Political Ms: Brexit – the vote in a historical perspective

Following the result of Thursday’s vote, it is interesting to see how polls and stats about who voted what are thrown around to support all sorts of arguments, only days after polls and stats, once again, proved that they cannot always predict a precise result. (Incidentally, the FT poll of polls was pretty close).

Another interesting phenomenon is the apparent collective shock at the result. Both leave and remain seem flabbergasted. However, a closer look at historical numbers shows that there is perhaps less cause for surprise than many people think. (Admittedly, the variables we look at in this post are proxy variables, not voter intentions, however, they demonstrate that aggregate support for EU membership in the UK is, and historically has been, lukewarm).

In order to present this argument, the OWL is making use of surveys carried out by Eurobarometer, the European Commissions’s public opinion agency.

So, stats again then?

Yes, but the surveys conducted by Eurobarometer are more than the hasty online and telephone polls commissioned en masse in the heated weeks up to an election or referendum. They are face-to-face, in-depth interviews, generally proven to have higher validity and reliability than both phone and online polling. And even allowing for wide margins of error, the numbers present an overall impression of UK public opinion on EU membership over the years.

In one, key survey question, respondents were asked:

‘Generally speaking, do you think that our membership of the European Union is a good thing, a bad thing, neither good nor bad or don’t know?’

Until 2007, more respondents were positive than negative, with neutrals and don’t knows between 31-47%. The reversal happened in 2008, whilst high neutrals and don’t knows continued relatively unchanged. The numbers only showed the change, not the reason for the change, however, it’s worth pointing out that this coincides with the onset of the financial crisis.

Sadly, the good/thing bad thing question was eventually discontinued. Quite why the Commission made this decision is unknown. One possibility is that the question was removed from the survey because the Commission didn’t think it was going to like the replies. As one EU-supportive newspaper wrote in 2008, The Commission is notorious for only asking the questions to which it wants to hear the answer. (Economist, 21st February, 2008). This is a polite way of putting it. The OWL would go one step further:

In Eurobarometer surveys, questions of support for the union and proxy variables such as feelings of European identity and trust in the European institutions tend to be accompanied by gentle reminders (dressed as questions) about EU-provided ‘goodies’ (what do you think of the pet passport, the hedgefund proposal or lower roaming charges on holiday?). Sometimes this is so blatant one is reminded of the uncool kid at school whose parties nobody wanted to attend and whose parents as a consequence resorted to extravagant clown hiring and overstuffed goody bags. If uncool kid was lucky, shifty young guests would show up, stay long enough that it didn’t’ seem rude only to take off with the goody bag and never look back. The OWL does not want to comment directly on the ethics of such methods, but, all else being equal, the context of the Eurobarometer survey questions often mean that the ‘negative’ responses have a high degree of reliability.

Uncool parties aside, we do have other Eurobarometer data which can, at least to an extent, serve as proxy variables for enthusiasm for EU membership after 2010.

The tables below show responses (%) to the question:

‘In general, does the EU conjure up for you a very positive, fairly positive, neutral, fairly negative or very negative image’ with ‘don’t know’ as a separate option.


You don’t need to be a number-cruncher to get the picture here. Even in the most positive year (2015), the negatives added to the neutrals and ‘don’t knows’ far outweigh the positives. And in four of five years, the negatives alone are higher than the positives.

Broadly speaking, UK voters are consistently divided when it comes to support for European integration.  That 27.8 per cent of the electorate didn’t vote on 23rd June sits quite neatly with the historical ‘don’t know’ or ‘don’t care’ numbers. And the fact that the 72.2 per cent who did vote were almost split down the middle, is relatively consistent with earlier sentiments as well.  In a close race, where the numbers don’t deviate significantly from historical polls, there’s no basis for surprise over a couple of percentage points going either way. On the other hand, with over a million and a quarter more ins than outs, there’s no basis for casting doubt as to the legitimacy of the result either. The point here is just to say that this is more or less in line with how public opinion on the EU has looked for quite a number of years.

A final note:

Even when asked directly about the benefits of membership, UK responses are often lukewarm. For instance, if we take one benefit, access to the single market, a benefit which has rightly featured heavily in the UK referendum debate – and in the post-referendum debate – this holds true.

Look at the responses to question Q11 from Flash Eurobarometer No. 318 (a shorter, specific survey conducted over the phone) : ‘If we were not in the EU and unable to secure a free trade agreement with it, which of the following best describes your opinion:

‘I wouldn’t care if we lost any of these benefits (16.6%)

‘I would care a bit if we lost one or more of these benefits (45.8%)

‘I would care greatly if we lost one or more of these benefits’ (34.7%).

2.9% had no opinion or declined answering the question.

The shocker here is the 45.8% who said they would care ‘a bit.’ ‘A bit?’ The single market is perhaps the most fundamental benefit of EU membership from where pretty much everything else derives. And a benefit which all mainstream politicians claim to hold dear.

When it comes to making up their minds about EU membership, there is clearly more at stake for people than the benefits of the union. Whether they continue to feel this way as the reality of the new situation sets in is another matter.


This post was written by Dr Mette Elise Jolly, author of The European Union and the People, Oxford University Press, 2007

Data: http://ec.europa.eu/COMMFrontOffice/PublicOpinion/

Leave a thought