, Volume 71, Number 3

Visiting Senior Fellow, Europe Programme

Britain has a new government. While David Cameron and the Conservative Party added less than one per cent to their national share of the vote, they have returned to power with a majority. This may be a majority of only 12 seats and the slimmest since 1974, but it is still a majority. The result has ensured that Britain will soon hold a national referendum on whether or not to remain a member of the European Union. 

This marks the fulfilment of Cameron’s promise in his 2013 Bloomberg speech to hold a referendum after renegotiating aspects of Britain’s EU membership. 

The promised vote reflects lingering anxieties in Britain over its precise relationship with Europe, which since the last referendum in 1975 have not been fully resolved. But in the more recent past Cameron’s pledge was also an attempt to fend off two competing pressures: Conservative backbench Eurosceptics who have long been agitating for a referendum, and Eurosceptic voters who ever since 2010 have been defecting to the UK Independence Party. While the outcome of the election appears to have temporarily pacified the former, the fact that UKIP finished in third place with almost 13 per cent of the national vote underlines the continuing threat from the latter. But to what extent has the referendum combined with UKIP’s continued support and economic problems in the eurozone made Britain’s exit from the EU a real danger?

The prospect of Britain leaving the EU is unlikely for several reasons, and most concern the area that will ultimately decide this debate – public attitudes. First, consider the wider trends in opinion toward Britain’s EU membership. Contrary to what many claim, Britain’s population is not instinctively supportive of Brexit, as the British Social Attitudes surveys make clear. Since the early 1990s, more than six out of ten voters have consistently voiced their support for continued EU membership and at several points this has risen to seven out of ten. It is true that some people are more Eurosceptic than in the past. Between 1993 and 2014 public support for ending EU membership more than doubled, from 11 to 24 per cent. But this is still far from a majority.

It is usually at this point that Eurosceptics point to the opinion polls, which ask people how they would vote in a referendum tomorrow. In the latest YouGov tracker, for example, those wanting to remain in the EU hold a lead of only nine points over those who want to leave, while only two years ago it was the ‘come outers’ that appeared to be a majority. The same story emerges in data from Ipsos-MORI – while in 2014 the percentage of voters who wanted to stay in (56 per cent) was well above those wanting to leave (36 per cent), as recently as the autumn of 2012 it was the come-outers who were ahead (48 per cent to 44 per cent). Eurosceptics have consistently struggled to establish and sustain a majority position but they cite the volatility in these polls as reason for why they can win the debate. This is a misreading of  the data.

Over the coming months it is important to remember two things. First, among those who are aware of their opinion (rather than say they don’t know or are unsure), the picture is actually far clearer. In the most recent Ipsos-MORI data, for example, among those with a clear opinion the gap between staying in and leaving is a much wider 61 per cent – 39 per cent. It is not even close. Many of those who want to stay in are also more socially liberal, middle-class and financially secure, who may well be more likely to turnout than the white, working-class voters who are the core ‘come outers’. These are the voters who fuelled the rise of UKIP’s harder brand of Euroscepticism but note how many of them also appeared to  have abandoned the insurgent party, despite telling pollsters otherwise. Second there is also a crucial distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Eurosceptics – and one that will inevitably favour the pro-EU camp. Hard Eurosceptics like UKIP and some backbench Tories want Britain to withdraw, plain and simple. Soft Eurosceptics, in contrast, are instinctively hostile toward Brussels and Strasbourg but are open to staying in the club if Britain’s relationship is reformed. They are the sceptical but pragmatic middle. This is crucial  because it is also reflected in the picture of public opinion. 

The reality is that by the end of 2017 – the deadline for holding the referendum – the British electorate will not simply be given an opportunity to stay or leave. They will first observe a national debate about renegotiation and will be given cues from Cameron and other leaders about why it is better to remain in the EU. Most voters will simply not be interested in the fine detail of policy reform. This is important because when pollsters reframe the question to take account of this reality the race is no longer close. When voters are told to imagine that Cameron has renegotiated the relationship with the European Union so that Britain’s interests are protected (which he will argue) and is recommending that Britain stays in (which he will do), support for remaining in the EU is typically around the 50 per cent mark while support for leaving hovers below 30 per cent. It is difficult to see how the Eurosceptics could close this gap.

This picture of a population that would rather remain in the EU and work to reduce its powers is mirrored in other data. According to Ipsos-MORI, 66 per cent either want to stay in the EU and increase its powers, stay in the EU and try to reduce its powers, or leave things as they are. Only 28 per cent want to leave. The point is clear: so long as Cameron is able to convince voters that he has delivered some reforms then the Eurosceptics will lose. 

The only hope for the British Eurosceptics is to win over not simply their ‘hard’ brethren but also significant numbers in the sceptical middle – the large chunk of voters who despite their concerns about the pace of European integration appear averse to risk and united in viewing integration as ultimately a positive thing. And here lies another problem for the come-outers. The visibility of Nigel Farage and UKIP raises difficult questions for mainstream Eurosceptics, some of who point to the ‘Farage paradox’ – the fact that as support for the insurgents increased, public support for leaving the EU has fallen. While this is also a misreading of the data (support for leaving the EU was in some polls higher before UKIP emerged as a serious force), it does underline a fundamental point – that the movement that wants to pull Britain out of the EU remains clearly divided. It is divided over who should be the spokesman, over what the strategy should be, over who should be involved, and over what vision of Britain and Europe should replace the current arrangement. This is not a recipe for referendum success. 

From the archive
What anti-marketeers hope for, and ‘pros’ fear, is a popular revolt against all three party leaderships. Such a revolt could have several strands, and illustrate the highly symbolic character of the whole debate over the Common Market, which draws much of its enduring emotional force not from the particular issues involved but from association with more generalized, deep-rooted political attitudes.
Britain and the Community: the Meaning of Renegotiation, Simon Z Young, September 1974

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