The divide between leave and remain has dominated our political discourse since 2016. But with Brexit now ‘done’ these categories may gradually lose their potency as a way of describing attitudes to the EU. It will no longer make sense for polling companies to ask people how they would vote in a rerun of the 2016 referendum, or the hypothetical ‘second referendum’ that caused so many headaches for the left in recent election campaigns. In the future, the question will not be leave or remain, but stay out or rejoin.
YouGov polled just this question recently. In a referendum to rejoin the EU, the headline figures suggest that 42 per cent of the British public would vote to rejoin, 40 per cent would vote to stay outside, 7 per cent would not vote and 11 per cent were uncertain.
Based on the headline figures, it may not seem unreasonable to think that public opinion, at some point in the future, will be firmly behind rejoining the EU. But the picture is more complex than this. While we must always be wary of over-interpreting the sub-groups in a poll, only two parts of Britain had a majority in favour of rejoining: London and Scotland. This gives a hint as to the issue with extrapolating from headline figures – even leaving aside the issue of whether Scotland might have its own referendum on its membership of the UK long before one on the EU. Currently, opinion very strongly relates to how people voted in 2016. We will need to watch closely to see if this relationship weakens over time.
Two processes are at play in understanding how the aggregate level of support for rejoining the EU might change. The first is whether people change their minds in the future. For all that has happened in the political sphere since 2016, people’s views on leave or remain have been remarkably stable. Very few people on either side give a different answer now from the one they gave in 2016 – and this is also true of the rejoin/stay outside question. This may change, and many on the remain side continue to hope (if not expect) that the reality of Brexit will lead those who voted for it to change their positions, despite evidence that this has not so far occurred. The second process is that of generational replacement within the electorate. Those eligible to vote for the first time in 2024 were aged 10 in 2016; their formative political experiences will be shaped by the Covid crisis in ways we cannot yet predict.
One element that must be considered here is the role of elite discourse, and political actors, in shaping the debate. It took the Referendum party (formed in 1997 to campaign for a referendum on leaving the EU) 20 years to see its position become a reality, and while the Rejoin EU party has the advantage of an issue already being on the agenda, it also faces a set of parties keen to put this issue behind them. Of the parties who contested the 2019 general election on a pro-EU platform, only the SNP are currently adopting a ‘rejoin’ position – albeit in a very different context and one which, were the ultimate goal of Scottish independence achieved, would make rejoining the EU less likely in the rest of Britain where the vote to leave was stronger.
We may hazard a guess at how those coming to voting age now might have been shaped by events, but what of those born tomorrow and able to shape our politics within the next two decades? On the current evidence, it seems unlikely that there will be any significant ‘rejoin’ movement within the British public in the medium term.
Deeply embedded political identities – as evidence suggests leave and remain have become – do not change rapidly when left unattended. However, they can be mobilised by political leaders – especially if the landscape should shift so that it becomes more politically advantageous to build on these identities. So when we think about whether the UK will ever rejoin the EU, it is impossible to rule it out entirely. As we all know, even a week is a long time in politics.
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