What was the point of Brexit? Britons still don’t know




8th February 2023

What are the benefits of Brexit? For many years an assortment of politicians and pundits have offered their own suggestions, but it is now three years since the United Kingdom formally withdrew from the European Union, and despite so much debate, discussion and argument, a recent survey from Deltapoll, which I co-founded, shows that relatively few in the general public are able to answer this question.

In public opinion terms, the benefits of Brexit, as with so many political policies, depends more on perception than reality. A government policy can still be perceived to deliver benefits or other impacts, irrespective of what is actually happening, and this can then have a significant impact on that government’s position in the polls, particularly among certain groups of voters. Brexit is no exception.

The Conservatives have not been ahead on voting intention in a published poll for all of 2022 and are currently lagging behind Labour by double digits. Being able to point to a series of benefits of Brexit three years on would certainly be helpful for those in Downing Street.

What does the public think? To investigate further, Deltapoll surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than a thousand British adults and asked, regardless of how they had voted in the EU referendum, if they were able to name at least one specific way in which they had personally directly benefited from Britain leaving the EU. Those who said they could were then asked a separate follow-up question to say, in their own words, what that benefit was. A further sample of equal size were asked about benefits to Britain generally, rather than them personally.

What came through in the data very strongly was that only a small proportion of British adults could actually name any specific benefits of Brexit – either to them personally or to the wider country more generally.

Only one in ten people (10 per cent) were able to name a specific way in which Britain had benefited from Brexit, and just one in 20 could name a specific way in which they had personally benefited. Inevitably, these numbers were higher among those who had voted Leave, but not substantially so – rising eight points to 18 per cent of Leave voters and 21 per cent among those who voted both Leave and Conservative.

Topping the list of perceived benefits to the UK was control of immigration and borders, selected by nearly a third (30 per cent) of those who could name a benefit. Also near the top of the list were the Covid vaccine rollout (17 per cent), fishing rights (12 per cent) and abolition of best before dates on food packaging (10 per cent). These were joined by variations on the theme of taking back control (12 per cent). Taking back control also tops the list of perceived benefits to the individual, sharing the top spot with the vaccine rollout (both on 21 per cent).

Some opponents of Brexit will say that many of the benefits mentioned could have been achieved with Britain still in the EU – and may even point to the fact that immigration has actually risen since the referendum. As previously mentioned, however, it is the perception is key here. On the other hand, it is also worth keeping in mind that the data does not point to an easily identified benefit that can be clearly attributed to Brexit – the kind of thing the government could actually use in a campaign.

Should the government and its supporters be looking for some good news in the data, it may conceivably be found in the proportion of people who expect benefits in the years to come, even if they cannot name any three years on. More than a quarter (27 per cent) said they were not yet able to name a benefit to the UK, but expected benefits in the years to come. The same proportion expect future benefits for themselves personally. More than four out of ten could not name any benefits either to Britain (43 per cent) or themselves (48 per cent).

This is important because the last election was, for many voters, the BBC election: Brexit, Boris and Corbyn. With only the former (we assume) having the potential to be a truly live issue at the next election, the government might have hoped that Getting Brexit Done would have helped at the ballot box. On current evidence, the best they can hope for is that the widespread absence of perceived benefits does not damage their position even further.

Deltapoll interviewed 2,652 British adults online between 6-16 January 2023. The data has been weighted to be representative of the British adult population as a whole. View the full results here.

A copy of this article originally appeared in The New Statesman.

Joe TwymanAuthor: Joe Twyman