How Discussion Influences Voters’ Attitudes towards Post-Brexit Immigration and Regulation

Posted on 1 January 2021 by John Curtice

Britain has now left the EU single market and Customs Union. That means it is at liberty to exercise the ‘sovereignty’ that many advocates of leaving the EU were keen to reclaim. But how do voters want that ‘sovereignty’ to be exercised? What policies would they like to see enacted in place of the legacy of EU rules and regulations that the UK has hitherto been obliged to follow?

We provided an initial answer to that question in respect of three issues – immigration, food policy, and consumer regulation – in a chapter that formed part of the latest British Social Attitudes report. That was based on three surveys of the general public conducted in the spring and autumn of 2019 and again in the spring of last year.

Like all such surveys, the answers it elicited were essentially ‘top of the head’ reactions, expressed without there being any requirement for respondents to have given much thought to the issues at stake. The surveys provided a simple snapshot of current public opinion. However, the results may not necessarily indicate what the public would come to think if they were to learn more about the issues at stake – for example, as a result of the issues becoming more prominent in the media and/or the subject of controversy. And as compared with the intense discussion about the merits of Brexit that has taken place over the last four years, there has been relatively little discussion of the post-Brexit options that might now be pursued.

To gain some insight into how voters’ attitudes towards some of the post-Brexit policy choices facing the UK might evolve in the light of further information and discussion, during 2019 and 2020 we brought together a subset of the people who had responded to our regular surveys and gave them the opportunity over a weekend to discuss some of the policy options facing policy makers in respect of immigration, food policy, and consumer regulation. The events (conducted as part of our Future of Britain project in collaboration with the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University) were held online – initially as a matter of choice and subsequently out of necessity – in what represented the first Deliberative Poll to be undertaken virtually in the UK.

Today we publish a briefing paper that reports on how attitudes shifted over these weekends, as measured by surveys of participants before and after each event and informed by qualitative analysis of the discussions that took place. The survey data have been weighted so that the mix of participants is as representative of the general population as possible.

Even before they had participated in one of our events, the attitudes of our participants towards immigration were distinguished by two characteristics. First, participants were inclined to the view that immigration was good for the economy and that it enriched Britain’s culture. Second, they were opposed to freedom of movement for EU citizens. In this they were typical of the general population (see here, here and here).

This combination became more marked in the wake of deliberation. Participants became even more likely to believe that immigration was beneficial for Britain’s culture and the economy. However, at the same time, they became more inclined to back tighter rules on immigration, including in respect of freedom of movement. Moreover, much of the movement of opinion in favour of control occurred among those who began (and ended) the weekend in the belief that immigration was beneficial.

Here is one example of the movement that occurred. Prior to their deliberative event, 45% of those who believed that immigration was good for Britain’s economy said that EU citizens who wish to come to the UK to live and work should have to apply to do so, in just the same way as non-EU citizens. In contrast, 80% of those who did not think that immigration was good for the economy held that view.

In short, those who felt that immigration was beneficial were less keen on ending freedom of movement – but, even so, approaching half of them still felt that EU citizens should have to apply to come to the UK.

After deliberating those that thought that immigration was good for Britain’s economy became markedly more likely to say EU citizens should have to apply to come to Britain. The figure now stood at 67%, a rise of 22 points. In contrast, among those who were less convinced of the economic benefits of immigration the equivalent proportion had, at 83%, barely changed at all.

This finding helps unravel a puzzle in recent trends in attitudes towards immigration. Since the 2016 referendum more than one survey has found an increase in the proportion of people who feel that Britain benefits from immigration (see here and here). That gave some on the Remain side hope that concerns about immigration might no longer be a barrier towards maintaining a close relationship with the EU. Yet in practice there has been little sign of a sustained decline in the level of opposition to freedom of movement.

In truth, this should not surprise us. Our research shows that a belief in the benefits of immigration does not necessarily translate into support for a liberal immigration regime. Rather, it appears that while an informed electorate may be more likely to acknowledge the benefits of immigration, it is also more likely to feel that a measure of control over who can come to UK and under what conditions is also required. Not least of the possible reasons, of course, is that voters come to the view that control can help ensure that immigration is beneficial.

However, when the discussions at our events turned to food policy and consumer regulation the results challenged the suppositions of some of those on the Leave side of the debate. For some advocates of Leave one of the key arguments in favour of exiting the EU has been that it should enable Britain to set its own food policy and consumer regulation – and perhaps, in so doing to reduce the level of regulation.

There was little sign of this mood among our participants. For a start, in contrast to immigration, many aspects of consumer regulation are not ones where Remain and Leave voters have very different views. Second, whether it is the regulation of energy-guzzling vacuum cleaners or the sale of chlorinated chicken, our participants tended to become keener on regulation during the course of the deliberation. Third, even though there was some initial reluctance among those who voted Leave for the UK to maintain some EU regulations, such as those that guarantee of compensation for those whose flight has been delayed, by the end of the deliberation their views had moved closer to the views of their Remain counterparts.

The pattern of attitudes towards continuing to follow EU rules on the labelling of geographically specific foods illustrates the last of these points. Prior to deliberating, only 36% of the Leave voters among our participants were in favour of ‘requiring shops and supermarkets in Britain to follow EU rules on what foods can be called a ‘Cornish pasty’ or ‘Stilton cheese’. Afterwards, however, as many as 63% were in favour – not far short of the equivalent figure of 78% among Remain voters. It appears that for some Leave voters, their dislike of things European was displaced by considerations of the practical impact of labelling on their lives as consumers.

One of the central arguments in the talks between the UK and the EU on their future relationship was about the need for a ‘level playing field’, that is, that trade between the two should not be ‘distorted’ by one party setting markedly different regulatory standards from the other. But it seems that so far as British public opinion at least is concerned, too much attention was given to this subject. For our research suggests that in practice UK governments are unlikely to find themselves under pressure from their voters, including from those who voted Leave, to introduce a markedly lighter regulatory regime that departs significantly from EU standards. Rather, we may discover that debates about regulation in post-Brexit Britain will prove to be about practical politics rather than questions of ‘sovereignty’.

Thinking about Post-Brexit Public Policy: Voters’ Perspective on Immigration and Regulation by John Curtice, Ceri Davies, Jim Fishkin, Robert Ford and Alice Siu is available here.

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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.

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