What sort of Brexit do the British people want?
A longitudinal study examining the ‘trade-offs’ people would be willing to make in reaching a Brexit deal
The political landscape of the UK has changed dramatically in the wake of the Brexit referendum. Two years on, Britain continues to find itself in a volatile and unpredictable environment.
According to a series of stated-preference discrete-choice experiments conducted with the same group of citizens surveyed a year ago, the British people reject a no-deal scenario even more firmly than they did in 2017, and that public opinion, even among Leave voters, is shifting to a ‘softer’ Brexit.
In the 2016 referendum, UK citizens were asked whether they wanted to remain in the EU or to leave, with 51.9 per cent of those who voted voting to leave. However, from such a choice it is not possible to know what sort of relationship British citizens were looking for with the EU in 2016, nor what they would want now.
In July 2017 we published a proof-of-concept study with The Policy Institute at King’s College and the University of Cambridge, with the aim of understanding what sort of Brexit the British people really wanted and what trade-offs they would be willing to make in negotiations for a deal with the EU.
More than a year on, as negotiations continue between the UK government and the EU, we decided to revisit this study to see whether people’s priorities have changed in terms of what is important in the UK’s future relationship with the EU, given the political discourse and events of the past year.
The aim of this research is to use choice experiments to try and ascertain what sort of relationship British citizens are looking for with the EU – to quantify what aspects of this relationship Britons think are most important and what trade-offs people would be willing to make in Brexit negotiations.
We use a technique known as ‘stated preference discrete choice experiments’ where we ask people to choose between different hypothetical options describing the UK’s possible relationship with the EU. As in our previous study, each option is described by attributes that describe the relationship, specifically:
- Freedom of movement for holidays
- Freedom of movement for working and living
- Net contribution to the EU budget
- Ability to make free trade deals outside the EU
- Access to the single market for goods
- Access to the single market for services
- UK sovereignty over laws
To have the best chance of measuring whether people’s preferences have changed over this period, we approached the same people that we surveyed in February 2017, managing to repeat the survey with 752 of them. We added a further 164 new respondents to our sample, giving a total of 916 participants for the 2018 round of the study. This second round occurred in April and May, before the June publication of the government’s White Paper (otherwise known as the Chequers plan) on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.
- The British public still want a deal, which is based on a close relationship with the EU with the most preferred option resembling membership of the EEA.
People’s preferences in terms of the relative importance of different aspects of the UK’s relationship with the EU have not changed substantially in the last year.
- Over the past year we see a ‘softening’ of the type of relationship that Britons want with the EU as well as an increase in the number of people who want to Remain in the EU.
In our 2017 survey, the most popular choice was EEA membership (similar to a Norway-like deal). Among those with whom we repeated our survey this year, the level of support for this option has increased. EEA membership has therefore grown in popularity.
- Education level is important in explaining the continued polarisation of views on the way forward for Brexit.
Those with degrees tend to place a higher value on freedom of movement for working and dislike more strongly the need for work visas. Sovereignty is another area of real difference, those people without degrees place much more value on the ability for the UK to make its own laws.
- The value British people place on the proposals set out in the Chequers plan is difficult to quantify due to its lack of clarity on key issues of concern.
The survey was conducted before the White Paper in 2018, however we can make some inferences about it. Only one rather optimistic set of outcomes from the White Paper proposals was valued more positively than the EEA option, specifically, an agreement that:
(a) offers a reciprocal deal for truly visa-free travel for tourists between the EU and UK;
(b) allows the UK to make trade deals with countries outside the EU on its own terms, not constrained by the ‘common rule book’; and
(c) allows the UK is able to trade goods with EU partners with no additional costs at all.
However, if these conditions are not met, the White Paper proposals are valued much more negatively than even just remaining in the Customs Union.
- Should there be another referendum, the options offered in a vote will significantly influence the outcome.
We are able to use the model to simulate the outcome of another referendum if one should occur, assuming (and it is a big assumption) that people vote solely according to their underlying valuations of the options and are not influenced by other factors. For example, if the choice is between Remain and only being part of the Customs Union, or Remain and No Deal, Remain would get the most votes. However, if the choice was between Remain and EEA membership, then the EEA option would get the most votes. These tests emphasise again the popularity of the EEA option across the population.
The political landscape of the UK has changed dramatically in the wake of the Brexit referendum. Two years on we continue to find ourselves in a volatile and unpredictable environment. Our study shows that the British people reject a no-deal scenario even more firmly than they did in 2017, and that public opinion, even among Leave voters, is shifting to a ‘softer’ Brexit.
Of significant interest is that, currently, none of the major political parties supports what is the most popular compromise in our study — namely, joining the EEA, the option chosen by 42 per cent of respondents from a set of unlabelled packages described by their key attributes.
In the time remaining for negotiation, it is of utmost importance that policymakers consider the preferences of the British people for our future relationship with the EU.