Could we have predicted Brexit?

by Professor Dominic Abrams FBA

10 Jan 2018

Was Theresa May right to go for ‘strong and stable’ at the last general election? Although that strategy has been the subject of criticism, our research suggests otherwise. When we explored data from a survey just prior to the EU referendum, the evidence suggests that these themes might have appealed particularly well to those who had voted to leave the EU.  

Our research just published in the British Journal of Social Psychology reports evidence from political opinion surveys that we conducted just before the EU referendum, with samples of 1000 eligible voters from Kent and 1000 from Scotland. We examined the way that respondents’ views predicted their voting intentions in the referendum.

Different explanations have been given for why people voted for Brexit. One explanation suggests that support for Brexit reflected a general rise in xenophobia and prejudice, perhaps fueled by a populist agenda. Another explanation is that it reflected people’s distrust and rejection of the political establishment. We proposed an ‘aversion amplification hypothesis’ whereby the combination of these two components was particularly influential. We reasoned that when people’s concern about levels of immigration was combined with feeling distrustful of politicians, this would lead to a heightened sense of threat from immigration, and disidentification with Europe. A vote for Brexit reflected a rejection of the political status-quo and a desire for a more predictable future.

The perception of immigration as a threat weakened the sense of European identity

After years of increasing levels of immigration and repeated failures by government to meet Theresa May’s own targets when she was Home Secretary, many people believed that immigration levels were a serious concern. The situation also signaled UK politicians’ inability to deliver on their aims, perhaps undermining some people’s trust in them. Survey evidence consistently shows that a major factor in EU referendum voting choices was how strongly people identified as European, so an important question was what may have weakened that sense of identity?

Even after accounting for differences in age, education and other factors, we found that the perception that immigration posed a threat predicted lower identification as European, and this in turn was associated with a stronger intention to vote leave. Importantly, it was amongst people who had higher levels of concern about immigration combined with lower levels of trust in UK politicians that feelings of threat, low European identification and intention to vote to leave were at their strongest.

Those with greater distrust in UK politicians were most likely to vote for Brexit

Intriguingly, although a majority in Kent voted to leave and a majority in Scotland voted to remain, data analysis confirmed that people in both regions were most likely to opt for Brexit when their feelings of threat, and disidentification with Europe, had been amplified by a combination of concern about immigration levels and distrust of UK politicians. Indeed, it is fascinating that those with greater distrust in UK politicians (presumably, reflecting their feelings about the Cameron government at the time) were those most likely to vote for UK politicians to have more power, by initiating Brexit. Given these findings, despite any weaknesses in the way the Conservative Party subsequently ran its General Election campaign, perhaps Theresa May’s strategy of offering voters a combination of strength and stability was understandable as it should have appealed to Brexit supporters desire for greater political control and trustworthiness in future.

However, things can move fast in politics. Following the EU referendum, immigration numbers appear to have reduced and commentators are increasingly highlighting the potential risks if the UK cannot retain and attract sufficient EU immigrants (for example in health and social care, education, agriculture and tourist industries). If Theresa May succeeds in restoring greater trust in UK politicians, and if people’s concerns over immigration levels are attenuated, an ironic consequence is that by the time the government concludes its Brexit negotiations with the EU, the balance of popular support, and the ‘will of the people’, may have shifted in favour of remaining in the EU.

Dominic Abrams, Giovanni A. Travaglino and Anne Templeton, University of Kent

The paper, entitled ‘Immigration, political trust, and Brexit – Testing an aversion amplification hypothesis’ (Professor Dominic Abrams and Dr Giovanni Travaglino), is published in the British Journal of Social Psychology (DOI:10.1111/bjso.12233).

The research was funded by the British Academy and the Economic and Social Research Council, and was conducted by Professor Dominic Abrams and Dr Giovanni Travaglino.

Dominic Abrams FBA is Vice-President (Social Sciences) at the British Academy, and Professor of Social Psychology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Group Processes at the School of Psychology, University of Kent 


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