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After four years of Brexit, British Social Attitudes reveals voters’ hopes and fears for life outside the EU

08 October 2020 | Tags: British Social Attitudes

As the UK prepares to leave the single market and the customs union at the end of 2020, new research from the British Social Attitudes Survey - carried out by the National Centre for Social Research - reveals a nation that is divided on Brexit, has had its confidence in its politics shaken by Brexit yet is more politically engaged, with clear expectations about what should happen when it finally fully leaves the EU.

  • Around three in five (62%) believe that migrants from the EU should have to apply to come to Britain rather than enjoy free movement.
  • But three in five (60%) think care workers should have priority in the immigration queue.
  • Around half (51%) believe the economy will be worse off as a result of leaving the EU.
  • Around a half (51%) also think that being in the EU has undermined Britain’s ability to make its own laws.
  • But 80% want British airlines to continue to follow EU rules on flight compensation and 69% want to follow EU rules on the costs of mobile phone calls made abroad.
  • Trust and confidence in government fell to record lows in the wake of the Brexit stalemate. Nearly four in five (79%) think the system of governing Britain needs a lot of improvement.

The consequences of Brexit

After four years of the Brexit process and the parliamentary deadlock in 2019, voters are as divided and polarised as ever on the consequences of Brexit.

Around half (51%) think the economy will be worse off as a result of Brexit, compared with 40% in 2015, while the proportion who think the economy will be better off has held steady at around a quarter (23%). Only 22% think it will not make much difference either way, compared with 31% in 2015.

While three-fifths (60%) of Remain voters believe that Brexit will result in Britain having less influence in the world, nearly half (49%) of Leave voters express the opposite view.

Around a half (51%) of all voters think that Britain’s ability to make its own laws has been undermined by being part of the EU. No less than 85% of Leave voters express that view compared with just 30% of Remain voters.

Trust in government and interest in politics

Trust in government has fallen away significantly since 2016. Shortly after the referendum, 22% of people said they trust the government ‘most of the time’ or ‘just about always’, the highest level since 2007. By 2019, this had dropped to 15%, the lowest level recorded in over forty years, with more than two times as many people saying they ‘almost never’ trust government (34%).

In 2019 after the parliamentary deadlock over Brexit, nearly four in five (79%) people said Britain’s system of governing could be improved either ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a great deal’, an increase from 63% in 2014 and the highest level ever recorded.

However, the Brexit process seems to have stimulated people’s interest in politics, rather than encouraged them to switch off from the world of Whitehall and Westminster. Between 1986 and 2013, an average of around three in ten people (31%) had a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of interest in politics. Immediately after the Brexit referendum this increased to around four in ten (42%) and is still as high as 39%.

Immigration after Brexit

There is widespread support for ending freedom of movement once the transition period is over. Around six in ten (62%) say that people from the EU should have to apply to live in the UK, while at least as many (65%) believe the same principle should apply to people from Britain who want to live and work in the EU. However, support for ending freedom of movement has fallen back somewhat from the 74% who in 2016 said that EU migrants should have to apply to come to Britain.

Most voters also appear to back the principle of treating migrants the same irrespective of their country of origin. As many as 58% said that it should be neither relatively easy nor relatively difficult for people from France to come to the UK, while much the same was true of people from Poland (58%), Pakistan (55%), and Australia (53%).

Voters do think that the job someone does should make a difference. However, they do not simply draw a distinction between ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ workers. While 80% believe doctors should be a high priority, only 18% say the same of bankers. And while just 19% believe hotel cleaners should have priority, as many as 60% feel that care workers should. The perceived social value of an occupation seems to matter more than skill.

More than half (55%) believe there should either be no minimum salary threshold for those wishing to live and work in Britain, or it should be no more than £15,000.

Food, farming, and services

Voters have little apparent appetite for more liberal regulations on food production and sale - suggesting a public reluctant to see the UK swap the EU’s stance for that of the USA.

Three in four (75%) oppose the sale of chlorinated chicken and nearly nine in ten (88%) are opposed to hormone treated beef. Around six in ten (59%) currently favour keeping the EU ban on growing GM crops.

As many as eight in ten (80%) support requiring British airlines to follow EU rules on flight compensation, while around seven in ten (69%) want to keep the EU ban on roaming charges for mobile phone calls after Britain leaves the EU.

Around two-thirds (66%) are in favour of continuing to pay subsidies to farmers after Britain leaves the Common Agricultural Policy, with only one in three (33%) opposed.

There are only relatively small differences between Remain and Leave voters in their attitudes towards the regulation of food and consumer services.

Professor Sir John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow at the National Centre for Social Research and Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, said: “Our research challenges some of the myths that surround the Brexit debate. Voters did react adversely to the Brexit stalemate - but this reaction was to be found just as much among Remain voters as Leave supporters, while the experience seems to have stimulated rather than depressed voters’ engagement in politics. Meanwhile, although most voters wish to see an end to freedom of movement - including many who voted Remain - the government’s immigration proposals would appear to be rather more restrictive than many voters would like, while there does not appear to be a widespread public clamour for a less strict regulatory regime than the one Britain has enjoyed as an EU member.”