With the gridlock in parliament continuing and preparations by the UK government and by Brussels for a “no-deal” Brexit being put in place, a second referendum on EU membership might well be on the cards. But it raises an intriguing question: will a second referendum deliver a different verdict from the first one? To answer this question we need to look both at where public opinion currently stands and where it stood in the past.
To look at the immediate position, we do have a comprehensive set of indicators of public attitudes to Brexit over time. Different questions have been asked in different polls and there are some variations in the responses, but the most relevant question for asking about this is: “If there was another referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, how would you vote?”
Alternative replies to this question are very close together and have been for some time. For example, an Opinium poll conducted on December 4 shows that 45% of respondents would support Remain, 45% would opt for Leave and 10% say that they don’t know. This is typical of the pattern of responses, implying that, at the moment, there is effectively a dead heat between remain and leave.
All in the campaign
This suggests that if a second referendum is called then the campaign will be crucial to determining the outcome. In our book on Brexit we asked respondents to select words which would best describe what they thought of the different campaigns in the 2016 EU referendum. The most common choice was “negative” but there was a difference between the Leave and Remain campaigns. Some 33% thought that the Leave campaign was negative compared with 38% who said this about the Remain campaign. The Leavers had an advantage in this respect largely because of the slogan “Take Back Control” – a positive idea that the Remain campaign lacked.
So can the Remain campaign be more positive in a second referendum? The prospects for this do not look good after months of wrangling between the British government and the EU over the terms of the Brexit deal. Remainers could reassert that the EU has brought growth and prosperity to Britain and by implication leaving would produce a severe economic shock to the country. They made this point in the Remain campaign in 2016 but in wholly negative terms which the Leavers quickly dubbed “Project Fear”.
The problem with putting a positive gloss on the economic benefits is that it is not at all clear that EU membership did bring extra growth and prosperity to the UK after it joined in 1973. A group of three Cambridge economists has recently argued that the economics profession has got it wrong in asserting that membership produced a stimulus to UK growth at that time. So a positive campaign based on this argument would be repeatedly challenged.
An alternative would be to stress the benefits of the EU in helping to bring Europeans together and preserve the peace since World War II. This is certainly true but unfortunately it does not really resonate with voters, particularly the young, because most have never known anything else but peace in Europe. This means that it is taken for granted as part of the everyday landscape, making an appeal based on the hypothetical threat of a future conflict implausible. Equally, as long as NATO exists, it will be hard to convince people that Brexit will jeopardise European security.
Another problem for a Remain campaign is “LeDuc’s Law”. This is the proposition introduced by the Canadian political scientist Larry LeDuc which holds that there is a status quo bias in referendum voting across the world. People tend to vote for what they already have if they think that the alternative is too risky or uncertain. This does not mean that the status quo always wins of course (and it didn’t in 2016) but there is a definite bias in that direction.
In the 2016 referendum, the status quo was to remain – but in a second referendum, it would be to leave, since it is now enshrined in UK law that Britain will be out by the end of March 2019. Of course, there might be confusion among the voters about what the status quo actually is at the moment, but supporters of Brexit would no doubt stress that we are leaving anyway and parliament would have to overturn this by ignoring the results of the first vote in 2016.
Attitudes towards Europe
We can also get some idea of what might happen in a second referendum by examining trends in attitudes to the EU both in Britain and in other EU member states. The European Social Survey provides high quality data on this.
Since 2004, the survey has asked respondents to rate their feelings about increasing European unification on a scale of zero to ten: zero being a strong feeling that unification has gone too far and ten being a strong feeling that it needs to go further.
Average scores for four major countries including Britain appear in the chart over the period from 2004 to 2016.
It is apparent that Britons are much more likely to think that EU unification has gone too far than Germans, the French or Spaniards. The gap between the other three countries and Britain has also widened over time. This confirms something which has been known about for a long time: the UK is a reluctant member of the EU and is becoming more so over time. A second referendum may vote to Remain, but don’t count on it.