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Changing attitudes to Brexit, three years on

On Tuesday 31 January, it will be three years since Britain left the EU, although it remained in the single market until the end of 2020.

Recent polling has shown a clear trend toward voters, with hindsight, considering Brexit a mistake – but what is driving that trend?

A study by three researchers at the European University Institute, which broke down people’s modified attitudes towards Brexit by age group, suggests that the overall shift is not caused entirely by individuals changing their minds, and that some groups do not seem to be changing their minds very much at all.

The 52:48 result in favour of Brexit, according to a YouGov poll conducted shortly afterwards, was heavily driven by older voters. It found that 64% of voters over 65 had opted for leave, while the youngest category, 18- to 24-year olds, had voted by 71% to 29% for remain.

Joris Frese, Juho Härkönen and Simon Hix looked at the long-running time series of responses to a YouGov poll asking: “In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to leave the EU?” They calculated for each age group what percentage answered “wrong” in polls conducted in 2016, 2018, 2020 and 2022, to see which age groups were turning against Brexit.

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Frese and his colleagues concluded that at least some of the change in attitudes was not coming from individuals changing their minds, but from individuals entering the electorate as they reach 18, and other individuals leaving the electorate as they die.

They analysed the “compositional effect” and concluded that 35% of the change in the average sentiment could be attributed to “voter replacement”.

Frese said: “This means that the majority of attitudinal change still happens within cohorts – that is, people actually changing their minds. However, we would argue that the proportion of change driven by the ‘demographic metabolism’ – old voters dying, young people entering the electorate – is still very sizeable and worth highlighting.”

Clearly at least some leave voters are changing their minds, and their number has risen over the last year.

Prof John Curtice, of the University of Strathclyde and WhatUKThinks.org, calculated from multiple polls that in early 2021, excluding “don’t know” responses, only 9% of leave voters said Britain would be better off in the EU.

By the end of 2022, that figure was 16%.

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Curtice cautions that “the answer to the question of what’s been the principal source of change since 2016 is not the same as the the question of what’s been the principal source of change in the last 12 months”.

“Only in the last 12 months has support for being in the EU begun to be over 52%. The big change is among leave voters. You don’t get from 52% 12 months ago to 58% now through demographic change. It’s too much and too fast.”

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“There are good reasons to believe that demographic drift” is happening, says Curtice, but the change is being caused “primarily by leave voters changing their mind”.

On the other hand, he says that “movement has occurred disproportionately among people in the younger part of the age spectrum” and this could mean that “the demographic cliff is even sharper” as new cohorts enter the electorate.

Härkönen says “the main story” from his team’s study was that “cohort replacement has already lowered Brexit support and will do so in the future as well.”

  • Sources: the age cohorts are Frese, Härkönen and Hix analysis of YouGov data, 2016–22. The breakdown by Brexit vote is those who say they support remain or rejoin in analysis by John Curtice on WhatUKThinks, excluding “don’t know” responses. Early 2021: average of first poll conducted in 2021 by BMG, Deltapoll, Kantar, Savanta and YouGov in 2021, except Savanta, where the poll was conducted in December 2020; Late 2021: average of last poll conducted in 2021 by Deltapoll, Kantar, Redfield & Wilton, Opinium, and Savanta, except Deltapoll where the poll was conducted in January 2022; End 2022: BMG, Deltapoll, Kantar, Omnisis, Redfield & Wilton, and YouGov. The in/out poll of polls is also from John Curtice, a rolling average of last six polls from BMG, Deltapoll, JL Partners, Kantar, Opinium, Redfield and Wilton, Savanta, Omnisis, People Polling, Techne UK and YouGov.