Why hasn’t public opinion changed more over Europe?

Map Of Europe CC0 Public Domain

Since the European referendum, there has been a small but clear and persistent move in public opinion towards the pro-European viewpoint. The movements have, however, been small. For an issue that has (rather rarely in politics) been one of sustained public interest, with many twists along the way, it’s perhaps surprising that there hasn’t been greater movement, not even in the form of bouncing back and forth between pro and anti.


John Curtice and Sarah Tipping reckon that the stability in views is because they now so closely reflect people’s values and sense of identity – factors which therefore give the views great stability:

Those whose underlying identities, values and perceptions of the consequences would lead one to anticipate that they would back leaving the EU are now more likely to express that view. Conversely, support for staying in the EU is now, relatively speaking, more popular among those who one would anticipate ought to be predisposed towards that view.

This development perhaps helps explain why attitudes towards Brexit have been relatively stable during the last two years.  Attitudes that are firmly rooted in people’s identities, values and perceptions are less likely to be labile than those that are not. But, of course, if those identities, values or perceptions themselves were to change, then maybe the future trajectory of attitudes towards Brexit would begin to look rather different. So far, however, neither side in the Brexit debate seems to have made much progress in that endeavour.

That explanation for the stability of views also has an important implication for anyone seeking to change views: you need to move people at a deeper level than a recitation of facts about a technical policy detail. On which point, see Do you know how to change the sports team that someone supports? (Expanded version).

7 responses to “Why hasn’t public opinion changed more over Europe?”

  1. Biggest difference I ever made on Remain campaigning was just pointing out how nice various European cities are. Biggest change in attitude I ever witnessed was a dyed-in-the-wool Brexiter making the first trip out of the UK. I do think that identity is a large part of it.

    Perhaps gratis European City Breaks would work ? Not entirely joking…

  2. This may sound ridiculous but if England were to win the World Cup ( possibly getting to the final might do it) I think attitudes towards the EU might change enough for the emotional reasons for remaining to be heard. It would induce a mood of national confidence and pride which might take away the feeling of being the underdog to the rest of Europe which has encouraged people to want to break away and restore our former glory in isolation. In addition we have a team which has been successful by being exactly that- a team, which might make it easier to promote a team work view of the EU.
    If England does pull this off we need to be ready with arguments which take advantage of the feeling of well being and superiority which the nation will feel.

  3. My view is that the UK is engulfed in a political paralysis consequent upon a polarising referendum. I would suggest that whilst political struggles (i.e.,elections) are about class politics, the have (conservatives) versus the have nots (labour), the referendum was as least as much about status politics which has thrown (almost literally) a whole new dimension into the mix.

    Status Politics was a phrase coined by S.M.Lipset (I think) in his book, Political Man. The idea is perhaps an extension of the work of f Adorno (et al) The Authoritarian Personality, and voluminous subsequent discussion centering around the Radical Right, Authoritarianism in the working class and points west.

    Sustained economic neglect (the period since the 2008 crash will do just fine) coupled with incoming immigrants engenders among traditional communities a fear of social displacement and loss of income and especially status in the community. Such status anxiety begats social conservatism and nationalism, cleverly exploited by Dominic Cummings and Nigel Farage to name but two.

    However it is not just about social structure, which is where the home counties Brexiteer comes in.

    There is an interesting paper by: Evans,Heath and Lalljee: “Measuring left right and libertarian-authoritarian values in the British electorate BJS 1996” (this still has relevance today e.g., Why do Tories defect to UKIP Webb and Bale -Political Studies 2014)

    The headline is that two scales of two core dimensions of mass political beliefs: left-right and libertarian-authoritarian values are now pretty well established. The scales have respectable levels of internal consistency, high levels of stability over a one-year period, and to be useful predictors of support for political parties.

    Everyone, well every UK voter, loads on these two dimensions . Left-Right and Social Liberal – Conservative, which are independent. Everyone could maybe be placed on a fourfold table with these two dimensions.

    Now, I would suggest that the EU Referendum is unlike a typical UK general election in that it mobilised and made salient deep lying values (social liberal-social conservative) The nation has polarised along this dimension (rather than class economic) and this split has remained.

    You mention ideology,even fantasy, and lack of interest in detail on the part of Brexiteers, but this illustrates the curious nature of the value split, arguments just go past each other; blood and soil in one direction, economic analysis in the other.

    The paralysis is compounded because social lib-social con “dimension” cross-cuts the political parties and their supporters it has bifurcated both of them, causing major difficulties for both May and Cameron. Neither has a working majority and has had to take refuge in fudge, obfurscation and “ducking and diving”.

    There is a phenomenon in ecology known as competitive exclusion where two groups are competing for the same ecological space (sheep and rabbits competing for grass is an often used example) The two competing groups are strong stable attractors, in the jargon of nonlinear dynamics, and the only equilibria that can occur between them are unstable and transient. The overall dynamic is stable and will only resolve itself when one group outcompetes the other (reproductive success). This typically will take a long time. Only an analogy but I’m not optimistic

  4. Picking up on your original point about remainers and leavers being united in supporting the NHS in its present form, I wondered whether better off leavers of my generation (age 75) would care to put their money where their sentiments lie, now that we know that taxes from Service Industries will be hard hit by Brexit and us lot are the ones who are costing the NHS so much money.

    The exemplary premise is that to avoid new NHS charges, wealthier Brexiteer pensioners might happily pay something towards National Insurance, something they do not have to do at present.

    Our lot have paid too little because we have lived longer than expected; but we have a contract that we are holding the Government to and the risk is the Government will respond as it has been doing by providing a progressively worse service. They have the ability if Parliament agrees to define the level of service provided and since unlike Mrs May we cannot sue, a compromise seemed to me to be an appropriate solution: ie the retired will have to pay a bit more for their health – if they can afford it.

    With property/wealth taxes (for long-term care) so deeply unpopular at the last election it seemed to me we should take a look at income.

    I have found a recent table of disposable income after tax for the over 65s here:

    If we were (for example) to: exempt the 40% of retired people with an income less than £20,000; charge 1% of income after tax to go to the NHS/National Insurance for those 5.5 million people with post-tax incomes in the range £20,000-£40,000; charge 2% of income for those 670,000 people in the range £40,000-£50,000; and charge 3% for those with disposable incomes over £50,000 (there are only 600,000 people like that), I calculate HM Treasury could raise £2.6 billion a year.
    Unfortunately, this huge sum is just 2.2% of the NHS annual budget, so would only offset about 9 months NHS cost inflation and would politically be unrepeatable for several years and budgets to come. While it might be a gesture worth making to keep the NHS on the road for the time being, it most importantly demonstrates that if our tax base is hit hard as it will be by Brexit in its current form, we shall lose much of our beloved NHS, Brexiteers and remainers alike. Would Brexiteers care now to make the difficult choice of which is their first love, health or insularity?

  5. Given the likelihood that Brexit would harm, even if just for an interim period of unknown duration, much of British manufacture, industry, the financial sector, tourism and agriculture amongst others, shouldn’t those advocating Remain be persuading bosses to spell out to employees the ramifications of the Brexit policy for their own jobs? Likewise, did the people of some of the poorest regions, eg Cornwall, North Devon and South Wales, who voted overwhelmingly for Leave really believe that the UK government would step in to make up the shortfall in EU development funds upon Brexit? Reality checks are urgently required.

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