A Conservative majority government was, contrary to all pre-poll expectations, elected on Thursday night. It is expected to hold an referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, either in 2016 or 2017. But would the UK vote to stay or go? In this article, written pre-polling, Paul Whiteley and Harold D Clarke argue that the UK would, as things stand, opt to stay in the UK.
The Conservatives and UKIP both want a referendum on the Britain’s membership of the European Union and if either of them end up in government after the May 7 election, the vote will become a real possibility.
The Conservatives have promised a referendum in 2017 and UKIP wants one as soon as possible – preferably in 2015. But if such a referendum were to be held, there is a strong likelihood that the British people will vote to stay in the EU. We can see why from trends in public opinion on this issue over the past decade.
The chart shows responses to a question asked in every month of the Essex Continuous Monitoring Survey since 2004:
Overall, do you strongly approve, approve, disapprove, or strongly disapprove of Britain’s membership in the European Union?
It shows the percentage of respondents who strongly approved or approved in blue and and those who strongly disapproved or disapproved in red.
It is evident that before the start of the economic crisis in 2008, about 45% to 50% approved and some 40% to 45% disapproved of membership. Attitudes did fluctuate a bit over time but essentially there was a majority for staying in.
By 2009 – well into the crisis – this changed. Those who disapproved of membership of the EU outnumbered the approvers for the first time. After the 2010 election, disapproval rates soared. More than half of respondents chose this option and only about a third approved of membership.
This change was one of the key drivers of increased support for UKIP, which culminated in the party achieving first place in the European parliament elections of 2014.
However, while that was happening, opinions were starting to swing back in favour of continued membership. By March 2015, 44% approved and 40% disapproved, a rather similar ratio to that seen before the financial crisis.
Explaining the change
There are two key factors behind this change of heart. The first relates to the state of the European Union and the second to the general election campaign in Britain.
Britain has always been an instrumental member of the EU. It joined in the early 1970s for the economic benefits, not for ideals of a political union. Many people saw it as a successful club that could teach Britain a thing or two about improving the economy and generally recovering from the British disease of low growth, inflation and poor productivity endemic at that time.
The crisis in the eurozone, the near collapse of the economy in Greece, low or negative growth and rising unemployment, particularly in southern Europe, has changed that perception. Britons started to question why they should be a member of a club which is doing so badly. The economic argument for membership went into reverse.
But the crisis has eased over the past two years, despite the continuing strains in the relationship between Germany and Greece.
Financial markets have already factored in the possibility that Greece will leave the eurozone, and if it did they might actually react positively to the news rather than regarding it as the start of a wider break-up of the eurozone.
Equally the economic crisis in Europe has largely dropped off the agenda in British politics, attracting much less coverage than immediately after the most recent general election. This means that public opinion is reverting to its pre-crisis pattern of being marginally in favour of membership.
Other things to worry about
The role of the general election campaign in Britain is important too. At any one time, the great majority of the electorate are only concerned about a small number of political issues.
Currently, the top three issues are the economy, the NHS and immigration, with very few people telling pollsters that relationships with the EU are a really big problem for them.
The issue of UK membership is a very complex one, fraught with uncertainties and risks. In these circumstances many people feel unable to make a decision and so look to the parties and the leaders they support for guidance on the issue.
In the current election campaign, Nigel Farage is the only leader who unambiguously supports a British exit from the EU. So it is not surprising that, with a large majority of the electorate supporting parties that favour continued membership, euro-scepticism is on the wane.
There is a common pattern in referendums across the world that when a major change is proposed many people will support it to begin with, but during the campaign they start to have second thoughts and frequently change their minds because of the risks involved. This is what pollsters call a status quo bias. This happened in the independence referendum in Scotland and also in the now forgotten referendum on changing the electoral system in Britain in 2011.
This means that if there were a referendum this year, or even if it were delayed until 2017, Britain would be very likely to vote to stay as members of the European Union.
Paul Whiteley is a Professor in the Department of Government at University of Essex
Harold D Clarke is Ashbel Smith Professor at University of Texas at Dallas