Britannia unsettled, one year after Brexit

Brexit may have been a reality for more than a year, and most opposition politicians reluctant to talk about it any more, but that does not mean that it has broad public acceptance in the UK. [EPA-EFE/LIAM MCBURNEY]

Brexit may have been a reality for more than a year, with most opposition politicians reluctant to talk about it anymore, but that does not mean that it has broad public acceptance in the UK.

That was the conclusion drawn from data presented on Tuesday at a conference organised by the Britain in a Changing Europe academic think tank.

Across many different political debates, what has endured is the polarisation that Brexit imbued.

The think tank’s report published on Tuesday shows that the Brexit divide has lingered on since the 2016 referendum with 62% of voters still identifying as either Leave or Remain.

The Brexit divide also shapes their approach to other issues. Twice as many people think that Brexit has been bad for the economy and immigration. However, Leave and Remain voters still have very different views on the economy but have similar views on immigration.

“Brexit identities are also strongly held,” according to the report. “In October 2021, 60% of Leavers and 67% of Remainers said that their identity was very or extremely important to them.”

“Clear majorities of Brexit identifiers still feel a strong attachment to their identity”.

When asked whether Brexit has been beneficial for democracy and the UK’s influence globally, Leavers and Remain voters still disagree on whether leaving the EU has been a good thing.

Professor John Curtice, the BBC’s election pollster and a fellow at Britain in a Changing Europe pointed out that the numbers on the effects of Brexit started to shift into negative territory after the summer when food and fuel shortages saw lengthy queues at petrol stations and empty shelves in supermarkets.

In the first half of 2021, polling suggests that most people supported staying out of the EU, but for the last six or seven months, Britons have favoured rejoining the EU by a steady 52% to 48%.

“The Brexit issue is still shaping party support to a very substantial degree,” says Curtice.

Labour’s support among Remain voters is now equal to the Conservatives’ support among Leave voters. The Conservatives’ support since the election has fallen most among Leave voters.

Brexit attitudes are also present in determining attitudes towards Scottish independence. Remain voters are more likely to favour independence, and in Northern Ireland, opponents of Brexit are likely to support the protocol and a united Ireland.

“It is a slap in the face for anyone in Northern Ireland with a British identity that there is a border in the Irish Sea,” said Alibhe Rea, a correspondent with the New Statesman.

“Brexit has highlighted and stirred up feelings up anxiety that were already there, that has translated into a collapse in support for the big Unionist parties,” she added.

One of the last levers that Johnson can pull to boost support on his right flank is to trigger Article 16.

While previous Westminster governments had taken on the role of a neutral arbiter in Northern Ireland, the Johnson government has taken a more partisan stake in NI politics following Brexit, becoming more overtly pro Unionist.

There is a possibility that the government will trigger Article 16 to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol for the tactical reason to keep Unionists on side.

“There is a problem now with Irish and British relations. On the Irish side, there is incomprehension about Brexit,” said Professor Jon Tonge, Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool.

For the moment, however, opposition parties in England are not attempting to make capital out of public scepticism about the benefits of being outside the EU. Stung by the scale of their defeat at the 2019 election, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have said little about Brexit or linked government policy failures and economic difficulties to the UK status outside the EU.

In contrast, the Conservatives have managed to link Brexit to the government’s success in starting its mass COVID vaccination programme quicker than the EU, one of the few points in the pandemic that Boris Johnson’s government gets widespread credit for, and which Curtice described as “a brilliant piece of PR”.

“So far at least, it is far from clear that the 2016 referendum has settled the debate as far as public opinion is concerned,” said Curtice, who pointed out that those who did not vote in the 2016 referendum support EU membership by a two to one majority.

Six years, three Prime Ministers and two elections later, the Brexit debate is still not over.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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