England ‘Leave’ vote could be overturned by rest of UK

A new report published by NatCen Social Research today shows that the UK as a whole could still vote to remain in the EU even if a majority of voters in England wish to leave.

Recent polling shows that there are some sharp differences between the four parts of the UK in how people say they will vote in the EU referendum.  In England opinion is almost evenly divided between those who wish to leave the EU (48%) and those who wish to remain (52%). In contrast in the rest of the UK there are clear majorities in favour of remaining. In Wales 55% wish to do so, in Scotland, 64%, and in Northern Ireland as many as 75%.

This majority support for remaining in the rest of the UK could be enough to overturn a small majority to leave in England. Should the vote in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland be in line with current polls, a small majority in England voting to leave the EU of between 50-52.4% would still result in an overall majority in favour of remaining in the European Union.

At the same time, just a slightly bigger shift towards leaving in England could overturn much larger majorities for remaining in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Party politics

The report, the third in a series of papers as part of the ESRC-funded project ‘What UK Thinks: EU’’, shows that the difference in outlook across the UK reflects the sharp differences in party politics that now exist across the UK.

The balance of referendum vote intentions amongst Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and UKIP voters is much the same irrespective of where they live in the UK. Nearly all UKIP voters wish to leave the EU, Conservative voters everywhere are evenly divided on the issue, while a majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters wish to remain.

But the relative weakness of the Conservatives outside of England, and of UKIP in Scotland means there are fewer Eurosceptics in those parts of the UK.

Meanwhile, supporters of the SNP, which now dominates the political landscape in Scotland, largely follow their party’s lead in favour of the EU. And while in Northern Ireland a majority of those supporting unionist parties support leaving the EU, those backing nationalist parties are almost unanimously in favour of remaining.

Identity matters

Apart from party politics, people’s views about EU membership appear to differ across the UK because of differences in the way their sense of national identity shapes their views.

In England, support for leaving the EU is particularly concentrated amongst those who feel ‘very strongly’ English. As many as 63% of this group wish to leave, double the level of support for leaving found amongst other voters in England.

In contrast, support for leaving the EU is not as high amongst those who feel very strongly Scottish or Welsh. However, in Scotland those who described themselves as “very strongly Scottish” are slightly more likely to support leaving the EU (41%) than is the Scottish population as a whole (37%).

Rachel Ormston, Head of Social Attitudes, NatCen Social Research said: “England is the most Eurosceptic of the four nations of the UK and it is easily conceivable that England could vote differently in the referendum to the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This appears to reflect divisions in party politics across the UK: the views of the public tend to mirror those of the party they support. Given the relatively low levels of current public enthusiasm for the EU referendum, the positions taken by the leadership of the different parties – and particularly that of the Conservative party in England – could well prove decisive.”


Download the full report here 


For more information or a copy of the report contact Sophie Brown: sophie.brown@natcen.ac.uk, 020 7549 9550 or 07734 960 069 or Leigh Marshall: Leigh.Marshall@natcen.ac.uk, 0207 549 8506 or 07828 031850 

  1. The ‘What UK Thinks: Europe’ website can be accessed at www.whatukthinks.org/eu. It provides a comprehensive collection of polling and survey data on attitudes in the UK towards Europe, data on what the rest of Europe thinks about the EU, and impartial commentary and analysis on the evidence of the polls. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its initiative on ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’.
  1. NatCen Social Research is an independent, not for profit organisation. We believe that social research has the power to make life better. By really understanding the complexity of people’s lives and what they think about the issues that affect them, we give the public a powerful and influential role in shaping decisions and services that can make a difference to everyone.
  1. The UK in a Changing Europe – UKandEU.ac.uk – promotes independent, rigorous, high-quality academic research into the complex and ever changing relationship between the UK and the European Union. We provide an authoritative, non-partisan and impartial reference point for those looking for information, insights and analysis on UK-EU relations.
  1. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it celebrates its 50th anniversary.