiming for – has been deferred. Until now that is. The political mood seems to have changed since the party conference season. After a strange “Phoney War” hiatus, the debate is really kicking in now on (1) what we are aiming for, and (2) how we go about it – by executive action only or involving parliament, and if the latter, what influence will our elected representatives have.
There has been a lot of talk about “what the people meant” when they voted for Leave by 52 per cent to 48 per cent in the referendum. I’m not a pollster, but as someone working in public opinion research (albeit a qual specialist and mainly in non-political topics), I take a particular interest. Here’s my take on what kind of guidance the people have given the government on what Brexit should be like.
A word on polls first as I’ll be citing a couple. Surveys used alone are blunt instruments. They ask fixed questions, don’t get to see people’s body language or mood when they answer, can’t pick up easily on nuances of meaning and aren’t always great at digging beneath the surface for people’s real motivations. This isn’t to do them down, just to point out that you often need complementary qual (like wot I do) to build a full explanation of what people are really thinking and feeling. An election is an extremely reduced version of a survey – one question is asked and a whole raft of interpretation is then rammed into that cross-in-a-box.
In a general election, there is some interpretive help: there are manifestos to go on. That is, there is a convention that the party that gets elected into government with a majority of MPs is deemed to have a democratic mandate for the programme it published before the election. A referendum, on the other hand, is an even more extremely reduced version of an election. It decides one question, the one on the referendum paper:
With a referendum, there is no manifesto, there is no programme or even political party that people voted for. There is just the question.
Technically, the EU Referendum was advisory, but in reality parliament is obliged to enact its recommendation to leave the EU. That much is clear and agreed by almost all. But what else does it mean – what is the “will of the British people” beyond that, for example on what Brexit ought to entail?
The short answer is that it is, contrary to some claims, very unclear what the will of the British people on this is. And the referendum cannot itself clarify that. All it told us for sure was that the British people voted 52/48 for ‘Leave’.
People appeared to be worried about immigration levels – but were they voting for an end to open borders? Maybe. The truth is we don’t know. 52 per cent voted to leave the EU, but might some of them actually want to stay in the single market and keep free movement more or less as before? 48 per cent voted to stay in the EU, but might some of them actually like more immigration controls? This matters, because it only takes a few per cent fluctuation for there to be a decent majority for keeping something akin to the free movement we currently have. A coalition of the 48 per cent plus the soft Brexiters is not hard to imagine and would, it would seem, command a majority.
“Hard Brexiters” are arguing that the 52 per cent for Leave equals 52 per cent for hard Brexit (i.e. some arrangement involving leaving the single market). Former Remainers and soft Brexiters point out that leading figures in the Leave campaign like Boris Johnson explicitly said Brexit did not necessarily mean leaving the single market. The Leave campaign did not, of course, campaign on one single shared message on the form Brexit should take: they were a broad coalition of people with different positions. It was not necessary for the purposes of the referendum to have an agreed position on what form Brexit would take, because – and we come back to it – the referendum was on one question only: should the UK remain a member of the EU or leave it? That was all they needed to agree on as a campaign; and it was all the public was voting on.
As with any snapshot of voter opinion, voters have lots more going on in their heads than just a simple cross in a box can express. So was this, as some are saying, a vote “against immigration” and if so, against how?
It is true that there is big concern in the UK about immigration. Britain is not alone in that, it is a global phenomenon, as the Ipsos MORI release from August shows (Ipsos MORI global survey, immigration, Aug 2016):
Although in Britain views tend to be more negative than positive, we are actually mid-table on most measures, and there are some more positive views on immigration than in previous years. Thirty-five percent of Britons think that immigration has been good for the country (up from 28% a year ago, and 19% in 2011), while 49% think there are too many immigrants in the UK, down from 60% a year ago and 71% in 2011. These positive changes are despite a significant increase in immigration and the recent EU Referendum, where reducing immigration was a key factor behind the vote for “Brexit”.
Still, 49 per cent is a big, politically significant number of people to think there are too many immigrants in the UK, even if it’s a snapshot of a trend of opinion apparently on the way down. Does this impel the government to go for hard Brexit? Perhaps not: there are contrary indicators of how the public feels on this too. British people have also been increasingly seeing immigration in positive terms in recent years:
British people have become more positive about the impact of immigration over recent years. Forty-five per cent say immigration has been good for the economy, up from 38% a year ago and from 27% in 2011, and 38% say immigration has made it harder for native Britons to get a job, down from 48% a year ago and 62% in 2011. However, Britain is one of the countries most worried about the pressure placed on public services by immigration, with 59% concerned – although this too is down from 68% a year ago and from 76% in 2011, when Britain was the most worried of all the countries surveyed.
The worry for those in the UK who are worried seems to be the pressure being put on public services. Arguably, that is an issue that could at least in part be addressed by better funding of public services, rather than necessarily cutting immigration numbers. Labour’s argument, if its solipsistic leadership team actually managed to put one forward cogently, would be that it was the under-availability of public services after David Cameron’s over-enthusiasm for austerity which caused large sections of the public to form a negative view of immigrant numbers. But still, we have that 49 per cent figure to take into account, the number who think there are now too many immigrants in the UK.
So what kind of Brexit does this mean people want? The referendum itself was silent on that, so we must look again for other evidence. Luckily, some pollsters have actually bothered asking them.
In August, YouGov carried out this poll: YouGov poll: what sort of Brexit do we want? Do read the whole thing, it is fascinating and you can impress your friends no end by quoting the stats next time Julia Hartley-Brewer gives one of her many pearl necklaces another outing on national tv. As Anthony Wells of YouGov explains:
There is little support for a so-called “hard Brexit” – even among Leave voters. Only 10% of people think Britain should leave the EU completely and not seek any sort of formal trading relationship and only 22% think we should drop out of the EU as rapidly as possible.
The preferred scenario for Brexit so far appears to be the “Canada” one. This is where Britain would have “a limited free trade deal with the EU – there are no tariffs on goods, but service sectors like financial services would not be able export freely to the EU. Britain would make no financial contribution to the EU and EU citizens would have no right to live or work here.”
But the point is, none of them commands, or is likely to command, the support of a majority of the population. It certainly seems there are some options voters see as “not respecting the referendum”. That is politically significant; but technically, all the options here “respect the referendum”, because they all deliver Brexit. Political leadership may be needed to remind voters that all the referendum decided was leaving the EU. YouGov’s question on “respecting the referendum” is really interesting – it’s important people feel the referendum has been respected – but there is also an onus on political leaders to remind the public accurately what the referendum did and didn’t decide. We are not used to referenda and it seems some may be getting carried away in how far they are stretching their extrapolations from this one.
What’s more, as Wells says, it is early days.Voters don’t know an awful lot yet about the pros and cons of the Brexit options. If I were to do discussion groups on this, I would expect to have to provide stimulus and definitions before we could pin the discussion down, voters are not in a position yet to be able to just discuss Norway vs Canada vs Switzerland vs WTO terms unaided. We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet and when asked about this in a survey, many respondents I assume may well have felt quite shakey on their answers. Certainly I would struggle. With the Canada option, for example, when voters realise the hit to the economy involved in not being able to passport financial services, they may take a different view. Views may also change as we get poorer as a nation over the coming months and voters start to notice it as the cost of living rises. So, these are soft, initial figures.
But they do seem to kill off for good the notion that the Brexit vote was a mandate for hard Brexit of the kind advocated by, say, John Redwood. Far from it, it would seem. Redwood seemed particularly tetchy on Newsnight last night – nerves are starting to show, particularly with the pound now tumbling. It seems the Three Brexiteers may have some serious persuading to do if they want the British people to support their apparent direction of travel. Brexit may be in the bag, but hard Brexit isn’t.
Theresa May is more grounded and practical than any of them; if they are inclined to be cavalier towards public opinion, she as Prime Minster can’t be. Riding high in the polls and the overwhelming choice of Conservative MPs for unity candidate PM, May is at the moment politically unassailable. How Brexit plays out really comes down to her. She can go either way, hard or soft. She’s giving mixed signals at the moment as to where her arrow will be aimed. But if she does go for hard Brexit, she’ll be doing it against the wishes of most of the electorate. She’ll have a keen eye on that.
There is an argument for a referendum on the final deal in two years’ time. But if we don’t have that, it seems the public does need a say through parliament on what form Brexit takes. It will be the biggest decision in half a century and we’ll live with its consequences for at least a generation. Important though the vote to leave the EU was, it cannot surely be the last reference to public or parliamentary opinion in the process. It seems to me, it was only the start.
The 52 per cent are being listened to: we are leaving the EU. But in how we do that, all 100 per cent of Britons come back into play. Going forward, the Brexiters must remember that the British people consists of 48 per cent of people who want the same relationship with the EU as we currently have, plus, shall we estimate here, at least a good 5-10 per cent of the 52 per cent Brexit-voters who want some kind of single market membership (I’m plucking that figure from the air but it’s an educated guess). That would make a clear majority for a single market, or quasi- single market, arrangement.
Indeed, the YouGov survey backs that up, with 60 per cent prepared for the UK to follow EU regulations relating to the single market (and only 17 per cent finding that unacceptable); and 52 per cent in favour of allowing EU citizens the right to live and work in the UK:
These figures are a couple of months old at the time of writing, but we weren’t ready for the debate in August. It feels like we are now. It will be interesting to watch these numbers morph and shift in the run-up to the triggering of Article 50 in Spring 2017, as ideas crystallise (or remain vague … I’m not counting on anything!). Interesting times. And much is still up for grabs.