I’ve been wanting to write something about Brexit for a little while, but confess I’ve found it incredibly difficult to do so. Part of this is my feeling that as somebody who voted to remain I don’t want to be a bad loser. On the other hand, as somebody who voted to remain I do want to be a bad loser.
Like many on the remain side of the divide I have heard nothing to convince me that Brexit is not a colossal disaster looming on our horizon. I’ve been weighing up whether I think supporting a democratic vote is more important than sticking to my principles. Perhaps the best I can do is channel Groucho Marx's maxim that of course I have principles, but if they don't fit the occasion, I can always find new ones.
One thing seems certain: Brexit, in one form or another, is going to happen. Quite what Brexit will mean in practice is incredibly difficult to say. The referendum saw the country divide into what appear to be two tribes: Brexiters, and Remainers. There is no happy meeting ground between the two sides. Those who want to come out of Europe do not want to hear that it will be bad for the economy. Those who want to stay in are equally unlikely to believe that a great trading opportunity is about to open up. Indeed, far from coming together the two tribes seem further away from each other than ever.
The British public seem to think that over the next few years (whatever that means) Brexit will be bad for the UK. In a recent Opinium poll for The Observer, when asked ‘Do you think leaving the EU will ultimately be good or bad for the UK?’ 18% replied ‘very bad’.
Now, apart from indicating that a significant proportion of the citizens of the UK are incredibly pessimistic about our future, it’s not really clear what is meant by ‘ultimately’ or what they think is ‘bad’. This is part of the problem with polls. If you ask people a question they tend to answer it, even if the question makes little real sense. Despite that caveat the poll does give us some insight into how people are understanding the current political impasse over Brexit.
Is Brexit going well?
Whilst over half the population think that Brexit will ‘ultimately’ be bad, this is matched by the same proportion (51%) thinking that the whole process is more difficult than they had expected. Whilst we might think that those who opposed Brexit would be expected to see it as more difficult than expected, it is interesting to note that 49% of those who voted leave think this is the case. Now, again, I would take some issue with the question wording, since it is not clear whether they thought it would be an easy process - so ‘being more difficult’ might simply mean that they are surprised it will take until March 2019. Or, it might mean that people thought unravelling the various agreements to which the UK is a signatory is going to be a bit tricky, but only now is it becoming apparent that it is a bureaucratic nightmare to unravel our existing agreements, let alone put in place anything that resembles a deal of any kind.
The point is that even those who were incredibly optimistic at the ease with which we might leave Europe are forced to admit that it is more difficult than they had imagined. Having said that, a small minority (5%) think it is easier than they had expected. You have to wonder what they had expected!
The fact is that exiting the EU is incredibly complex. There are multiple agreements already in place and the UK is the first member state ever to leave the EU. It is true, just to clarify, that Greenland left the EU in 1985 - although Greenland was never a member state as such since it joined in 1972 when it was a territory of Denmark. Following the granting of Home Rule in 1979, a referendum in 1982 meant that Greenland formally left the EU and became an overseas country and territory (OCT). In return Greenland receives funding from the EU and is bound by a number of EU regulations. It’s worth pointing out that Greenland, with a population of around 57,000 and a GDP of $2.2 billion, spent 3 years negotiating a deal with the EU. By comparison the UK has a population of 65 million people and GDP of $2.6 trillion.
Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain’s ambassador to the EU for ten years, has claimed that it could take up to 10 years for the UK simply to replicate trade deals it already has.
The recent trade deal between the EU and Canada took seven years to complete. Whilst some might think this is because of the bureaucratic nature of the EU and an unwillingness on their part to do things quickly, the reality is that agreements of this type are incredibly complex and cannot be done over a glass of Chardonnay during dinner.
It is likely that the British public are starting to wake up to the fact that negotiating an exit deal is difficult and this is reflected in a growing pessimism with 34% saying (in the previously referenced opinion poll) that they have become more pessimistic about the UK's future since the EU referendum. Even amongst those who voted leave where 37% are more optimistic since the referendum, there are still a substantial proportion (11%) who are pessimistic.
Some of this pessimism is probably a reflection of the fact that the UK is rushing inexorably toward a cliff edge of departing the EU without having negotiated a satisfactory deal. 44% of the Opinium respondents felt that it was unlikely that the UK would have negotiated a satisfactory deal. Even among Conservative voters, whose party is doing the dealing for the UK, 33% think it unlikely that we will get a satisfactory deal (with 36% thinking it likely that we will, the only group who are showing such optimism).
What does a ‘Good Deal’ look like?
If people think a satisfactory deal is one in which the UK pays nothing, and continues to enjoy tariff free trading with the other 27 member states of the EU then it is unlikely that we will get a satisfactory deal. On the other hand, if you are of the opinion that the UK has commitments it should honour and that it is worth ceding some of our autonomy to secure a trade deal then perhaps a satisfactory deal is more likely.
The poll asked specifically about people’s attitudes to freedom of movement, presumably because this is seen as something of a red line for many people including the government. But, also because it is a significant difference between the views of the Conservative Government and the Labour Opposition. Whilst Theresa May has repeatedly stated that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, Labour’s position argues to "seek a transitional deal that maintains the same basic terms that we currently enjoy with the EU."
The poll asked people to choose between two options. 'Ending free movement of labour even if it means we leave the single market’ or 'staying in the single market even if it means allowing free movement of labour’.
40% of the respondents endorsed the second option, against 37% who endorsed option one. From a Labour point of view, this is very good news as it means that the position outlined by Sir Keir Starmer would appear to enjoy a significant support within the country. It is worth noting however that whilst this is true, the support is mainly from those who voted remain, where 70% support the single market option with only 10% saying that we should end free movement. Amongst Labour voters, general support for Labour’s position comes alongside a significant minority (of 16%) who want to end free movement of labour even if it means losing access to the single market.
Not surprisingly given that the question forces people into one of only two options, 23% did not choose either. In other words, there is no unanimity on the issues of staying in the single market or ending freedom of movement. Both options are still on the table in the court of public opinion.
The news is not significantly better for Theresa May when it comes to the options were the UK unable to agree a deal with the EU. Whilst 37% think that the UK should leave without a deal, this is disproportionately the view among Conservative voters (57%) and leave voters (62%). For Labour the news isn’t, at first look, much better. Their preferred option of a longer transitional deal whilst we obtain a ‘satisfactory’ deal is the preferred option of only 25%. However, this quarter of the sample is pretty uniform across political parties (26% of both Labour and Conservative voters think this the best course of action). Whilst it is slightly more popular amongst remainers than leavers, it needs also to be seen in context of the third option, which is the one that hardly anybody is promoting – walking away from Brexit and remaining in the EU. This has the support of 23% of the sample, and is the most popular option amongst both Labour voters (41%) and remainers (46%). Unsurprisingly, it has virtually no support among Conservative voters (8%).
In the event of negotiations going sour it might be necessary for the Government to go back to the country. Whilst this could be done via a General Election (though this is not the best option for reasons I will explore briefly below), it has been argued by some, including Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat leader and Leanne Wood, Plaid Cymru leader that there should be a second referendum. The Opinium data shows no great support for such an option. Whilst 35% would support a referendum on the final deal, a clear majority (53%) would not. Support for a second referendum is greatest among Lib Dem voters (70%), Labour voters (56%) and remainers (64%). The opposition is, not surprisingly, greatest among leavers (82%) and Conservative voters (80%).
However, if there were another referendum 46% say they would vote to remain, whilst 45% would vote to leave. Amongst those who voted remain in the first referendum 91% would still vote remain, and amongst those who voted leave, 88% would still vote to leave. In other words, there has been no great movement between the camps. On the other hand, there would not need to be a huge shift among leavers for the remain camp to win a second referendum. Realistically, the fact that there is little enthusiasm for a second referendum among either Conservative or Labour voters (or perhaps more significantly their MPs) mean that it is highly unlikely to happen.
What to make of this? Well, firstly the ritual rehearsing of all the arguments used in the Referendum Campaign is making little difference to the majority of voters. It seems that opinions as far as Brexit are concerned are fairly solidly set. That is to say that those who were committed to leaving the EU have not substantially changed their views. They may be frustrated at the difficulty of leaving, they may be unimpressed with the way in which the Government is handling the negotiations, but nothing is changing their minds on the outcome they want. Similarly, remainers may feel that they have all the best arguments but unless the other side is prepared to listen to them, airing them is simply wasting their breath.
Of particular interest, however, is that a significant minority appear to be incredibly confused about what is happening and what is in their own, and the country’s, best interests. One-third of respondents were not sure which party they trusted most with the negotiations. 13% did not know whether there should be a second referendum once the terms were known. 23% were not sure whether to maintain freedom of movement or whether that should be a red line. In other words, despite the impression of two camps who have solidified opinions, there is a large group of voters who are still waiting to be convinced, or are simply fed up with the entire process.
A third tribe, perhaps?
From a party political point of view, it is clear that Conservative and Labour voters are in, pretty much, entirely opposite camps on Brexit.
Among Labour voters 56% are more pessimistic since the referendum, 60% believe it will be ultimately bad for the UK, 58% that it is more difficult a process than they imagined. Some 56% of Labour voters would back a second referendum, and 67% would vote remain. At the very least 61% support staying in the single market regardless of freedom of movement rules. Whilst 41% would prefer to remain in the EU if no deal is reached, 26% would support an extended transition deal.
Among Conservative voters 40% are more optimistic since the referendum, 55% think it will be ultimately good for the UK, although 51% report that it is more difficult than they had imagined. Some 80% of Conservative voters reject the need for a second referendum, but were one held 72% would vote to leave. Ending freedom of movement is a red line for Conservatives with 63% saying this is more important than staying in the single market. Whilst 57% of Conservative voters would be prepared to leave without a deal, there is a minority (26%) who would support an extended transition period, about the only thing they have in common with some Labour supporters.
At the last General Election whilst the Conservatives were keen to make it about Brexit, believing rightly that this would play well with their own supporters, it would appear that many people who supported Brexit placed it behind the NHS, Education, the economy, welfare and were prepared to support Labour candidates. There is no evidence to support a view that the electorate would punish MPs in leave constituencies who voted to remain. A small number of seats were lost by remain MPs but it is not clear whether Brexit played a significant part in those seats or not.
What we do know is that whilst the referendum was a one-off that a General Election is never about a single issue. For this reason those who argue that the terms should be put as part of an election campaign are being slightly disingenuous. A clear majority (71%) believe that Brexit is distracting the Government from other issues, such as the NHS and education. Whilst Brexit is seen as the most important issue facing the UK in a recent Ipsos-MORI poll, it is not clear that it will be the deciding factor at a General Election.
As Nat Le Roux, of the Constitution Society has noted: “a significant part of the Leave vote represented a generalised protest against the political elite, and it would be unwise for that elite to reject the outcome too readily. ”Whilst he warns the elite against frustrating the popular will, the General Election, which was called to strengthen the Prime Minister’s Brexit negotiating hand, was conducted on fairly usual terms. Brexit was an issue but it was not the only issue.
What is important is that the terms of any agreement are put before parliament where our elected representatives have the opportunity to scrutinise them and make a decision on our behalf. Given the complexity of the process this is the only really democratic option.
I began by saying that I had found writing about Brexit very difficult. That is largely because on the one hand, I do not want to disrespect the referendum. On the other hand, I do not much care to be shouted down either.
Some of the debate around Brexit has been inflammatory to say the least. The Daily Mail branded judges "enemies of the people" simply for ruling that Parliament should have the final say. Tory leadership contender Jacob Rees-Mogg has called Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, an ‘enemy of Brexit’ and also accused the BBC of an underlying pro-remain agenda.
In a democracy it should be possible to lose a vote and still be able to put forward arguments contrary to the majority. Or else, we fall into what deTocqueville called the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and the marginalisation of minority views. In this particular case, at a time when the country is divided the minority represents almost half of the population.
What the Opinium poll suggests, and this comes with all the usual caveats about not believing opinion polls, is that there is a divide between Labour and Conservative voters and those who voted remain and those who voted to leave the EU. It is unlikely, in my opinion, that these differences are going to be resolved by discussion. It is also unlikely that there is a neat compromise that will appease both sides of this argument. In such an environment it is important that views, even contrary views, can be expressed. The two tribes seem to be as far apart now as they were in June 2016. However, to think of the electorate as 'two tribes' may be over-simplifying the division. The 2017 General Election showed that whilst Brexit may be in many people's minds, it is not the only thing they care about. In the General Election, people's party political allegiances re-affirmed themselves with a clear division between Labour and Conservative visions of the UK's future. Whilst it is true that, broadly speaking, leavers are more likely to favour the Conservatives and remainers to favour Labour, the data suggests that there are significant numbers in each group who are voting for a party that only tangentially supports their position on Brexit. The obvious conclusion is that as important as Brexit may appear, other issues are taking precedence in the ballot booth.
It is also worth noting that whilst 33 million took part in the EU referendum only 32 million voted in the General Election. That is still a large number of people, but many of the million may well be non-voters who were motivated by the referendum, but who will now return to their previous electoral inactivity.
Of course, any party that could galvanise the missing million voters would reap the benefits at the election. But, given the results of the Opinium poll, those million are most likely to be leavers, and therefore it is the Conservative Party who would be most likely to attract their votes. On the other hand, many of these voters are from traditional Labour voting areas and if the General Election is any guide would be most likely to vote as they always had. Truth is, we cannot be sure one way or the other. What we do know is that the country is divided between those who want out of the EU and those who would prefer to remain. But it is also divided between those who favour a free market and pro-austerity Government, as opposed to a party (or parties) with greater commitments to public spending and commitments to favouring the poor over the rich.
Brexit may, or may not, prove to be the biggest disaster to ever befall the UK. The result of Brexit will almost certainly be a downturn in the economy. Whilst the length of that downturn is unknown, what is certain is that many of those who voted to leave the EU will be directly affected by it. But one thing is certain, tensions will certainly rise and any party that can convince Brexiters that their interest is best served by its programme could get a resounding victory. At the moment Brexiters are drawn toward the Conservatives, how long that remains to be the case as the implications of Britain's withdrawal become clear is to be seen. The only thing I am prepared to predict is that the two tribes will not merge into one big happy family.