Future of Britain

August 4, 2022 Nina Sartor
August 3, 2022 CDD

Leaving the EU will present the UK with a new set of policy options that are currently largely determined by decisions made in Brussels. We are now pursuing a research project on the choices that the public think the UK should make once it has left the EU.

Problems and Purpose

Now that the UK has left the EU single market and customs union, it has acquired responsibility for a range of policy areas that hitherto have lain wholly or in part within the competence of the EU. One of the key motivations for doing so, according to those who campaigned in favour of a Leave vote, was to ensure that all the laws that pertained in Britain were made in Britain by a government and parliament that were accountable to the citizens of Britain alone. The implication at least was that leaving would help ensure that post-Brexit public policy was better aligned with the wishes and preferences of the British public.

But what are those wishes and preferences? One possible approach to finding out is to survey a representative sample of the population, presenting them with questions on a range of policy issues and eliciting their answers. We have ourselves undertaken such an exercise on a number of occasions during the last two years, with a view to ascertaining the public’s views on some of the possible policy decisions that the UK could take after Brexit in respect of immigration, food policy and consumer regulation (Curtice et al., 2020). However, the answers that people give in these surveys will, of course, often be top of the head responses given without a great deal of forethought and consideration. Arguably a better approach to ascertaining how the public would react if a particular policy decision were to be taken is to give them access to the arguments for and against that decision, the chance to discuss the pros and cons, and only then try to ascertain their views.

Methods and Tools Used

Deliberative Polling is a methodological technique developed by the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University (Fishkin, 1997; 2009; 2018). During 2019 and 2020 we undertook three such polls on the subject of Britain’s post-Brexit public policy in respect of immigration, food policy and consumer regulation. Over weekends in May and June 2019 and then again in October 2020 we brought together three different subsets of the people who had originally responded to one of the regular surveys that we had conducted and provided them with impartial written briefing materials, the opportunity to discuss the issues with fellow participants in moderated small groups, and the chance to quiz balanced panels of experts on each subject. In each case the deliberation was undertaken online, the first time that Deliberative Polling has been undertaken in this way in the UK. The version of the briefing materials used in 2020 together with videos of the sessions with experts are available at (nd).

A total of 385 people, stratified to be as representative as possible of the adult population, participated in one of the three events and in so doing completed two questionnaires, one shortly before their event took place and the other as it came to an end. In addition, the discussions are being transcribed and subjected to qualitative analysis. In this paper, we use these data (weighted to be as representative as possible of the general population) to present some initial findings on where the deliberation appears to have made a difference to people’s views and try to provide some insight into why this proved to be the case. The analysis is based on the data that were collected across all three events.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Our research casts doubts on some of the assumptions that those on both sides of the Brexit debate have brought to the arguments about the policy options that the UK should pursue in the wake of the decision to leave the EU. On the Remain side of the argument there has been a tendency to believe that if voters were to be persuaded of the benefits of immigration then the pressure to end freedom of movement between the UK and the EU would dissipate. However, evaluations of the impact of immigration and a liberal approach to the control of immigration do not necessarily go hand in hand – and especially so when voters are given the time and opportunity to consider the issue. Even if the recent trend towards a more favourable evaluation of immigration remains in place, it cannot be presumed that this will necessarily generate pressure for the introduction of a more liberal immigration regime. Voters may well come to the conclusion that the benefits of immigration are more likely to be realised through a measure of control.

Meanwhile, some on the Leave side of the Brexit debate have given the impression leaving the EU will create the opportunity to put a sword to the regulatory regime to which the UK has had to adhere by virtue of its EU membership. Yet when voters are invited to consider some of the specific issues at stake, it is far from clear that this is a vision that is shared by the wider public. Indeed, after deliberation even those who voted Leave appear to lose some of their enthusiasm for moving away from the regulatory regime that has been inherited from the EU. Irrespective of how they voted in the referendum, voters do not necessarily easily acquiesce in regulatory changes that might affect their rights as consumers.

Indeed, there is a striking parallel in how attitudes shifted across the subjects that we addressed. On immigration, the views of Remain voters drew closer to those of Leave supporters. Meanwhile where initially the two groups of voters had rather different outlooks on EU regulation, the views of Leave supporters moved closer to those of Remain voters. Now that Britain has left the EU perhaps future debates about immigration and regulation will no longer prove to be an extension of the debate about Britain’s relationship with the EU but, rather, will be issues that are discussed on their own merits.


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