One issue that we’ve returned to periodically on the blog over the last two and a bit years is attitudes to the European Union. There have been several reasons for this. There was an obvious topicality to this issue during the run-up to the May 2014 European Parliament elections. Then, after UKIP’s success in those elections and their strong polling performance in the months prior to the general election, attitudes to the EU were again one important factor to consider.
The issue is clearly not going to go away. We are promised a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU before the end of 2017. We don’t yet know the date of that referendum. Nor do we know the extent of the ‘re-negotiation’ of British membership of the EU that Prime Minister Cameron will seek, or secure. Nonetheless, though much remains to be clarified, the battle-lines are already being drawn. Last week saw the launch of what seems certain to be the main official ‘Remain’ campaign. And we have also seen the establishment of two, potentially competing, ‘Leave’ organisations.
With the referendum looming at some point, our regular Welsh Political Barometer polls will keep asking about referendum voting intentions. They, and other polls that are conducted, will presumably also periodically ask other questions that explore other aspects of public attitudes to the EU. Obviously, we’ll regularly present and summarise the evidence from Wales here on this blog. There are also some very good resources for information about GB-wide polls on the issue – most obviously the Twitter Feed (@) and forthcoming blog from my friend Prof John Curtice, which I’d strongly encourage you all to acquaint yourselves with.
One aspect of this topic that has been raised repeatedly is how attitudes compare between the different nations in the UK. Both the SNP and Plaid Cymru strongly support continued EU membership. And the leaders of both parties have argued that the EU Referendum should require that the UK only withdraw from membership of the EU if all four nations within the UK have agreed to that. The not-terribly-subtle subtext to this demand has been the suggestion that both Scotland and Wales are less Euro-sceptic than England; and from that has followed the argument that “Scotland/Wales should not be pulled out of the EU against their will”.
I can’t believe that either Nicola Sturgeon or Leanne Wood ever thought for a moment that David Cameron would agree to their demand on the referendum result. But the premise that seems to lie behind it is worth exploring: are Scotland and/or Wales really less Euro-sceptic than England?
I’ve considered that question once or twice in previous blog posts. The picture presented by the evidence has not always been wholly consistent. However, when I was recently asked to offer a one-paragraph summary of the general picture, this was what I came up with:
“Views in Wales on the European Union in general differ little from those in England. Wales has been for some years a recipient of significant EU Objective I funding. There is also a very long-standing tendency for Wales to vote more for parties of the centre-left, whose supporters tend to be more pro-EU than those of the Conservative party. Despite these factors detailed surveys indicated that broad attitudes towards the EU in Wales are little, if at all, more favourable than in England; voting intentions on the forthcoming EU membership referendum tend also to be very similar, with Welsh voters at most only slightly more favourable to EU membership… Wales thus contrasts somewhat with Scotland, where attitudes to the EU and referendum voting intentions tend to be distinctly more positive than in England.”
Our latest Barometer poll offers some evidence that allows us to see whether this general pattern is still correct. As well as referendum voting intention, we also asked a question (used previously in many different studies right across the EU) about whether respondents considered the UK’s membership of the EU to be a ‘good thing’ or not. As well as asking these questions in Wales, we also were able to include both of them in contemporaneous surveys in both England and Scotland. So this gives us a pretty up-to-date picture on where attitudes stand in the three nations. I should perhaps also add that, because these three polls were conducted by the same survey agency (YouGov), at the same time, using the same survey method and questions, and weighting the data in very similar ways in all three places, there are far fewer concerns about the cross-national comparability of the data that there might often be.
First, then, the ‘good thing’ question. How did our respondents react to this one in the three nations?
Generally speaking, do you think that the UK’s membership of the European Union is a good thing or a bad thing or neither good nor bad?
|Neither Good nor Bad||15||17||20|
The pattern of responses here fits pretty clearly within the general pattern indicated above. England is the most sceptical about the value of EU membership, and Scotland the most enthusiastic. Wales is in the middle, but somewhat closer to England.
What about actual referendum voting intention? The pattern of responses here was very similar:
EU Referendum Voting Intention
|Would Not Vote||2||2||4|
Of course there’s a very long way to go until the referendum (although we don’t yet know quite how long). And this is only one poll (or, rather, three parallel polls). But these findings do suggest that it is by no means implausible to imagine England voting differently in the referendum from Scotland, and maybe also differently from Wales. It is also possible to imagine the referendum outcome being achingly close. My own rough calculations from these polling numbers suggest that, if referendum turnout were to differ across the three nations in roughly the same way as it did in the general election – where Scottish voters turned out in somewhat greater numbers than did those in England and Wales – then the ‘Remain’ side would be very marginally ahead. But it would be achingly close.
(Of course, I haven’t talked at all about Northern Ireland in this post. The distinctiveness of the party system in Northern Ireland has long meant that it is not included in most ‘national’ opinion polls, which take their samples only within Great Britain. However, if the referendum were to end up being as close as suggested by the figures here, their votes could really make all the difference!)