One of the persistent findings of the polling on attitudes towards Brexit – both before and since the referendum itself – has been that voters are more likely to think that Brexit will be bad for Britain’s economy than anticipate that it will be beneficial. However, there has also been some evidence that voters’ views on the economic consequences of Brexit depend on the time frame that they are invited to consider. Both YouGov and Ipsos MORI have reported evidence that on balance voters are rather more optimistic about the consequences of Brexit in the long-term than they are about what it might mean in the short-term.
But why might this be the case? Given that the country was more or less evenly divided between Remain and Leave supporters at the time of the referendum and continues to be so now, perhaps it is an indication that Leave voters in particular are of the view that, although there might be pain in the short-term, ultimately Brexit will prove economically beneficial. After all, those who advocate Brexit have long argued that it will present Britain with new opportunities that, if successfully grasped, will enable the country to prosper. If this suggestion proves to be correct, it would imply that polls and surveys that have only asked voters about the more immediate consequences of Brexit have missed a key part of the explanation as to why the Leave campaign was able to win the 2016 referendum.
There is, however, another possible explanation - that the pattern represents the triumph of hope over expectation. Perhaps Remain supporters who anticipate that Brexit will be damaging economically in the short-term reckon that, in the long-term at least, things might turn out OK after all. They reason that whatever losses occur in the short term may eventually be reversed. If this perspective is correct, the tendency in polling to focus on people’s perceptions of the short-term consequences of Brexit would seem justified, as it implies that it is these perceptions that are more likely to be reflected in whether people back Remain or Leave.
The latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey provides a unique opportunity to assess whether and why voters take a different view of the short-term and long-term economic consequences of Brexit. Included on the survey is an extensive suite of questions on attitudes towards Brexit funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the results of which are released today in a report published by the foundation. Included among those questions are a set that ask people what they think the consequences of Brexit will be in ten years’ time, one of which asked whether ‘as a result of leaving the EU Britain’s economy will be better off in ten years’ time, worse off, or won’t it make much difference?’. At the same time, thanks to funding provided by the ESRC as part of its ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’ programme, respondents were also asked whether ‘as a result of leaving the EU, Britain’s economy will be better off, worse off, or won’t it make much difference?’, that is, without specifying a time frame. The results of this question were previously reported as part of the most recent annual British Social Attitudes report.
Comparison of the responses to the two questions reveals that they did obtain a rather different pattern of results (see Table 1). When respondents were not invited to consider a particular time horizon, they were nearly twenty points more likely to say they thought the economy would be worse off than to say it would be better off, a result that was not dissimilar to what was secured when the question was asked on the 2015 survey. In contrast, when people were asked what they thought the economic consequences of Brexit would be in ten years’ time, almost as many said that the economy will be better off as stated that it would be worse off. True, there may not be widespread optimism about the long-term economic consequences of Brexit, but, in contrast to the position when voters are not invited to focus on the long term, voters are at least not decidedly pessimistic about the prospects.
But is it Leave supporters or those who back Remain who are more optimistic about the long-term consequences of Brexit than they are about its more immediate implications? Table 2 reveals that Leave voters are somewhat more optimistic about the long-term. As many as 63% say that the economy will be better off in ten years’ time, compared with 56% who say it will be better off if no time frame is specified. However, at the same time Remain supporters are markedly less pessimistic about what Brexit will mean economically in the long term than they are when no time frame is specified. Whereas as many as 69% say that the economy will be worse off in the absence of a time frame, the figure falls to just 55% when asked to consider the position in ten years’ time. This shift of outlook among Remain supporters is more marked than the one we have identified among Leave supporters.
So, both of the possible reasons as to why voters are less pessimistic about the economic consequences are in evidence. Perhaps some of those who back Leave despite seemingly not being convinced that Brexit will be economically advantageous are indeed doing so because they anticipate that it will be beneficial in the long-term. However, it also seems that there is a not inconsiderable body of Remain supporters who are doubtful about the economic consequences of Brexit but are willing to accept – or hope – that maybe in the end things will be OK after all. As a result, attitudes towards the long-term economic consequences of Brexit are no more strongly linked to current Brexit preference than are attitudes to the more immediate consequences. But we will, of course, have to wait a long time before we find out whether voters’ relative optimism about the long-term economic consequences of Brexit proves to be justified.