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The Legacy and Future of Brexit

Posted on 08 October 2020 by Sir John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow
Tags: BSA 37, Brexit, British Social Attitudes, political attitudes, public trust

Today sees the publication of two chapters on Brexit as part of the latest British Social Attitudes report. One examines the legacy of Brexit, that is, the impact that the process of leaving has had on our attitudes towards how we are governed. The other looks at what people hope Brexit will bring in future, that is, what they think the UK government should do with the new powers and responsibilities that it will acquire at the end of the transition period in December.


During the course of the Brexit stalemate last year, as Parliament repeatedly voted down the government’s Brexit proposals but was also unable to find a majority for any alternative course of action, concern was widely expressed that the stalemate was undermining voters’ confidence and trust in how they were being governed, and that that in turn was eroding their interest in politics and the democratic process.

There is some evidence to support this picture. In the latter half of last year, a record number (79%) said that the system of governing Britain needed a lot of improvement. Fewer people than ever (just 15%) said that they trusted governments to put country before party.

However, on other measures attitudes seem to have changed little. Although two in three agreed that ‘MPs lose touch with people pretty quickly’, at 20% the proportion who strongly agreed with this proposition is little different from what it has been for much of the last thirty years. Much the same is true of whether parties are only interested in people’s votes or whether it makes any difference which party is in power.

Voters may have reacted adversely to some of what they saw and heard during the Brexit stalemate, but we should be wary of assuming that it heralded a new era of unprecedented disenchantment.

Indeed, the argument about Brexit may have helped draw more people into the political process. Many express a strength of commitment to ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ that few feel nowadays about our political parties. Meanwhile, the period since the EU referendum has witnessed record high levels of reported interest in politics. Parliamentary stalemate may be unedifying but it is not necessarily a turn off.


Two issues have been to the fore in the debate about the policy stance that the UK should adopt once it has left the EU – immigration and regulation. The UK government made it clear early on in the Brexit negotiations that it wished to end freedom of movement. Meanwhile, in more recent talks about our post-Brexit relationship with the EU it has been keen to assert the future right of the UK to set its own regulatory standards.

Our research suggests that the decision to end freedom of movement is in tune with majority public opinion. Around three in five (62%) believe that people from the EU who wish to come to the UK to live and work should have to apply to do so. There also seems to be majority support for the government’s stance that we should treat applications alike, irrespective of a potential migrant’s country of origin.

However, voters are seemingly not always in agreement with the details of the government’s proposals on migration. Those emphasise skills and income. Yet less than one in five (18%) think that bankers should have high priority while as many as three in five (60%) believe that care workers should. Meanwhile, over half of voters (55%) either think that there should not be any minimum income threshold at all or that it should be no more than £15,000.

For some advocates of Brexit, the European Union has been inclined to regulate too tightly. There is, however, little sign that the public are looking for a less restrictive regime. A majority of voters want to keep the EU rules on compensation in the event of a flight delay (80% are in favour) and the EU regulations that ban charging more for using a mobile phone abroad (69%). There is little support to changing the current food regulations that currently debar the import of chlorinated chicken (24% back a change) or hormone-treated beef (11%). Indeed, most voters (78%) would take advantage of Brexit to ban the export of live animals.

But then perhaps we should not be surprised that an electorate that wishes to have more control over immigration is not one that necessarily wants less control over how they are treated as consumers?

‘Has Brexit Damaged our Politics?’ by John Curtice and Ian Montagu, and ‘How should Britain use its newly acquired sovereignty? Public attitudes towards post-Brexit public policy’ by John Curtice, Ceri Davies, Jim Fishkin, Robert Ford, and Alice Siu, are published and freely available as part of the latest British Social Attitudes report.

A podcast by John Curtice, Ian Montagu and Alex Scholes that discusses some of the findings is also available here.

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