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Brexit: why so surprised?

Posted on 11 July 2016 by Matt Jonas, Campaigns and Marketing Manager .
Tags: British Social Attitudes, European Union, data tool

In summer 2015, a majority already believed that exiting the EU would mean lower immigration and no long-term damage to the economy.

Explore how the country divided along demographic lines with our data explorer.

Old ladies on bus

As cannot have escaped your notice, on 23rd June the UK voted to leave the European Union in a national referendum. The British public communicated their desire to leave, by the slimmest of margins.

The result was quite unexpected in many quarters – even the financial markets were betting heavily on remain on the eve of the vote - but perhaps the result should not have come as such a surprise.

Back in summer 2015, we asked the British public what they thought leaving the EU would mean for the country, with regards to issues like the economy, immigration and our global influence (the first two of which would go on to dominate the entire campaign).

Cast your mind back…this was just after David Cameron’s Conservative party had unexpectedly won a parliamentary majority, having promised an in-out referendum on EU membership in a bid to quell gains made by UKIP, but before the frenzy of the Leave and Remain campaigns, media saturation and polling had begun.

These questions were asked as part of our British Social Attitudes survey, which has followed the social, moral and political opinions of the public for over 30 years. We interviewed more than 3,000 people randomly selected individuals in their homes.

As well as asking for their broad views on the EU, and which way they would vote, we also asked what they thought would happen in the event of Brexit. What did the public think it would mean for immigration, the economy and our influence in the world?

At the time, as we first examined the results, an actual vote for Brexit seemed very unlikely, but perhaps we should have looked harder. While the majority still said they would vote remain, their views on the two issues that went on to define the Referendum campaign – immigration and the economy - were telling.

Our results showed that the public already believed the case for immigration reduction: 57% thought immigration would be lower outside the EU. What’s more, they were not convinced on the economic case: 55% believed the economy would be the same or better off outside the EU.        

The result of the Referendum has been discussed extensively along demographic lines: older people, and those on lower incomes, voted out; while younger, more affluent segments of society were firmly for remain.

We’ve now put this data in an interactive data explorer, so you can explore for yourself what different segments of the population believed about the issues that defined the referendum, and how they compare with the national average.

Try our interactive data explorer


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