Communities and Culture, Devolution and Constitution

New research shows deep divisions persisting on Brexit

Drawing on the most detailed examination of what the Welsh public think about Wales’ decision to leave the European Union, Professor Roger Scully outlines how latest research on attitudes to Brexit reveals that deep divisions still exist between Remain and Leave voters, and that no consensus is emerging among Welsh people on the Brexit process.

Back in March, I wrote on this Blog about new Cardiff University-funded research that we would be undertaking to enable us to look in far more detail at whether people’s knowledge and attitudes to Brexit had been shifting since Wales voted to leave the European Union in 2016.

Today, we are able to release some of the early findings of this work. These findings draw on our regular Barometer polls to track the broad general trends at regular intervals, as well as a major academic survey of the public to explore knowledge and attitudes in much greater depth. We have also been conducting some qualitative focus group work, concentrating initially on Leave voters in the valleys that voted so heavily for Brexit.

Our data shows that 2016 Remain and Leave voters are still deeply divided over Brexit: not only about what they want to happen, but also over what they think will be the consequences of Brexit, and even over how the process of Brexit should be managed.

The data shows that:

  • There is no consensus on what kind of deal the UK should seek with the EU. The majority of Leave voters (78%) would like to see the UK regain full control over how Britain is governed and who can live in the UK, even if that means not having a free trade relationship with the EU. By contrast, some 63% of Remain voters either wish for Britain to remain in the EU after all (41%) or to retain close ties through associate membership (22%).
  • When asked if they would personally be better or worse off as a result of Brexit, an unsurprising 73% of Remainers believed they would be worse off, compared to only 17% of Leavers. Most Leavers (53%) feel that there will be no perceivable difference, though nearly a third (30%) believe they will be personally better off after Brexit.
  • Similar findings can be seen when asked about the consequences of Brexit for Wales, with 82% of Remainers believing that the nation will be worse off, compared with only 24% of Leavers. The majority of Leavers (52%) again expect there to be no marked difference, with 24% thinking Wales will be better off.

We also asked respondents about what they believed the impact of leaving the EU would be on key policy areas including unemployment, immigration, Britain’s global influence and the amount government spends on the NHS. The data showed that:

  • On the question of unemployment, the majority of Leave voters (60%) expect unemployment to stay around about the same as now, but some 30% believe that it will fall after Brexit. Almost no Remain voters think that unemployment will fall: the majority (54%) think it will be higher, and another 39% think that it will stay at about the same level.
  • When it comes to immigration into the UK, the majority of Leavers (70%) expect to see immigration fall, whereas only 30% of Remainers believe immigration will lower – 63% of them expect it to remain about the same.
  • On the issue of Britain’s global influence, very few Leave voters (10%) think that Britain will have less influence after Brexit, compared with 68% of Remain voters who expecting that Britain’s place in the world will be diminished.
  • And when it comes to whether there will be more or less money spent on the NHS on the UK leaves the EU, only 11% of Leave voters thought that this would fall, compared to fully 50% of Remain voters. Very few Remainers believe more money will come to the NHS after Brexit (6%, compared to 35% of Leave voters).

When asked what they would like to see happen once the talks are concluded, there is again no consensus among voters. Most Leave voters thought that any agreement struck between the UK and EU should either be implemented immediately (40%) or implemented after a ratification vote in the UK parliament. By contrast, a majority of those who voted Remain in 2016 either wish for a second referendum to endorse an agreement (33%), or think that both the UK parliament and the devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should have to ratify any deal.

First qualitative study of working-class Leave voters

Our research into what the public think about Brexit also included the first detailed qualitative study of working-class Leave voters in the south Wales valleys.

The valleys have been large recipients of EU Structural Fund aid in recent times – yet all of them voted for Leave, most by substantial margins. Focus groups conducted with working-class Leave voters suggest (in line with opinion polling) that very few Leave voters have changed their minds on Brexit since the referendum.

The focus groups also found that:

  • There remains substantial hostility among many of these voters towards immigration, with specific problems cited being immigrants taking jobs from locals and driving down wages – to the benefit of employers rather than ordinary workers;
  • The statement that Wales is a net beneficiary from the EU budget was treated with significant scepticism by focus group participants. And much EU spending in the valleys was viewed as wasteful ‘vanity projects’.
  • Many Leave voters expect that Brexit may cause short-term problems, but they expect it to be worth it in the longer-term.

This research has provided us with the most detailed understanding yet of public thinking about Brexit in Wales. The picture it paints is not a positive one. There is little sign of public consensus emerging on Brexit: we are not coming together, as the Prime Minister has suggested, but continue to be deeply divided.

Remainers and Leavers from June last year not only want different things from Brexit. They also expect different things to result from the UK leaving the EU. And they even have different views about the political process – about how Brexit should be done.

The survey was conducted by YouGov for Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre. Some 3014 respondents were interviewed, via the internet, between 23 June and 6 July 2017.

The five focus groups were among working-class Leaver voters in the south Wales valleys (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhondda) and were carried out in late August 2017. Each focus groups included 7-11 Welsh adults, all aged over 18.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Welsh Brexit blog, nor Cardiff University.

Professor Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, based in the School of Law and Politics. He is the Principal Investigator for the 2016 Welsh Election Study. Roger also runs the Election in Wales Blog


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