When Tobias Ellwood MP recently broke ranks with the Conservative Party leadership to say Brexit wasn’t working and the UK should “rejoin Thatcher’s Single Market”, Lord (David) Frost, Brexit negotiator extraordinary, objected that such a move would require restoration of freedom of movement.
‘Frosty’, as Boris Johnson reportedly referred to the great brain of his Brexit policy, had a good point. A rare occurrence since his 2016 decision to pursue a political career.
The EU Single Market is a common regulatory zone, designed to create a seamless, frictionless, internal market across a continental-scale territory and economy. The free movement of goods, services, people and capital is fundamental to it. So far as people are concerned, that doesn’t just mean the right to travel freely, but to be economically active (free movement of labour) and to reside for other purposes (for example study, or family reasons).
If that sounds great to you, Lord Frost disagrees. He appears to think it bad in principle on grounds of sovereignty. But also, that it would go against the will of the people, as expressed in the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election.
Freedom of fantasy
The Frost thesis, similar to that of some Brexit-friendly academics, is at best dubious assertion, at worst mere invention – ‘motivated reasoning’ might be a polite term for it.
It is also well aligned with the flamethrower of viciousness, in words and deeds, being directed toward immigrants and foreigners, from ministers and other politicians, the press, and university professors busily giving their institutions a bad name.
There are, of course, multiple ways of crunching the numbers. And, especially when, like the EU referendum, it has been a close run thing, there’s always one or other factor which, had it gone differently, could be claimed to be a game-changer.
So, let’s get one issue out of the way: some ‘Leave’ voters’ main stated reason for their choice was for the UK to “regain control over immigration and its own borders”: 33%, according to a 2016 poll by Lord Ashcroft, cited by Oxford University in their own 2018 research which gave a similar answer (39%) in respect of EU immigration”.
But, and I know this kind of sophisticated arithmetic can be hard for those going at a gallop on their hobby-horses, 33% of 52% (the ‘Leave’ vote in 2016) is 17%. And even 33%, or 39%, isn’t – well – a majority.
As for the 2019 election, fought by the Conservatives on the promise to “get Brexit done”, no one doubts that Boris Johnson and his party won a parliamentary majority and the constitutional power to implement their manifesto promises. Yet, even if every Conservative vote cast had been solely on account of the Brexit plan as presented during the campaign, the “Oven-Ready Brexit” which microwaved the UK would, on that basis, only have received 44% support.
Whatever the “will of the people” is, you won’t find it in any of these figures.
Lord Frost, his professorial and other friends are entitled to exercise their freedom of fantasy. The rest of us aren’t obliged to be taken in.
One nation number-crunching
Trying to understand the nature of the ‘Leave’ vote is a worthy endeavour. More on that in a moment.
Attempting to divine the national mood or, more prosaically, majority opinion, by focusing on approximately half the electorate to the exclusion of the other half is – let’s just say it – silly.
EU freedom of movement has consistently been very popular in the UK as a whole. Not to the extent seen in other EU member states, but with strong majority support, nonetheless.
In May 2016, just before the referendum, when asked whether they were for or against “the free movement of EU citizens who can live, work, study and do business anywhere in the EU”, 68% in the UK were for.
This wasn’t a blip.
The question had consistently been asked, year on year, across the EU for the Eurobarometer poll. In the period 2015 to 2019 the UK result was always between 68% and 78% (this excludes ‘don’t knows’: include them and it’s between 63% and 72%).
Perhaps we’re getting closer now to the will of the people.
Polling through the looking glass
Yet, unless you’re someone who pays quite a bit of attention to such things, these results are likely to be hard to accept, so contrary are they to the prevalent journalistic, political and, to some extent, academic narrative.
So try these for size – all from the 2016 survey, (other years yield similar outcomes).
Eurobarometer asked their usual 1,000 or so people per member-state whether they agreed with the following (the UK result for ‘agree’ or ‘yes’ is given after each):
- “[putting in place] a common European policy on migration” (56%)
- “you feel you are a citizen of the EU” (54%)
- “immigration of people from other EU member states evokes a positive feeling [in me]” (52%)
- “immigrants contribute a lot to the UK” (68%)
And they asked whether those polled disapproved of the following (the UK result for “disapprove” is given after each):
- “the right for EU citizens to work in the UK” (23%)
- “the right for EU citizens to live in the UK” (26%)
While pondering those figures, you might wonder why, then, there was a majority to leave the EU.
Perhaps it was EU over-reach into policy areas it should leave well alone? Like “a common defence and security policy among EU member states”? No: that got 65% support in the UK.
Maybe it was a perception of the EU as sclerotic and ineffective in defending and promoting European prosperity? It doesn’t look like it: when asked whether “the EU has sufficient power and tools to defend the economic interests of Europe in the global economy”, 63% in the UK said ‘yes’.
Alright, you’ve got me now: it’s that awful business of globalisation which only benefits the ‘New Elite’ and ‘citizens of nowhere’ (perhaps ‘North Londoners’ are running it – who knows?). The EU is part of that, and people hate it.
The thing is, when asked whether they thought “globalisation is an opportunity for economic growth”, 75% in the UK said ‘yes’. That doesn’t seem terribly negative. Or could it be that Brits don’t like economic growth? Fortunately, the pollsters also asked whether people thought “globalisation brings to mind something positive”. 60% in the UK said ‘yes.
If you’re used to the usual Brexit myths, this is a looking-glass world.
Leave means hang
In a YouGov poll from early 2017 ‘Leave’ voters were asked what they wanted brought back after Brexit. The top answer was hanging.
Those who had been paying attention were only surprised that a mere 53% of ‘Leave’ supporters chose that.
In 2016 the British Election Study found that the single strongest predictor of a ‘Leave’ vote – irrespective of all other characteristics such as social class/ wealth, education, age, gender, location etc. – was, at over 70%, support for the reintroduction of the death penalty. Such views are also linked to backing what might euphemistically be called ‘traditional values’, such as corporal punishment, and opposition to gay and women’s rights.
By comparison, social class or income only gave about 55% accuracy – little better than a coin toss. It’s worth pausing to note that, such (weak) predictive power as social class has comes from the widely reported fact that a majority of ‘working-class’ votes supported Brexit in the referendum. Yet 59% of ‘Leave’ votes came from the upper and lower middle classes, disproportionate to their share of the UK population, a fact far less emphasised in much coverage of the subject. (See again data from the Oxford University Centre for Social Integration).
- We can authoritatively say that the ‘leave’ vote was heavily associated with support for the death penalty
- that association was regardless of social class, prosperity, education etc. differences among the ‘Leave’ voters
- most ‘Leave’ votes came from the middle classes
- EU freedom of movement is popular with the UK public (and was at the time of the referendum)
An inconvenient truth
It would be reasonable to think that a referendum ostensibly about the EU would, in fact, be about the EU.
Reasonable, but misleading.
Certainly, multiple influences played a role. Some were even EU-related, not least low levels of trust in EU institutions.
Our electoral laws were abused. We were, as we have been for a long time, under attack from Putin’s Russia, which sees the EU as a US conspiracy against it. There have been decades of assault on the EU by prominent media organisations. The ‘Remain’ campaign was inadequate. The government was lazily complacent. The Conservative Party was a mess, one which drove us to the Brexit brink in the first place. And much else besides.
But don’t take your eye off the ball.
Brexit didn’t come about because of popular policies like EU freedom of movement or arcane-sounding discussions of the ‘four freedoms’, still less of ‘trade policy and cumulation rules of origin’.
Support for Brexit is mainly associated with a wish to see heads on spikes.
Call it authoritarianism. Or something less polite. What it represents is incompatible with the United Kingdom’s democratic constitutional order – imperfect though that surely is – as understood, and developed, in the post-war-era to date. As a consequence, it is an assault on the security, prosperity and well-being of our country.
Until we recognise that inconvenient truth, things can only get worse.
Tobias Ellwood is right. Single Market. Freedom of movement. Work towards them, as rapidly as possible. Baron Frost of Allenton is wrong. There again, apparently the Pope is a Roman Catholic.