The results on 23 June 2016 were clear: 52.5% of Wales’ population voted to leave the European Union and despite a brief suggestion of ‘Bregret’, there appears to have been little shift in public opinion since. Here Professor Roger Scully reflects on what current opinion polls tell us and outlines how new qualitative and quantitative research over the next few years will start to probe what the Welsh electorate really know, feel and understand about Brexit.
The Welsh Brexit vote confounded the recommendation of almost the entire Welsh political elite, and contradicted the self-image of Wales as a pro-European nation propagated by much of that elite. Wales produced a result in the June 2016 EU referendum (52.5% Leave to 47.5% Remain) that almost perfectly mirrored that of the UK as a whole.
The regular Welsh opinion polls, the Welsh Political Barometer (a collaboration between ITV Cymru-Wales, YouGov, and Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre) had correctly suggested that the referendum result in Wales would be close, with Leave in with a serious chance of carrying the day. Since then they have continued to ask Brexit-related questions.
What do the results suggest about the evolving views of people in Wales?
The three polls conducted in Wales since the referendum have all asked about how people might vote if the Brexit referendum were rerun. After a brief suggestion of ‘Bregret’ in the first such poll, things seem to have reverted more-or-less to where they were:
Such aggregate stability in polls can often mask huge individual-level ‘churn’: lots of people can change their minds but largely cancel each other out. However in this case that is not what has happened. Very few people having changed their minds since last June; the overwhelming majority of both Remain and Leave voters indicate that they would still vote the same way in another referendum. And this persisting Remain-Leave division pertains to broader attitudes as well.
For instance, when the most recent poll offered people a number of options for the type of Brexit deal the UK should seek, there was no clear consensus around one option, and that lack of agreement reflected vastly different views among Remain and Leave voters:
So more than three-quarters of Remain voters prefer either a ‘soft’ Brexit or no Brexit at all, while an even higher share of Leaver voters opt for some form of ‘hard Brexit’.
Similarly, if we ask people about the relative priority of free trade or border controls, remain and Leave voters look at matters very differently:
And these differences also relate to expectations about the future. When asked about the impact of Brexit on Wales, Remain voters take a much more pessimistic view:
And similar gaps in perception relate even to the personal impact of Brexit: although Remainers tend to be more affluent than Leave voters on average, they expect Brexit to have a more negative impact on their own situation:
In short, overall, we see little change in attitudes in Wales since last June. More strikingly, we see no real signs yet of a public consensus emerging on Brexit: Remainers and Leavers seem more, in Disraeli’s famous words, like “two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planet”.
Yet there continues to be much that we don’t know.
We know little about levels of public knowledge and understanding of the issues surrounding Brexit. Nor do we have much idea yet of how malleable those attitudes may prove to be in the face of external events.
Given that Brexit is likely to be the defining political and economic issue of the next few years, Cardiff University has provided funding, which will be used to undertake far more detailed research to look to develop our knowledge further.
We will continue to use the Barometer polls to track the broad general trends at regular intervals but we will also be running a more detailed academic survey to explore knowledge and attitudes in much greater depth. And we will also be conducting some qualitative focus group work, concentrating initially on Leave voters in the valleys that voted so heavily for Brexit.
There much more to learn in this area, and Cardiff University will be leading the way in doing so.
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 and Acting Director, 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.