What Do Voters Want From Brexit?

Posted on 16 November 2016 by John Curtice

Given how contentious the debate about the desirable shape of Brexit is proving to be, it is perhaps surprising that there has not been more polling than we have seen so far on what voters would like to emerge from the negotiations between the UK and the EU. Apart from a number of readings on whether the UK should permit EU citizens already living in the UK to stay (all of which, see, for example here and here, suggest most people believe they should) such questioning as has taken place has focused on what it is presumed will be the crucial choice that the UK will face – to retain tariff-free access to the EU single market or to end freedom of movement. However, as we have noted before, the findings of these exercises have proven sensitive to the wording used and thus been quite contradictory. In any event such efforts presume that the public see the issue in the same way as policy-makers are inclined to do – and that is something that should be ascertained rather than assumed.

Today we release an analysis paper that tries to cast new light on the kind of Brexit that the public would like to see. It is based on fresh survey research conducted by NatCen during September and October (via the internet and by phone) with a panel of 1,391 people who were first interviewed as part of the 2015 British Social Attitudes survey and who have agreed to answer occasional follow-up surveys. This is a rather different kind of ‘internet polling’ than has so far commonly been carried out in the UK; it is an approach that tries to marry the traditional survey research merits of choosing people to be interviewed at random and taking a reasonable amount of time to obtain the interviews with the speed and efficiency that the internet can bring. Novel approaches to survey research have, of course, to be treated with caution, but it might be noted that after the panel data have been weighted to take account of differences in people’s willingness to participate in the follow-up survey and to ensure that the sample reflects the demographic profile of the GB population, 51% of the panellists say they voted Leave, while 49% indicated that they backed Remain. This is is almost entirely in line with the actual outcome of Leave 52%, Remain 48%, suggesting that the panel of respondents is in fact highly representative.

Devising survey questions about Brexit is not easy. The terrain is littered with technical terms such as ‘single market’, ‘free trade’, ‘customs union’, ‘freedom of movement’ and ‘passporting’. We should not assume that all voters necessarily have a firm grasp of these concepts. As you will see from the paper, we have deliberately avoided the use of such terms, though doubtless readers will have their own view on the merits of our attempts to describe some of these ideas in everyday language. Note too, that we also focused where possible on the implications for the ordinary voter of some of the decisions that will have to be made, such as whether they think customs controls should be reintroduced for goods and people moving between the UK and the EU and whether the EU’s regime in respect of the cost of mobile phone calls should still be followed by the UK.

Still, there is one key headline that emerges from virtually all of the items that we covered, irrespective of how they are worded. Voters cannot simply be divided into those who want a ‘soft’ Brexit and those who would prefer a ‘hard’ one. In fact, key elements of both approaches are supported by a majority of voters.

On the one hand there is nearly universal support for maintaining free trade between the UK and the EU, while nearly two in three support allowing financial institutions registered in the EU to operate in the UK (and vice-versa) and a similar proportion think the UK should continue to implement EU regulations on the design and safety of goods. On the other, around seven in ten voters believe that the UK should be able to limit immigration from the EU, while a similar proportion believe there should be customs checks at the border with a EU country. Voters evidently do not look at the Brexit process as an either/or choice in the way that many a politician and policy-maker is inclined to do.

True, as we might anticipate, Remain voters are rather more likely than Leave voters to be in favour of the components of a ‘soft’ Brexit, while, conversely, Leave voters are keener on the options for a ‘hard’ Brexit. Even so, a majority of Leave voters back free trade, financial passporting and following EU manufacturing regulations, while a majority of Remain voters support limiting immigration and introducing customs checks. In short neither group of voters regards Brexit as a binary choice between ‘soft’ and hard’. A majority of both groups looks as though they would be happy with an outcome that contained bits of both.

Still, what if this option were not to be on the negotiating table? Where do voters’ priorities lie?

Our effort at addressing this issue asked people whether the UK should allow EU migrants to come here freely to live and work if this were the only way that British firms would be allowed to trade freely in the EU. It proves to be a question on which the public are just as divided as they were on June 23rd. While 49% said the UK should ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ allow freedom of movement for EU citizens in those circumstances, 51% said it ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ should not. Meanwhile, on this topic there is a clear divide between Remain and Leave voters; 70% of Remain voters think the UK should concede freedom of movement in return for free trade while 70% of Leave supporters take the opposite view.

So if, as many a EU politician has indicated, the UK’s continued access to the single market will be contingent on the continuation of freedom of movement, Theresa May’s government will be faced with a tough choice. Either accepting or refusing such a deal is likely to give rise to political difficulties for it back home. However, perhaps we should note that amongst the group of voters about whom the Prime Minister maybe cares about most – those who say they would vote Conservative in a general election – 60% are against allowing freedom of movement in return for free trade. For Mrs May that could come to look the better bet should she be forced to choose.

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By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

12 thoughts on “What Do Voters Want From Brexit?

  1. This survey is interesting, but deficient because it does not explain why people voted as they did. This survey seems to show is that most people in the UK do not agree with the core obligations imposed on us by the Singe Market – which is, in its entirety, the essence of the EU. The logical conclusion would be that most would have voted to leave the EU if that was all there was to consider. Evidently, there was more to it. Something pulled Remainers back fro the brink. I would suggest three major factors. 1. A conviction that the EU is a broader force for good – the brave face of internationalism in a dangerous nationalistic world, where European countries need to stand together against the dangerous forces of China, Russia (maybe now the US also). 2. That the EU saves the UK from itself by providing environmental, social and other protections which our own parliament in Westminster has not and would not in isolation. Some would call this a backdoor for British socialism or a backstop against the inevitable social violence of Conservative policies. More sadly it could be interpreted as a lack of faith that British governments can respond effectively to the needs of the British people, so much so that we are willing to place our destiny in the hands of an unelected elite in Brussels. 3) Fear of the unknown and isolation, but specifically a string of negatives including, economic disaster, European pariah status, political impotence, zenophobia and racism.

    This seems to show us what a mess the EU has become. People want many aspects of what international collaboration offers, but they reject the EU as an appropriate institution for delivering this, partly because it is too big and ineffective, and partly because it goes too far beyond the wishes of the majority. One is tempted to describe the EU and Brexit much as Churchill described the USSR: “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.Report

  2. Anything to say about this? Such as, a public repudiation of the press release?


    “CaptainRogers -> ProjectReality 8m ago

    Almost everyone (90%) supports remaining part of the European single market, regardless of how they voted in the EU Referendum, according to a new report published today by NatCen Social Research.

    But at the same time as many as seven in ten (70%) think the UK should be able to limit the number of people from the EU who come here to live and work. Indeed, almost three-quarters (74%) believe that potential EU migrants should have to apply to come here in the same way non-EU migrants have to do.

    Today’s paper, the most comprehensive study yet undertaken of public attitudes towards the shape that Brexit should take and published as part of the ESRC-funded What UK Thinks: EU project, shows that Leave voters (90% in favour) are almost as keen as Remain voters (94%) on staying in the single market.


    The UK needs to choose. And despite the insistence of the hardcore Brixiters, it seems we still haven’t.”Report

  3. When you ask a question provide a dictionary explaining just what it means and give examples of thousands voted yes and 10’s of thousands voted No. Don’t leave it to chance that people understand the wording of the text. Report

  4. You say:
    “Devising survey questions about Brexit is not easy. The terrain is littered with technical terms such as ‘single market’, ‘free trade’, ‘customs union’, ‘freedom of movement’ and ‘passporting’. We should not assume that all voters necessarily have a firm grasp of these concepts. As you will see from the paper, we have deliberately avoided the use of such terms, though doubtless readers will have their own view on the merits of our attempts to describe some of these ideas in everyday language.”
    So why has your press office sent out a release:
    “Voters want UK to stay in the EU single market but be able to control immigration”
    and claiming:
    “Almost everyone (90%) supports remaining part of the European single market, regardless of how they voted in the EU Referendum”Report

  5. Are people fully informed, so able to make informed comments? The quarter following Brexit saw about 30,000 EU immigrants find work in the UK. In the same period 120,000 non-EU immigrants also found work in the UK. However, the media only mentioned the EU immigrants not the non-Eu ones.

    In addition, as you mentioned in the analysis, are people aware of the ramifications of their choices: e.g. if we remove free health care for EU citizens, what happens to Brits in the EU if they fall ill. Would we also remove free health care for non-EU visitors?

    Reciprocal agreements on banking is another one where people seem to be uninformed. The other member states would dearly love to strip the UK’s passporting rights. And allowing the UK financial services access to a population of 450+ million in the EU in exchange for EU banks having access to the UK’s population of 65+ million doesn’t seem much of a bargain for the EU.


    1. The NHS

      Each country’s health system is different and might not include all the things you would expect to get free of charge from the NHS. This means you may have to make a contribution to the cost of your care in other EU Countries.


      The Financial Conduct Authority revealed that 8,008 financial firms based in the European Union, including banks, insurers, payments firms and traders, rely on ‘passports’ to do business in the UK.

      That is 46 per cent more than the 5,476 British-based companies – many of which will be American and Japanese banks with bases in London – that have a passport to do business in the EU.


    2. It would be so useful if we stopped quantifying the potential of the EU market for UK companies in terms of its population. Which particular UK financial services are we expecting to be competing for business across those 450+ million people? More generally, 75% of UK exports to Europe go to just 8 of the 27 other EU countries.Report

  6. CORRECTION – The words “remaining part of” (this implies continued membership) in this statement should be changed to “access to”. Otherwise the statement “Almost everyone (90%) supports remaining part of the European single market”, remains misleading and incorrect.

    FURTHER – The survey participants do not seem to be split 50/50 between leave/remain as reflected in the general population. The two questions; “should Britain allow people from the EU to live and work here in return from free trade” demonstrates this. Report

  7. This survey seems to confuse membership of the single market, which by default is acquired by being a member of the EU, and access to the single market, big difference! The statement “Almost everyone (90%) supports remaining part of the European single market”, seems to be based on asking participants of the survey whether we should allow companies based in the EU to sell goods and services freely in to Britain in return for allowing British companies to sell goods and services freely in the EU”. But this can be achieved through an FTA (Free Trade Agreement), or access to the single market. You can not state that 90% of the survey participants want to retain membership of the single market based on a question solely asking if you would like free trade with the EU. Unless of course, you explain that membership of the single would also entail the UK accepting the “four freedoms”, free movement of goods, capital, services, and people and that the UK would still be under the jurisdiction of the European Court Justice, which was not asked. The word “membership” in this statement should be changed to “access”. Otherwise it remains misleading and incorrect.



  8. Oh dear, another article that does not understand the difference between ‘membership’ and ‘access’ to the single market – see last paragraph. Access is NOT contingent on the free movement of people, membership is. Every country has access.

    The question asked about the single market did not differentiate between membership and access. Had I been a participant in the survey I would have answered ‘yes’ to the question about allowing EU companies to sell here freely and for our companies to sell freely in the EU (I interpret that as ‘access’). But I am in favour of our giving up membership.

    The BBC, the Guardian et al will now jump on this and broadcast that 90% want to retain membership.Report

    1. You are absolutely right. When will we get some accurate reporting and debate about this subject? Apart from the ‘access’ vs ‘membership’ aspect, we rarely hear any debate which refers to the other elements of being a member of the single market, including the requirement for all UK business to comply with EU rules, standards and regulations, even if they don’t export to the EU – about 95% of all British businesses. Also, as far a I can see, this research did not address the issue of legal sovereignty – where our laws are made and which courts are the final arbiters. Frequently dismissed as an issue but I am sure this is very real in the minds of many Brexiters. The survey does not address more geo-political considerations – many Remainers feel the EU is a force for internationalism and overall good in the world, while many Brexiteers feel it is ineffective, suffering from a democratic deficit and and poor governance, economically doomed. It seems the whole Brexit debate is now suffering from the same populist dilution of debate as he rest of politics.Report

  9. Inevitably, given population sizes, respondents in England will dominate the conclusions in this report. But politically, it is important to know how those in the Scots and NI polities responded to those questions.

    Any plans to report on the similarities/differences between the 4 polities in the UK?Report

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