17th November 2023
“Like it or not, Suella speaks for the silent majority.” So said Annabel Denham, Director of Communications for the Institute of Economic Affairs, in the Telegraph last week. Of course, not everyone agrees with this appraisal of Suella Braverman, whose outspokenness resulted in her sacking from cabinet this week. Writing in the Guardian only a few days later, Owen Jones described her views as “Britain’s most extreme political sentiments”. So, which is it: does Braverman speak for Britain’s silent majority, or only its most extreme fringe? As opinion pollsters, we do not much approve of rhetorical appeals to the so-called “silent majority”. When we want to know what the majority thinks, we ask. Over the course of Braverman’s controversial stint at the Home Office, we gauged the public’s reaction to five of her most provocative policies and pronouncements. Here are the results.
“I would love to have a front page of the Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda. That’s my dream, it’s my obsession.” – 4th October 2022
The British public seems to share Braverman’s approval of the plan to send people who seek asylum in the UK to Rwanda, although they do not share her fervour. Almost half (46%) of respondents to a Deltapoll survey commissioned by the Mail on Sunday said they support this policy, compared to just a third (33%) who oppose it. Conservative voters from the 2019 general election are the only political group among which a plurality supports the policy, but the margin is substantial: more than six in ten (62%) are in favour with only one fifth (20%) against.
Braverman’s dream was interrupted this week by a Supreme Court ruling that the Rwanda plan threatens asylum seekers’ human rights. Her preferred course of action is for the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. On this issue, however, the public is not behind her. Almost twice as many respondents to the same survey want the UK to stay in the convention (49%) rather than leave it (26%). In light of the Supreme Court’s judgement, voters may be forced to choose between pushing ahead with the plan and remaining in the convention.
“I’m afraid we do see many instances where people purport to be gay when they’re not actually gay, but in order to get special treatment. It’s not the way our asylum system should work.” – 27th September 2023
Many Britons think this statement, which incited anger from many LGBT activists and migrants’ groups alike, is probably true. 41% of respondents to a Deltapoll survey for the Mail on Sunday said they thought it was either probably or definitely true that many asylum seekers “game the system” by pretending to be gay, whereas 28% thought it was false. Nevertheless, respondents were almost evenly split on whether it was appropriate for politicians to make a statement like this one, its truth notwithstanding. 38% believed that politicians should refrain from making such comments because they can encourage hate and violence, while only slightly more (40%) said it is important for politicians to raise questions like this about the asylum system. Only Conservative voters were more likely to take the latter view. On this issue at least, some Britons agree with Braverman’s opinion but would prefer that she kept it to herself.
“Multiculturalism makes no demands of the incomer to integrate. It has failed.” – 26th October 2023
The public is not convinced by Braverman’s evaluation of multiculturalism. Almost half (48%) of respondents believe that multiculturalism in the UK has been a partial or complete success, compared to just over a third (36%) who think it has been a failure. Likewise, more people think that the advantages of multiculturalism outweigh the disadvantages than think the opposite – 32% versus 26%. This headline figure disguises a stark divide along political lines, however. Labour (43%) and Liberal Democrat (45%) voters are more than twice as likely as Conservative voters (19%) to say that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages of multiculturalism.
Braverman’s disavowal of multiculturalism reflects her unfaltering opposition to what she has called a “hurricane” of immigration into the UK. The public’s feelings on immigration are more complicated. Half (50%) would like to see immigration decreased, including a plurality of voters from all major parties. But when respondents are presented with a list of seven groups of immigrants – including people escaping persecution, foreign students, and those seeking a better life – there is no group from which a majority would like to see lower immigration. The only instance in which more respondents favour decreasing immigration rather than increasing it or keeping it the same is when they are asked about immigrants with low levels of education seeking low-paid jobs. Regarding immigration, along with multiculturalism, Britain’s opinion is more nuanced than Braverman’s.
“We cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people, many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice.” – 4th November 2023
Braverman’s characterisation of homelessness as a “lifestyle choice” seems not to resonate with the public. Following her comments, we asked a representative sample of British adults who they think is primarily responsible for securing accommodation for people sleeping rough. Only 7% said that rough sleepers themselves should bear primary responsibility. Slightly more (11%) think the housing charities which Braverman blames for clogging up streets with donated tents should be responsible. A large majority, however, thinks it is a matter for government: a third assign responsibility to central government (33%), and slightly more say local authorities are responsible (36%). Not even Conservative voters back Braverman on this issue, with fewer than one in ten (9%) holding rough sleepers themselves responsible.
“I have become hoarse urging you to consider legislation to ban the hate marches.” – 14th November 2023
The “hate marches” which Braverman was desperate for the Prime Minister to ban are pro-Palestine demonstrations, the largest of which took place in central London on November 11th, two days before he sacked her. Over that weekend, we polled a representative sample of British adults to measure support for Braverman’s position. The public was divided on whether or not the demonstration should be allowed to go ahead, with 43% saying it should and 41% saying it should not. Once again, respondents’ politics were a strong predictor of their preferences: a majority (54%) of Conservative voters wanted the protest banned, whereas a majority of Labour (52%) and Liberal Democrat (56%) voters thought it should be allowed to take place.
However, although a large proportion agreed with Braverman that the demonstration should be banned, their motivations seem to be different. To assess respondents’ reasons for opposing the protest, we split our sample in two. Half were asked a series of questions about pro-Palestine protests on Remembrance weekend and half were asked an analogous set of questions about hypothetical protests by Just Stop Oil across the same weekend. The proportion who believed that a demonstration by Just Stop Oil in central London on November 11th should be banned (63%) was higher than the proportion who wanted the pro-Palestine protest to be banned. Unlike Braverman, the public does not seem to regard pro-Palestine demonstrations as particularly hateful compared to other protests – rather, they disapprove of any political demonstrations which distract from Remembrance weekend commemorations.
So, is Suella Braverman the voice of the people, or an extremist? On the basis of these results, the truth – perhaps, unsurprisingly – is somewhere in the middle. It is clear that many of her most controversial remarks do not reflect the opinions of a majority of British voters – but often they do reflect the opinions of a majority of Conservative voters. What this means for British politics is that if Braverman does decide to challenge Rishi Sunak’s leadership of the Tory Party, it could be bad news for him. But if she succeeds in ousting him, it may be good news for the Labour Party.