Six months on from the UK’s final departure from the European Union, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies have asked the British public about their reflections on Brexit and found that sharp divisions still linger.
A slight plurality (44%) of respondents believe that the UK made the right decision in leaving the EU in 2016. On the opposite end, 42% of the British public feels that it was the wrong decision, and 14% are unsure.
Age and political leaning are strong predictors of where respondents fall on this question. Young respondents are overwhelmingly against the decision: only 17% of respondents aged 18 to 24 say it was the right choice, with 61% considering it the wrong decision. For those aged 65 and over, however, a clear majority (63%) say it was the right decision. This view is also widespread among 2019 Conversative voters, with 70% of those who voted Conversative in the 2019 General Election feeling that the country made the right decision. Only 23% of 2019 Labour voters hold that same view.
These findings are largely consistent with our polling from February 2021, when 43% of the British public believed that Brexit was the right decision. The proportion of young respondents who believe it was the wrong decision has, however, somewhat increased. In February, 25% of those aged 18 to 24 said that they thought leaving had been the correct decision, and 51% said it was the wrong one.
With the UK completing its separation from the EU relatively recently, at the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020, the meaning and significance of Brexit may still be uncertain to some. Even so, nearly half (48%) of the British public thinks that that it is not too early to tell whether Brexit was the right or wrong decision, while 42% feel it is too early. Younger and older respondents are united in their conviction that an assessment can already be made: a majority of 18-to-24-year-olds (55%) and those aged 65 and over (62%) say that it is not too early to tell whether it was the right decision.
Those who view Brexit as the wrong decision are slightly more likely (59%) than those who view it as the right decision (50%) to consider it not too early to tell whether Brexit was the right or wrong decision. Those who don’t know whether they view Brexit as the right or wrong decision are, understandably, quite likely (55%) to say it is too early to tell.
Looking to the future, the possibility of the UK re-joining the EU is also divisive. Overall, 39% of Britons say they would oppose a campaign to re-join the EU, whereas 36% say they would support such a campaign.
Most interestingly, those who view Brexit as the right decision are more viscerally opposed to the prospect of a re-join campaign than those who view Brexit as the wrong decision are supportive. Altogether, 77% of those who view Brexit as the right decision say they would oppose a campaign to re-join the EU, including 63% who say they would ‘strong oppose.’ By comparison, 69% of those who view Brexit as the wrong decision say they would support a campaign to re-join the institution, but only 34% say they would ‘strongly support’ such a campaign. This variation suggests that, even though the public is broadly split on the issue, a campaign to re-join the European Union is likely to face significantly more headwind than tailwind.
Also of significance, a campaign to re-join the EU would be supported by members of the public in all age brackets under the age of 55. A majority (55%) of 18-to-24-year-olds say they would support such a campaign, along with a plurality of 25-to-34-year-olds (49%), 35-44-year-olds (42%), and 45-to-54-year-olds (37%). Conversely, older Britons generally oppose the prospect. In fact, a strong majority (66%) of those aged 65 and over would oppose a campaign to re-join the EU.
A similar generational divide is visible in predictions about how Brexit will be viewed in the future by the British public. When asked whether they thought it was more likely that the public would increasingly appreciate or regret having left the EU, a plurality (44%) of respondents feel that the country will increasingly appreciate the decision. 37% meanwhile feel that regret will grow, and 19% are unsure. The proportion of respondents who believe the public will increasingly appreciate Brexit increases with their age.
One potential factor driving these expectations about increased appreciation is the perceived effect of Brexit on the COVID-19 vaccination programme. A plurality (43%) of Britons thinks that being outside of the EU helped the national vaccine roll-out. Meanwhile, only 12% feel this separation hindered the roll-out, 34% feel it neither helped nor hindered, and 11% are unsure if it had any effect.
Again, age is a significant factor, with a majority (58%) of those aged 65 and over thinking that Brexit had a positive effect on the UK’s vaccine rollout, compared to just 26% of 18-to-24-year-olds. Moreover, those who view Brexit as the right decision are especially more likely to say the vaccine rollout has helped the United Kingdom (68%). Those who view Brexit as the wrong decision are more split: a quarter (23%) say they think Brexit has helped the United Kingdom, while a similar percentage (21%) say it has hindered the country and a plurality (45%) say the new status has neither helped nor hindered the United Kingdom.
The public continues to be split on key questions about Brexit and post-Brexit Britain. Though a slight plurality thinks it was the right decision to leave the EU, there is a stark age divide in opinion. Support for Brexit, and corresponding optimism about how it will be viewed in the future, is strongest amongst older Britons, whereas young people mostly regard Brexit in a negative light—suggesting that the question of membership could be re-opened later in the future.