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.