A Nation of Remainers and Leavers? How Brexit Has Forged a New Sense of Identity

Posted on 22 October 2018 by John Curtice

It has now become commonplace to say that attitudes towards Brexit are polarised. One reason is that the country remains more or less evenly divided between the merits of Remain and Leave, as our recently launched EURef2 Poll of Polls shows. Another is that different kinds of voters typically have very different views. Most younger people and university graduates would prefer to stay in the EU, while most older people and those with few, if any, educational qualifications back leaving.

But perhaps there is also a third reason. This is that many voters are very strongly committed to their side of the argument. Indeed, so strong is this commitment that these voters now think of themselves as a ‘Remainer’ or ‘Leaver’, in much the same way that somebody might think of themselves as, say, a ‘Manchester United fan’ or a ‘Manchester City supporter’. Being a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’ has become part of their self-identity, and a label to which they feel an emotional bond and which serves to underpin and reinforce their support for staying in or leaving the EU irrespective of the arguments and counter-arguments about what Brexit will or will not bring.

Such an idea is not new to the study of politics. The idea that somebody might say ‘I’m a Conservative’ or ‘I’m Labour’ has been recognised by academics ever since the advent of the scientific study of voting in the immediate post-war period – and doubtless it was part of everyday discourse long before that. However, ever since the 1970s one of the key findings of academic surveys of voting behaviour has been a gradual but persistent decline in the proportion who say that they identify with a party, and an especially marked drop in the proportion who say that they do so strongly.

So, it might be thought something of a surprise if an electorate that has become increasingly disengaged from our political parties should now demonstrate a strong emotional commitment to being a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’. On the other hand, it has often been remarked that the debate about Brexit in Britain is part of a wider resurgence of the ‘politics of identity’ as manifested in everything from the rise of populist anti-immigrant parties in a number of European countries to the (tonally very different) demands for independence in, for example, Scotland and Catalonia. Perhaps, then, many a voter does feel a strong emotional attachment to their side of the Brexit debate, thereby adding another dimension to the polarisation engendered by Brexit.

That, at least, is what Professor Sara Hobolt and her colleagues have argued on the basis of their work on voters’ attitudes towards Brexit as part of the ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ programme.  Today we publish an analysis paper that reports on our efforts to test and assess their claim, and in particular to compare how many people feel a strong Brexit identity with how many say nowadays that they identify strongly with a party. The paper is based on data collected during the summer as part of the most recent wave of questions on attitudes towards Brexit to be asked on NatCen’s mixed mode random probability panel.

There is one clear headline. Our research strongly supports the claims of Professor Hobolt and her colleagues. Nearly nine in ten members of our panel said that they were either a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’, whereas less than two-thirds of them claim to identify with a political party. Meanwhile, no less than 44% say they are a ‘very strong Remainer’ or a ‘very strong Leaver’, whereas only 9% claim to be a very strong supporter of a political party.

Strong identifiers are to be found on both sides of the Brexit debate. They are, though, a little more prevalent on the Remain side. While 45% of Leavers say they are a very strong Leaver, no less than 53% of Remainers report a very strong identity. It is sometimes suggested that, given the importance of immigration and sovereignty to many voters on the Leave side, their views are rooted above all in emotion and identity. However, the large proportion of very strong identifiers on the Remain side suggests that in practice emotion and identity underpin the views of many a Remainer too.

These who identify strongly with one side or the other have some distinctive views. Very strong Remainers are more likely to oppose than support the idea that prospective EU migrants should have to apply to come to Britain in the same way as non-EU migrants do – no other group of voters takes that view. Meanwhile very strong Leavers are especially likely to be critical of how the EU has been handling the Brexit talks. The two groups are clearly looking at the Brexit process through very different and partisan lenses.

But nowhere is this more clearly the case than in respect of the perceived economic consequences of Brexit. Very strong Remainers are almost unanimous in believing that Brexit will make Britain’s economy worse off. In contrast, the vast majority of very strong Leavers believe that the economy will be better off. It is, then, little wonder that after more than two years of debate about what Brexit should and could mean, relatively few voters on either side have changed their minds about the relative merits of Remain or Leave. For even if the head is uncertain, the heart remains sure.

Avatar photo

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 “A Nation of Remainers and Leavers? How Brexit Has Forged a New Sense of Identity

  1. Thank you for collating relevant data and charting changes over several years where possible.
    One of my concerns is that the Brexit debate appears defined on a very short term basis
    i.e. that when Westminster decides to Leave or Remain the issues will be resolved.
    If I understand the main Brexit (Leave) options – Deal, No Deal or Customs Union deal – this decision will simply start the next stage of far more complex negotiations likely to take 5-10+ years – not only with EU but with scores of other nations.
    I have devised a scenario exercise that invites people to project their expectations for each option for one, two, 5 and 10 years ahead, whatever their current preference. Will these options be beneficial for the UK economy and political stability (optimistic scenarios), or potentially hazardous? And what effects or interactions might each UK Brexit option have with scenarios for the EU economy and political stability?
    Do any of the polls explore short and medium term (5-10 years) expectations for the different Brexit options please, ideally with regional analysis? Report

  2. It is clear that representative democracy is democracy in name only. A referendum was a once in a lifetime occasion to give the people a choice not a choice of which elite puppet who takes his instructions from monopolists. The politicians cry remain because they are crying for their elite sponsors.Report

  3. I would respectfully suggest that practically none of the above is relevant.

    Most of the laws of our country were set before I was born and I had no say in them. If, as has been suggested, those who were too young to vote at the referendum should now have their say in a second referendum, does that then apply to us all? If so, we will be having referendums every year.

    The decision was made by a clear majority, 4% and more than a million votes and it should be honoured without further delay. It is preposterous that 600 MP’s should be allowed to overthrow the will of 17.4 million citizens.Report

  4. The country will never get together until we have left and are our own nation again. In the EU we shall always be a divided nation..Report

  5. I think we were all lied to about Brexit, how easy it was going to be, and the extra money that we would have for the nhs it was a big con, Cameron only held it to save his neck, now watch as firms decide to go to Germany leavlng many jobless, unless we get a good outcome,Report

  6. “Being a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’ has become part of their self-identity, and a label to which they feel an emotional bond and which serves to underpin and reinforce their support for staying in or leaving the EU irrespective of the arguments and counter-arguments about what Brexit will or will not bring.”

    I am very glad that someone said this, because I have been thinking along these lines for a while. In fact, post Referendum I now think that personality type plays a larger role in determining opinion than I ever thought before.

    Is it fair to say that the typical Brexiteer is adventurous, confident and willing to take a risk. And that the typical Remainer is a very cautious person who holds on tight to Nurse’s hand for fear of finding something worse?

    Before dismissing the idea out of hand, think for a moment of what Remainers say: that Bexiteers are reckless people who are putting the economy at risk, that the UK is too small to survive on its own – unlike Singapore – that we need the EU to “give” us influence in the World that we can’t command by ourselves, and that it’s good for us to have the EU telling us to clean up our beaches and put our toys away before bed-time.

    Another way to put this is that Brexiteers are people who see Brexit as another welcome violation of the long post-1945 narrative of British decline and dependency, a way of breaking out of a very tired story, while Remainers are those who find that same narrative very comfortable, warm and unchallenging.Report

  7. The percentage of the population below voting age when the referendum took place and who are now eligible to vote is obviously increasing all the time. They are the people who will have to live with the
    result for the longest period, yet, as things stand, they have no say.This is preposterous and that is why the settlement must be put to the British people before it comes into effect.Report

    1. This point, often made, ignores the fact that older voters tended to vote leave and that the proportion of older voters has grown over the last two years. It is also interesting that we are being asked to accept the will of the younger generation on this issue when it is plain to see that most of those with experience of life prefer the “leave’ option. I have lived with the consequences of elections and referendums throughout my life that have been decided by older voters but now I am older myself I am asked to let the young decide. Report

  8. Remainers continue to take seriously and with growing concern information such as today’s NAO report.

    Leavers are idealogues who have consistently written off the findings of the overwhelming majority of impact assessments in favour of…. well basically Patrick Minford. Report

  9. I’m surprised the analysis is implying that people are mostly so entrenched in their views that they are not susceptible to rational argument and economics. It’s true that the movement towards Remain is being influenced by younger, more educated adults coming of age – combined with deaths at the other end of the scale.

    But I don’t think that can be the entire story – maybe Middle-England retiree Brexiteers are unlikely to change their minds, but a quick look at the regional breakdowns shows the change can’t all be the result of a shift in demographics.

    In the North in 2016, 50% felt that the Leave vote was correct, 36% felt it had been a mistake and favoured Remain. The latest breakdown shows 42% support Leave while 46% now support Remain. That’s a pretty significant shift in an area of the country which is beginning to realise the economic implication for their region. Report

  10. The Govt’s, and much of the media’s, whole course since the 2016 vote has been to dismiss/ignore/sideline the views of the 48% who voted Remain, in the name of “the Will of the People” (despite the narrow 4% margin). May’s thrust from the outset was not for a consensus, but to placate the extremists in her party – until now, when the folly and impossibility of doing so has become obvious even to her. Together with the total absence of any emerging positive evidence of real benefits resulting from Brexit (quite the opposite), this attempt to wipe them off the slate has inevitably led to the greater resolve of the Remainers, as revealed by these findings.Report

  11. I would feel misled if I’d been asked the questions in the survey, and that was taken to mean that I ‘identified’ as a Leaver or Remainer. It is an issue that I have views on, it doesn’t make it part of my identity. The analysis doesn’t take into account that the news around potential consequences may have an effect, although this strikes me as implicit in “Just 68% of them would vote Leave again, whereas as many as 95% of ‘not very strong’ Remainers say they would vote Remain once more” and the graph on your website on “In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?” which shows a shift from net ‘right’ to net ‘wrong’ since the referendum. Why the effort to suggest that further news isn’t shifting people’s opinions? What are your views on whether there should be another referendum, I think we should be told 😉 [And what do you think the outcome would be?]Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *