Is This the Chart that Spells Doom for the Brexit Dream? – A Guest Post by Neil Robertson


Figure 1. Were we right or wrong to Vote to Leave the EU from “What the UK Thinks”


Figure 1 shows the monthly average of the long-running poll series asking the question “In hindsight, do you think it was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?”

This poll series is interesting for a couple of reasons: the initial results agree approximately with the split in the referendum itself so give confidence that the sample is representative, and the question also cuts through the guilt that some people have about holding another referendum and gets to their opinion about the Brexit project.

One can see that there were several distinct phases in the evolution of opinion: for the remainder of 2016 and into early 2017 opinion held steady that the right thing had been decided. Through the rest of 2017 there was a consistent drift away from “right” and towards “wrong” achieving a cross-over around the middle of the year. By the end of 2017 the proportions of right and wrong had basically flipped from the original referendum result. In 2018 there was another period of stability until around August when another drift towards wrong started. December 2018 appears to mark the start of a more dramatic shift of sentiment, although there are only 2 polls in the data point for December so there may be a reversion to the mean to come in January. Note also that the 2 polls in December were conducted before any widespread discussion of troops on the street, medicine shortages etc.

This change in polling does not yet seem to have had a decisive impact on the politics of Westminster, although it might be behind some of the growth in support for a 2nd referendum. It seems strange that our politicians are determined to deliver a result that they apparently never really believed in, when the public are also coming to the conclusion that it is a bad idea.

The democratic case against having a 2nd referendum is very weak. The full facts of leaving were not discussed in the original campaign and it would therefore make sense to have another test of public opinion based on what we now know. To use a quite extensive analogy, it was as if in the referendum the leave campaign said we had to cross a road to get to a better place. The place itself could be only glimpsed in the distance and fog clouded the road but we were told it was a quiet country lane that would be easy to cross – let’s go forward to the promised land! Now that we are closer we can see that the road is a 6-lane motorway which we dread to cross, and the other side doesn’t look much better than where we reside currently (possibly quite a lot worse). The leave campaign is now crowding behind us, saying “cross the road or else, you traitors!”

It might be thought that one shouldn’t read too much into polls, and that they can’t be used to justify trying to overturn the “largest democratic exercise in British history”. We get used to seeing polls in this way, as they are normally judged on their ability to predict general election results. But all forms of measuring public opinion have their biases (our current electoral system grotesquely so) and on a single issue like Brexit it is possible that a poll represents at least as good a way of measuring opinion as a referendum.

It might therefore be time for our political class to accept the fact that the “will of the people” is not cast in stone and is moving under their feet. They will not be thanked or rewarded at the ballot box for delivering a result that the public no longer support, and which potentially would cause great problems for the UK economy.


  1. Peter May -

    Agreed. Brexiter reasoning is, as far as I can see, non – existant. But they are very good at emotional blackmail!

  2. Sean Danaher -

    Very true. I agree with all of that. The 2016 Brexit referendum was however appalling. Industrial scale lying, psycho-ops, cheating and dark money etc. The intellectual level verged on moronic.

    If there is indeed another referendum how do we ensure that it is conducted in a fair and honest manner/ Too much Kool Aid has been drunk by the Brexiters to give me any hope that there will be any honesty of fair play from that quarter.

    1. Neil Robertson -

      Agreed – the 2016 referendum campaigns (leave and remain) were indeed moronic. The voting public were completely let down by both sides.

      It seems that political discourse in the UK is broken. The focus on a single issue in a referendum amplifies the faults that are there to a ridiculous extent.

      The only other referendum that I remember was the one on voting reform – the campaign for that was also an exercise in mass dissemination of ludicrous nonsense.

      It’s not really a solution to the current situation, but perhaps if future tests of public opinion are deemed desirable they should be done at the same time as a general election to avoid quite so much utter rubbish being put into the public domain.

  3. Neil Robertson -

    Update: Latest result (4th Jan) from the poll series discussed in this post is 55% wrong 45% right – so no evidence that the December polls were an anomaly.

  4. Ivan Horrocks -

    When today’s Brexiteers talk about the sanctity of the result of the 2016 referendum I’m always inclined to ask them why it is that the result of the referendum of 5th June 1975 wasn’t similarly sacrosanct. On that occasion 67% voted to stay in the ‘Common Market’ and 33% voted to leave on a turnout of 67%. And yet many of the leave supporters never accepted that result (many of those being in the Tory party) and campaigned endlessly from that time until 2016 to overturn it, as did certain newspapers and their owners. So, at best any protest from a Brexiteer on this issue is hypocricy.

    1. Neil Robertson -

      Hi Ivan,

      Agreed. The argument that I hear most often with regard to respecting the referendum result is that we have to implement the result of the first referendum before we can do anything else. I would agree with this if the referendum had specified how we should leave even in broad terms – but it did not.

      Instead we have various people project their own beliefs onto the people that voted. For instance from the remain side you often hear people say “nobody voted to become poorer” which I think is obviously false – a minority of people are so full of hatred for the European project that i think they would pay almost any price to achieve it! On the leave side people say that it is “obvious” that people that voted leave didn’t want to be in the customs union or single market – when many people in the leave campaign specifically stated that this is where we would end up! This is also making the assumption that leave having won the referendum therefore means that the opinions of the 48% that voted remain can now be ignored!

    2. Rhys -

      The 1975 vote was not voted on again for over 40 years, there was not another vote in 1977. I agree about regular voting on the EU, perhaps not every 2 years… but happy to have a vote on EU membership every 10 years, as that would be democratic. Lame reasoning about 1975 being Brexiteer hypocrisy though, that is one of the weakest arguments I have seen, even in a remain echo chamber like this one. (note hypocrisy spelling, Ivan).

  5. Don Liverpool -

    Yet another Progressive Pulse article on whether it is
    a good idea to leave the EU, which fails to mention the primary fiscal purpose of the EU.
    Let alone have a go at providing a paper explaining why it delivers net positives compared to the two obvious counterfactuals of not having it at all, and devolution to member states.
    Oh dear, what a pity, ignorance is a virtue etc, I’m going to inherit some land so I don’t care. . . utterly disgusting

Comments are closed.