Almost four years have passed since the 2016 EU referendum delivered a mandate for Brexit. However, as John Curtice explains in the latest extract from our joint report on Parliament and Brexit, the views of the public on the role of referendums in the Brexit process is heavily influenced by their views on whether Britain should leave the European Union or remain a member.
Though they have been used various times on constitutional matters in the UK, referendums are often thought to challenge traditional notions of representative parliamentary democracy. In the UK’s version of such a democracy, MPs are sent to Westminster to deliberate and exercise their judgement on their constituents’ behalf. Referendums seemingly usurp this traditional role, in an attempt to ascertain ‘the will of the people’.
Nonetheless, survey research has long suggested that referendums are popular with voters – as indeed was the June 2016 EU referendum. A fortnight beforehand, 52% told YouGov that David Cameron was right to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, and only 32% said he was wrong. On the very eve of polling, Ipsos MORI reported that 66% of voters felt the Prime Minister was right to hold a ballot, while only 24% reckoned he was wrong.
Yet, underneath the surface there were already important differences of opinion. As the first chart shows, Leave and Remain backers had rather different views. According to YouGov, 83% of Leave supporters supported Cameron’s decision, and only 9% thought it wrong. In contrast, 60% of likely Remain voters disliked the decision and only 26% approved. Of course, in calling the referendum Cameron had opened up the possibility that the UK might indeed leave the EU, a prospect that Leave voters were more likely to
However, if we move our focus forward a couple of years to the end of 2018, things look rather different. By then, Theresa May had negotiated a draft withdrawal treaty with the EU. However, many anti-Brexit campaigners were arguing that a second referendum should be held, pitting the terms of this draft treaty against remaining in the EU. They did so in the apparent hope that the original decision would be reversed.
Overall, the idea of putting the decision in voters’ hands was still relatively popular. In two YouGov polls in late 2018/early 2019, 43% on average said that the decision on Britain’s final relationship with the EU should be made by the public in a referendum. But, as the next chart illustrates, the balance of opinion among Remain and Leave voters was now almost the reverse of that in 2016. After the referendum, Leave voters seemed to have rediscovered the virtues of parliamentary democracy.
But then things changed again. MPs rejected May’s deal, and proved seemingly unable to agree any alternative course of action – including a further referendum. That did little to enhance MPs’ standing among either Remain or Leave voters.
Thus, by the time the UK failed to leave the EU on the original date of 29 March, many voters of both persuasions were agreeing with negative sentiments about parliament’s role in the Brexit process. That month ComRes found only 11% agreeing that ‘I trust MPs to do the right thing for the country over Brexit’, while 68% disagreed. Meanwhile, in a poll by the same company in early April, 61% agreed that ‘Parliament seems determined not to implement the will of the electorate on Brexit’, with just 18% disagreeing. This sentiment was especially widespread among Leave voters, with 87% agreeing and only 5% disagreeing; but even 48% of Remain supporters agreed and just 31% disagreed.
Indeed, at this point, Leave supporters were very clearly rejecting MPs’ traditional role in a parliamentary democracy. By 90% to 4% they agreed that ‘MPs should respect the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU and ignore their own views on Brexit’. In contrast, many Remain voters – who on balance disagreed with this statement by 48% to 35% – still embraced the idea that MPs should exercise their own judgement.
In summer 2019 Theresa May was replaced by Boris Johnson, who feared that parliament could prove an obstacle to his hopes of securing the UK’s exit from the EU by the now revised target date of 31 October. He sought to stop parliament from sitting for five weeks by implementing an unusually long prorogation – a highly controversial move which was overturned by the courts (as discussed in Catherine Barnard and
Alison Young’s contribution to the Parliament and Brexit report).
Overall, voters were more or less evenly divided on this issue. But again, as the third chart shows, Remain and Leave voters took very different stances – the former now appeared to be parliament’s defenders once more, in contrast to the majority of Leave supporters.
True, public opinion appeared to swing against the long prorogration after the Supreme Court issued its adverse judgment. At this point, 47% of voters said that they agreed with the Court’s ruling, while only 31% disagreed. But 62% of Leave voters disagreed with the Court and just 18% agreed, whereas 76% of Remain voters supported the judgment and only 9% disagreed.
There was then a final twist. As autumn set in, the government looked to hold a general election, hoping this would produce a parliament more supportive of its plans. The opposition parties, in contrast, all argued that there should be another referendum. With opinion polls suggesting that the Conservatives might win a general election, but that a second referendum might produce a Remain majority, there was good reason for Leave voters to prefer the former route to resolving the Brexit impasse.
And that is indeed what the polls suggested, as shown in the final chart. By now, many Leave voters preferred a parliamentary route to Brexit, rather than the path of direct democracy that had made Brexit possible in the first place.
The moral of this tale is clear. Few voters have held a consistent view on the role that parliament should play throughout the Brexit process. Rather, their views about how political decisions should be made have tended to depend on which answer seemed more likely to favour their side of the Brexit debate.
Having backed the 2016 referendum, whose outcome paved the way to Britain leaving the EU, Leave voters became keener on parliament rather than the people making decisions – except when parliament threatened to become an obstacle to their ambitions. Meanwhile, having been reluctant to embrace the idea of a referendum before the 2016 ballot, Remain supporters subsequently seemed keener to revisit direct democracy rather than letting parliament decide – except when it seemed capable of thwarting the government’s pursuit of Brexit.
The one sentiment that the two sides did have in common was a dislike of the parliamentary impasse on Brexit – but then, at that point, parliament was not giving either side what they wanted. And getting what they wanted, rather than abstract arguments about the relative merits of direct versus parliamentary democracy, was the
central motivation behind many people’s views of the role that parliament should play in the Brexit process.
This post also appeared in the Daily Telegraph and is a slightly edited copy of John’s contribution to the latest joint report from the Unit and the UK in a Changing Europe. Entitled Parliament and Brexit, it contains analysis from some of the leading political scientists and legal experts in the UK. Full details of the report and the ability to download can be found here and the Unit blog will post several of its key pieces of analysis over the next two weeks.
To see all of the Unit’s blogs on the report, click here.
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About the author
Professor John Curtice is Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen, and a senior fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe.