By Dr Paul White
British public opinion remains sharply polarised over the issue of Brexit. The nation appears more divided than at any time in living memory. On the surface, the issue at stake would appear to be a simple binary choice, and indeed was presented as such in the 2016 referendum question: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union’? Almost three and a half years later, the divisions opened up by the referendum appear almost impossible to reconcile. On the face of it, whatever path is chosen by the next government appears certain to be deeply unpopular with approximately half of the electorate.
Given this political landscape, political parties have been forced to make careful electoral calculations and, in most cases, have clearly targeted voters on one side of the divide or the other. In the current election campaign, the Conservatives under Boris Johnson are standing on a firm platform of ‘Get Brexit done’, while the Liberal Democrats have targeted the Remain half of the electorate by committing to a withdrawal of Article 50 notification. By contrast, Labour have prevaricated for many months. To some extent this indecision is understandable, given Labour’s awkward position. On the one hand, a large number of Labour supporters are Remainers. On the other hand, many constituencies in Labour’s traditional heartlands, particularly in the North of England, voted Leave, in some cases by a goodly margin. Committing decisively to either camp seems likely to alienate a goodly fraction of potential Labour voters. The result is a woolly policy stance based around negotiating a new Withdrawal Agreement, but then holding a second referendum in which the party may or may not campaign against its own negotiated deal. If current polling is anything to go by, this indecisive stance may have cost Labour votes from both the Leave and Remain camps. The lesson appears to be clear; political parties cannot simultaneously target both sets of voters, but must choose one side or the other.
A more nuanced analysis, however, might conclude that the range of public opinion on Brexit presents more of a spectrum than a simple binary choice. While the Leave camp is certainly not united around a single vision of Brexit, it would be fair to say that the Remain camp does not share a single vision of the future either. For example, while some Leavers undoubtedly would prefer a complete ‘hard’ Brexit, others would prefer continued single market membership. Some Remainers are comfortable with the potential prospect of an eventual federal union, while others would oppose federalism but believe this can be avoided. Attitudes towards Brexit thus represent a continuum rather than a simple dichotomy. At one pole are advocates of the hardest of hard Brexits, at the other are the Euro-federalists; but many voters are positioned somewhere in between these two poles. It seems possible, therefore, that a solution acceptable to the majority may also lie somewhere in the middle.
Survey data collected prior to the referendum suggested that the primary concern of Remain voters was the economy, while many Leave voters were primarily motivated by sovereignty concerns (British Election Study 2016). A solution that addressed sovereignty concerns by leaving the EU political institutions, while simultaneously protecting the economy via continued membership of the single market, might therefore prove to be an acceptable compromise to substantial numbers of voters in both camps. Black (1958) developed the theorem of the median voter, based on the logic that rational voters will prefer a policy closer to their desired outcome rather than one further away from it. For example, Voter A may desire increased public spending, even if this means a tax rise, while Voter B may desire tax cuts even if this means reduced public spending. However, a median policy of maintaining the status quo might be acceptable to both. While this policy does not give either voter their ideal outcome, for Voter A it would be better than a public spending cut, while for Voter B it would be better than a tax increase. Given this, both may be willing to vote for this compromise policy. This logic may be applicable to the Brexit issue as well. At the poles of the spectrum, die-hard Brexiteers may accept nothing less than a hard Brexit, while hard Remainers may accept nothing less than cancellation of the UK’s Article 50 notification. Between those two extremes, though, lie the more moderate Remainers and Leavers who may well be willing to support a compromise policy in the shape of EFTA / EEA membership.
The EEA option would, of course, mean accepting continued freedom of movement. This would be a problem for a section of the Leave camp. However, the BES data suggests that immigration was not the overriding issue for the majority of Leave voters. The EEA option would address most of the sovereignty concerns by removing the UK from EU political institutions, while simultaneously protecting the economy – the primary concern of many Remainers – via continued membership of the single market. While this option gives neither side their preferred solution, for most Leavers it would be preferable to remaining, and for most Remainers it would be preferable to hard Brexit. The median voter model suggests that this compromise solution may be one towards which moderate voters in both the Remain and Leave camps can gravitate in large enough numbers to form a majority.
That, at least, might have been true in 2016. Given the acrimony of the last three years, it may be that positions have hardened to an extent that makes compromise less likely. Even so, for the rational voter, the EEA option still represents a sensible compromise solution that is preferable to their respective worst-case scenarios. As such, it may be the most realistic way of finally settling the issue. A full Brexit is likely to leave the Remain camp campaigning for re-entry, while a cancellation of Article 50 would provoke enormous anger from Leavers. Either course of action would keep the issue festering for many years to come. A compromise solution acceptable to a majority of people in both camps might take the sting out of the dispute and finally allow British politics to move on.
Labour have, of course, proposed a customs union and a large degree of regulatory alignment. However, the party’s stance is highly confused, and also includes promises of a second referendum together with the possibility of negotiating a new deal then campaigning against it in that referendum. If the leadership had adopted a clear and unequivocal EEA position from the outset, the party might have been able to avoid alienating both Leave and Remain voters. In doing so, Labour might have been in a far stronger electoral position than appears to be the case at present.
Black, D. (1958). The Theory of Committees and Elections. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
British Election Study (2016). ‘What mattered most to you when deciding how to vote in the EU referendum?’ Retrieved 18 November 2019, from http://www.britishelectionstudy.com/bes-findings/what-mattered-most-to-you-when-deciding-how-to-vote-in-the-eu-referendum/#.Wo2S36jFLIW