Blog: The Union remains divided on Brexit – UK in a Changing Europe

Sophie Stowers analyses public attitudes towards Brexit and relations with the EU across the four nations of the United Kingdom, highlighting that differences remain that may have tangible political consequences. 

A UK in a Changing Europe report, to be published next week, makes clear that Brexit continues to be a divisive issue amongst the British public. Because our aim is to examine how UK-EU relations might develop, our focus was the UK as a whole. Missing from our analysis was any sense of the clear differences between the four nations that make up the UK on issues related to the EU and Brexit, but these remain real and profound.

Perhaps this is not surprising given the results of the referendum: England voted most strongly for Brexit at 53%, followed by Wales with 52.5%, whereas 56% voters in Northern Ireland chose to Remain, as did over 60% of those in Scotland. As a result, perceptions of Brexit as a ‘negative’ thing have always been much more concentrated in certain parts of the country than others – when asked if Brexit has had a negative impact on the economy, 74% of respondents in Northern Ireland agree, as do large proportions of voters in Scotland (66%). Almost half do in Wales (48%). This is compared to an average of 43% in England.

But those living in Northern Ireland and Scotland are now also less likely to view Brexit as ‘done’ than those living in England, suggesting an appetite for the kinds of changes to the UK-EU relationship that our report suggests neither the Conservatives nor Labour are willing to consider.

In Northern Ireland, the continuing stand-off over the Northern Irish Protocol has contributed to a consistently negative perception of Brexit’s impact upon the Northern Irish economy and political system since 2016. Predictably, the most negative views are reserved for the political impact of the Protocol; though attitudes towards the Protocol itself are broadly positive, 62% think the ongoing row over its implementation is having a negative impact on political stability in Northern Ireland and 60% think the same about its impact on British-Irish relations. Yet this has caused even further internal divisions, with public opinion on this issue split across Unionist-Nationalist divides – Unionists are much more likely to think negatively of the Protocol, whereas Nationalists are generally more supportive.

Even in Wales, the only other part of the country aside from England to have (marginally) voted Leave, there has been an interesting shift in opinion. As of 2021, 46% of Welsh voters stated that they believed the decision to leave the EU was wrong, compared to 40% who thought the opposite. Indeed, Welsh voters have also become increasingly likely to say they would also vote to re-join the EU in the years since the referendum. This may be in part due to the loss of funding Wales has faced since leaving the EU, due to the EU’s withdrawal of structural funds and the UK government’s failure to supply equivalent funding until 2025.

These divisions could have tangible political consequences. Clearly, increasing support for Scottish independence among those unhappy with the decision to leave is a key one. Scotland was the nation most enthusiastic about remaining in the EU. Though the average level of support for independence among voters has not necessarily increased as a result of the UK’s official exit from the EU, Brexit has continued to influence people’s views. As of late 2021, 39% of those who voted Leave say that they would support independence, compared to nearly 60% of those who voted to Remain.

Indeed, in the years since the referendum, growth in support for Scottish independence has occurred mostly among those with positive views about EU membership, increasing by 13 points from 44% in 2016 to 57% by the end of 2020, suggesting that for many in Scotland, independence with the possibility of EU membership is more attractive than being within the Union. The general consensus from the UK public is that Brexit has made Scottish independence more likely.

Above and beyond shifts in public opinion, there is the real chance of regulatory divergence between the four nations of the UK, which could splinter the UK’s internal market. As made clear in the forthcoming sixth edition of our regulatory divergence tracker, numerous EU standards continue to apply in Northern Ireland (NI) as a result of the Protocol, including some which could bring NI into conflict with GB rules. New EU duties on e-cigarettes conflict with the government’s preferred approach, and updated European standards on substances of human origin could mean that NI health services lose access to blood supplies from Britain. Yet voters – and parties – continue to be split on whether specific arrangements for Northern Ireland are acceptable.

There is also the likelihood that Scottish and Welsh governments choose to continually align to a much greater extent than England with EU standards, creating not just political but regulatory divides between the four nations. For example, Scotland and Wales’ adherence to new EU restrictions on single-use plastics has already led to a ban on sales of certain items produced in England. Similar cases are likely to recur, given the Scottish government has committed to regulatory alignment with the EU while the UK government is determined to diverge (as currently evidenced by the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill).

Clearly, the UK-EU relationship is far from settled. But as well as thinking about how we cooperate with our neighbours across the Channel, we may need to look closer to home and consider the impact Brexit has had and continues to have on our own union.

By Sophie Stowers, Researcher at UK in a Changing Europe.

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