Some 29 months since the referendum and things are coming to a head – finally. Brexit and our relationship with the EU has dominated the national discourse for the past two and a half years, dwarfing all other concerns – a whopping 62% of people now say it’s the most important issue the country is facing, according to Ipsos MORI’s latest monthly Issues Index.
With the ‘meaningful vote’ on Theresa May’s proposed exit deal scheduled for 11 December, we visited Bedford with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to take the temperature of the town. Back in 2016, Bedford voters more or less reflected the national result – 51.8% voted leave. Have the past two and a half years of wrangling changed their minds? And what do they think will happen next?
Here are five things we learnt at a discussion group on Tuesday night, where we joined the BBC’s Nick Robinson to speak to a mix of Leavers and Remainers.
1. The facts may have changed, but people’s minds haven’t
Regardless of how they voted, participants agreed that both campaigns in 2016 had lacked substance and had failed to provide them with clear information on which to base their vote. Further, most admitted that they now know more about European Union than they had when they voted on the country’s membership of it. Not, however, that this was thought to matter. Participants had voted with conviction and in spite of the campaigns, rather than because of the facts and figures that they had been presented with.
“I was never fooled by numbers on the side of a bus, but I was interested in where the bus was going.”
This echoes what we know about the importance of emotion influencing people’s political beliefs. In recent polling work conducted with the Policy Institute at King’s College London, we found that two in five (42%) still believe that £350m is sent each week to the EU, despite this being roundly debunked and labelled as a misuse of statistics by the UK Statistics Authority. What’s more interesting still is that these views have hardly shifted since the referendum – in the run up to the vote in 2016, 47% believed this claim.
As people have been exposed to more information about the referendum, their opinions have not shifted – because this misses the point about how people think. Far from John Maynard Keynes’ maxim that ‘when the facts change, I change my mind’, our decision-making is much more emotional than rational. As Bobby Duffy, Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London stated: These misperceptions are not all about us being misled or our own ignorance of the facts – they are more emotional than that. We exaggerate what we worry about, so what we get wrong is as much a reflection of our concerns.
Attempting to change people’s views of Brexit just with a more evidence-based description won’t be enough, and misses a large part of the point.
2. Why so slow?
Participants were bemused about why, after two and a half years of very little progress, MPs were only now debating the implications of Brexit and what our future outside of the EU might look like. For many, this was coupled with frustration – why had this not happened sooner?
“I feel like we’re starting to have more of a debate about it. Commentators and political reporters are starting to ask questions we should’ve asked in the first place.”
People continue to tune in but are getting frustrated with an apparent lack of progress. It feels to them that debates are repetitive and that little is being achieved or resolved.
“I’m sick of seeing things over and over again, we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. It’s dragging on.”
3. Nobody’s happy with Brexit
Participants were unclear about what might happen in practice, but one thing was certain – no one felt that they had got what they wanted. Remain voters, of course, never wanted to leave the EU in the first place – and that hasn’t changed, regardless of the final terms of the deal with which we depart. Our Leave voters worried that they were being deprived of what they termed a “proper Brexit”. They suspected that Theresa May’s deal meant leaving in name only.
“Brexit would give us back more control over things we’ve lost control over. Like free movement of people. We need free movement but it’s got out of control. The fact that fisherman have to fight to fish in our waters. Brexit is bringing back balance.”
There was clearly a great deal of uncertainty about what’s happening right now. In particular, people had no idea what the consequences of “no deal” would be – and they were perfectly happy to voice this.
4. Who’s to blame?
While participants wanted very different outcomes for their country they were, at least, united on who to blame for the nation’s current predicament – politicians. Of course, the unpopularity of politicians is old news – they have long been among the very least trusted of professions, as Ipsos MORI’s Veracity Index work has demonstrated for decades.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron provided a focus for participants’ ire. Remainers disliked him for agreeing to the referendum in the first place, Leavers for not seeing through what he started.
Next in the firing line was Theresa May. While some showed sympathy towards her and felt her to be doing her best in trying circumstances, participants suspected that, as a Remainer, her heart might not be in the job. The EU did not escape criticism either. Among Leave voters there was a strong sense that Europe had made the UK’s get-out more complex than it needed to be and could have done more to facilitate a smoother, more amicable separation. Finally, the media came in for some flak, with Remain voters in particular believing that more should have been done to make the case for the UK’s continued membership.
“They (the media and politicians) are out of touch with people’s lives. They built resentment against the EU. I’ve never seen a positive article about the EU.”
5. On to a people’s vote?
A surprising finding, and one that we have not heard with as much conviction before, is a strong suspicion that the country is heading back to the polls for a people’s vote. For Leave voters, this would be just what they expected from the Westminster elites, in whom they had so little trust – they believed that few senior politicians truly wanted to see the UK leave the EU and were prepared to fudge Brexit, if not prevent it outright.
Remain voters, while enthused about the opportunity to reverse the result of 2016, worried about the precedent this might set and questioned whether it was right for the country to overturn a majority decision so recently made – particularly when we espouse our democratic values to others.
“I think a second referendum would be great personally, but it’s a bad idea – we fight for democracy across the world, we can’t change our minds.”
That said, other Remainers argued that this was the very hallmark of a functioning democracy – that the people should be able to change their mind.
“This was a snap decision and these effects will be felt forever, it’s such a momentous thing. If we don’t like what they are doing, we can change that.”
Above all else, the discussion in Bedford showed how the rifts exposed by the referendum remain. What’s more, none of the options available – from Theresa May’s deal to a people’s vote – are thought to provide the sticking plaster that the country needs in order to heal.