John Curtice Political Insight 2016;7:4-7

Brexit: Behind the Referendum

Published: 7 September 2016
Author: John Curtice

Despite four decades of membership, the UK never fully took the European Union to its heart. June’s Brexit vote revealed a social division that reflected very different views about the costs and benefits of the EU, writes John Curtice. This article appeared originally in the September 2016 edition of Political Insight.

Forty years ago the trick worked. Faced with a divided party, the then Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, went to Brussels, claimed he had renegotiated Britain’s terms of membership, and put the revised deal before the British public. Voters swung strongly in favour of staying in the then Common Market, and eventually, in June 1975, backed the idea by two to one.

This time, however, the trick failed. Faced with a divided party, and an apparent threat to his party’s electoral prospects from the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron had promised to renegotiate the UK’s terms of membership, and put the deal before the public. After winning last year’s General Election, he duly fulfilled his pledge. However, the deal he struck with Brussels failed to move a public opinion that was quite evenly divided between leaving and remaining. Eventually, on 23 June 2016, the public voted to leave the European Union by 52 per cent to 48 per cent.

Britain had, in truth, never really taken Europe to its heart during the course of the intervening 40 years. The EU’s own Eurobarometer surveys have repeatedly found that fewer than one in ten people in the UK feel more European than they do British, while at least three in five reject the notion that they are European at all. Equally, the British Social Attitudes survey has regularly found that, when invited to choose as many national identities as they wish, typically no more than 15 per cent include ‘European’ amongst their choices. The UK’s membership of the EU has been based on self-interest rather than affect, an outlook that helped explain why that membership has long been accompanied by many an ‘opt-out’, not least in respect of both the Eurozone and Schengen, and why the EU should have the right at all to ‘impose’ laws and regulations on the UK, was always being questioned.

Meanwhile, the transaction itself had acquired a very different character. There was little discussion in 1975 about immigration or ‘freedom of movement’. After all, the then nine members of the European Community did not vary greatly in their level of economic development, and thus there was little reason to anticipate significant migratory flows in one direction or another. But the same is not true of a now 28-member European Union that, in particular, encompasses the less affluent, former Soviet bloc countries of Central and Eastern Europe. To compound matters, the United Kingdom, in a rare act of European solidarity, decided to recognise the freedom of movement rights of citizens from those countries as soon as they became members in 2004; it did not do what most existing member states did, which was only to grant those rights after five years had elapsed. The numbers of Poles and others who took advantage of that decision far exceeded policy makers’ expectations, and the UK has been experiencing relatively high levels of net inward migration ever since.

At the same time, the arguments about the economic benefits of being in the EU had become more nuanced. In 1975 Britain was the ‘sick man’ of Europe. Every time the economy picked up some speed, the demon of inflation returned, with the result that macro-economic policy had a decidedly ‘stop-go’ quality. The six original members of the European Union, in contrast, had enjoyed sustained economic growth and, it was argued, we needed to join them in order to share in their success. This time, in contrast, many EU economies were still in still search of a recovery from the consequences of the financial crash and the associated Eurozone crisis, whereas the UK economy had made steady if far from spectacular progress. Meanwhile, although an increasingly globalised world had seemingly made access to the large tariff-free market that the EU has created even more important than ever, the risks associated with that world had also been made all too evident by the 2008 financial crash.

Thus the scene was set for a referendum in which the implications of EU membership for the economy and immigration became centre stage, with the question of ‘sovereignty’, that is whether it is right that the UK should sometimes have to adopt EU laws and regulations to which it had been opposed, also lurking not very far in the background. This was certainly how voters themselves viewed what the referendum was primarily about. For example, according to Ipsos MORI’s final poll of the campaign, the two issues that were by far and away most likely to be mentioned by voters as being important to them in deciding which way to vote were ‘the number of immigrants coming into Britain’ (32 per cent) and ‘the impact on Britain’s economy’ (31 per cent). Meanwhile the third most popular on the list was ‘Britain’s ability to make its own laws’ (16 per cent).

Many voters regarded the economic impact of leaving the EU negatively. According to YouGov’s final poll of the campaign, no less than 40 per cent reckoned that Britain would be worse off economically if it left the EU, a proportion that had grown somewhat as the campaign progressed. Just 23 per cent believed the country would be better off. But at the same time, many voters felt that immigration would fall if Britain left the EU. In that same final YouGov poll, as many as 53 per cent felt that immigration would drop if we left, while hardly anyone (3 per cent) reckoned it would increase. The two central issues of the campaign were seemingly pulling voters in opposite directions.

Indeed, those who were pessimistic about the economic consequences of leaving were almost unanimous in backing Remain. YouGov’s data imply that, once the undecided are left to one side, by the end of the campaign no less than 95 per cent of those worried about the negative economic effect of Brexit were backing Remain. The perception that immigration would increase was not quite as strong a recruiting sergeant for the Leave camp, but even so, 75 per cent of those who took that view were inclined to vote for Leave. Doubtless, some of those who thought that immigration would go up if we stayed were not concerned about the prospect, but it also seems likely that some of those who voted Remain were doing so despite their doubts about the implications for immigration. Even so, because the perception that immigration would increase was more widespread than was pessimism about the economic consequences of leaving, in practice the two sets of perceptions were more or less equally powerful recruiting sergeants for the two campaigns.

Lurking there, however, in the background was also the underlying question of identity. A follow-up study to respondents to the 2015 British Social Attitudes survey conducted in May and early June 2016, found that no less than 49 per cent agreed that ‘being a member of the European Union is undermining Britain's distinctive identity’, while just 31 per cent disagreed. Here was a clear indication of how EU membership (especially when coupled with high levels of immigration) was widely regarded as antithetical to the sense of British identity that we have seen continues to predominate in the UK. Moreover, no less than four in five of those who agreed with that point of view indicated that they proposed to vote to Leave, while, contrarily, as many as 89 per cent of those who disagreed with the proposition were Remain supporters. No other single proposition put to voters by this particular study differentiated as sharply between Remain and Leave supporters as did this statement about identity, though, as we might anticipate from what we have seen already, the perceived economic consequences of leaving came a close second.

At the heart of the referendum then, was a debate about whether or not the economic advantages of being in the EU outweighed the apparent costs in terms of the level of immigration. Was the transaction that EU membership entailed regarded on balance as advantageous or disadvantageous by a country for whom that membership has perpetually cut across its sense of identity and thus where that country is inclined to feel that sovereignty should lie? It was a debate about which different sections of British society held very different views.


First, younger people had a very different perspective from older people. According to YouGov’s final poll, only 43 per cent of those aged 18-24 reckoned that immigration would fall if we left the EU, compared with 61 per cent of those aged 65 or older. Younger people were less likely too to think that immigration is too high at present; just 47 per cent expressed that view in a YouGov poll conducted earlier in June, while no less than 83 per cent of those aged 65 plus did so. Meanwhile, those in the youngest age group were almost twice as likely (59 per cent) as those aged 65 or more (30 per cent) to feel that Britain would be economically worse off if we left.

Second, university graduates took a very different stance from those with relatively little in the way of educational qualifications. Again in that YouGov poll conducted earlier in June (a breakdown of responses by education is not available for the company’s final poll) only 45 per cent of graduates felt that immigration would fall if we left, compared with 68 per cent of those whose highest qualification (if any) is one normally obtained at age 16. These two groups disagreed, too, about whether the current level of immigration is too high. At the same time, as many as 54 per cent of graduates felt that Britain would be economically worse off if we left, compared with just 24 per cent of those with an age 16 qualification.

This difference of outlook between these two groups is not surprising. Younger people and graduates have long been known to be more liberal on social issues such as immigration. The cultural change that immigration can bring is embraced more readily by younger people, while universities tend to be environments that encourage a diversity of backgrounds and outlooks. Meanwhile younger people and graduates are also more likely to have the skills required to prosper in and even take advantage of an internationalised labour market. In contrast, for a ‘left behind’ Britain of older people and those with few, if any, educational qualifications, immigration appears to be a potential threat to the culture with which they are familiar, while a globalised labour market looks like a threat to their wage rates and perhaps even their livelihoods.

But surprising or not, the very different views of these demographic groups were reflected quite clearly in the ballot box. As Table 1 shows, it appears that a majority of those aged less than 45 voted to Remain in the EU, while most of those aged 45 and over indicated that they wished to Leave. At the same time, as Table 2 demonstrates, graduates voted by roughly two to one in favour of staying, while those whose highest qualification is a GCSE or its equivalent were just as strongly in favour of leaving. To these differences we should also note that according to a large on the day poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft, those from a black or minority ethnic background also voted to Remain by 68 per cent to 32 per cent, perhaps because they found the emphasis by the Leave side on restricting immigration unattractive.

John Curtice Political Insight 2016;7:4-7

John Curtice Political Insight 2016;7:4-7

These differences in demographics were also reflected in the electoral geography of the result. London, with its young, well-educated and ethnically diverse population voted to Remain. The rest of England together with Wales opted to Leave, and especially so north of the M4 corridor where graduates are less numerous. However, Scotland, whose population is nothing like as distinctive as that of London, once again ploughed its own distinctive political furrow by voting to Remain, as did Northern Ireland. In both cases, those of a nationalist disposition have long regarded being in the EU as a means of helping to facilitate the realisation of their aspirations, giving the debate about ‘sovereignty’ a very different tinge from that in the rest of the UK.


Formally the EU referendum was about whether the UK should continue to be a member of an intergovernmental organisation that it had never really taken to its heart, but membership of which had hitherto been regarded by most of its political leaders as central to the country’s self-interest. In practice, it revealed a social division that reflected very different views about the costs and benefits of that membership.

At one end of the spectrum were young graduates who welcome diversity and can compete with ease in an internationalised labour market. For them staying in the EU looked like a good, indeed an essential deal. But at the other end of the spectrum lay older people with little in the way of educational qualifications who are inclined to regard the kind of globalised world that the EU represents as a cultural and economic threat. This sharp division arguably meant that it was bound to be more difficult for David Cameron to win voters around in the way that Harold Wilson had done 40 years earlier. In any event on the day, those who wished to leave proved to be marginally the more numerous group. As a result, the task that now faces our political leaders is to frame a new relationship with the EU that proves more successful in accommodating the wishes of all parts of British society than 40 years of membership eventually proved capable of doing.