It’s the Economy, Stupid: EU Ref Will be Decided on Economic, not Social Issues

© AFP/File Shaun Curry

The campaign for Britain to leave the European Union (EU) must make the economic case for Brexit if it is to stand a chance of winning the upcoming referendum on British membership, researchers have found.

Analysing British feeling on the EU, researchers found that two thirds of Brits are Eurosceptic, yet only a third plan to vote to leave the EU. They say it’s because economic concerns outweigh social concerns.

When Justice Secretary Michael Gove made his case for leaving the EU in Sunday’s papers, he focused heavily on the erosion of British sovereignty that membership of the Union entails. “My starting point is simple,” he said. “I believe that the decisions which govern all our lives, the laws we must all obey and the taxes we must all pay should be decided by people we choose and who we can throw out if we want change. If power is to be used wisely, if we are to avoid corruption and complacency in high office, then the public must have the right to change laws and Governments at election time.”

Warming to his subject he conjured a picture of Britain as a Great Nation, once again taking her rightful place on the world stage. “But by leaving the EU we can take control. Indeed we can show the rest of Europe the way to flourish,” he urged.

“Like the Americans who declared their independence and never looked back, we can become an exemplar of what an inclusive, open and innovative democracy can achieve.”

While this may be stirring stuff, if research from What UK Thinks is to be believed it will fall on deaf ears unless a convincing case can be made that Britain will not just be freer outside the Union, but crucially more prosperous.

Using data from interviews with around 3,000 people conducted by the British Attitudes Survey between July and November last year, John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University found that while 65 percent of Brits are sceptical about the EU and want it to have less power, only 30 percent want to leave the Union (latest polls place Leave on 38 percent, Remain on 37 percent and the remainder undecided).

Furthermore, while 47 percent of those asked thought that membership of the EU was undermining Britain’s cultural identity (30 percent disagreed), 40 percent also thought that Britain’s economy would suffer if it left the EU, against 24 percent who thought it would improve.

The results suggest that, although the majority of Brits have cultural concerns over Britain’s membership of the EU, economic issues override those concerns to the point of persuading people to stay within the EU regardless.

This is borne out by further analysis which show that a voter’s assessment of the likely impact a Brexit would have on the British economy generally predicts how likely that person is likely to vote in the referendum. Of those who think that the British economy would be better off if we left the EU, 72 percent favour leaving the Union. By contrast, just six percent of those who think the economy would be worse off support leaving regardless.

Mr Curtice concedes that the picture is a snapshot of attitudes from last year – “it cannot tell us how the public have responded to the latest twists and turns in the renegotiations or the wider referendum debate,” – but adds that, so far, it is the only survey to have explored what the British people consider to be the cultural and economic consequences of leaving the EU, and how much weight they attribute to each factor.

He adds that the long-running nature of the enquiry period means that the sample is more likely to be representative of the general public.

His conclusion is that cultural concerns about British membership of the EU on their own are “typically insufficient to persuade someone that Britain should actually leave the EU. Only if they are also convinced of the economic case for withdrawal are people highly likely to want to take that step.

“But far fewer are convinced of that case than are concerned about the cultural consequences of the EU. It is this that explains why a nation that appears keen on quite radical reductions in the scope of EU-wide activity and entitlement is not necessarily one that will, when the time comes, vote to Leave.

“For [a Brexit] to happen voters also need to be convinced of the economic benefits of exiting.”

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