By Simon Kuper in The Financial Times, 17 October 2020
What do Britons think about Brexit now, as trade talks between the UK and EU approach their climax? I watched focus groups from around the country discussing Brexit on Zoom (when their WiFi signals worked) in June and July, and I read several hundred pages of their transcripts.
The groups were organised by UK in a Changing Europe, a research group based at King’s College London, and NatCen, an independent social research agency. The participants were middle- and upper-income earners because the project aimed to understand “Comfortable Leavers”, the single largest segment of Brexit voters.
Leavers and Remainers were usually separated, to encourage frank speech. Independently, another NGO sent me transcripts of its focus groups. My conclusion: anxious though most Britons are, they are still probably underestimating Brexit’s impact.
The pandemic has slashed people’s emotional investment in Brexit. Hardly anyone is following the technical, depressing trade talks. Both Remainers and Leavers want to patch up the family row — literally, as the other side usually includes their relatives.
This divide has turned out to be weaker than the American red-blue split: God isn’t involved, few Britons had strong views on Europe before 2016 and there are no militias to fight this one out. People who made strong statements in the focus groups often immediately apologised: “I’ll get off my soapbox now.”
Almost all polls show that most Britons now think Brexit was a mistake — by a 48-39 margin in a survey by YouGov this month. Many Leavers in the focus groups have indeed become Brexit-sceptics. Though they distrust media reports, they pay attention to their personal experiences and those of friends and family. For instance, a Leaver in eastern England told his group he lost a German company as a client because of Brexit. “Don’t you think we’ve shot ourselves in the foot?” a south-eastern Leaver asked his fellows.
Leavers expressed little confidence in the government’s ability to handle Brexit. Most have reverted to their pre-Brexit distrust of government. The one hope Leavers still cherish is that the UK will benefit from sending less money to Brussels.
The targets of Leavers’ praise and anger surprised me. None of them attacked elitist Remainers. Many Leavers lauded European countries for their national pride or their childcare. They complained about the EU, but also wanted Britain to leave on good terms and keep co-operating with other countries rather than (in the words of a south-western Leaver) do “its own thing and yah boo sucks to everyone else”.
The bogeyman for Leavers is the benefit scrounger. People repeatedly echoed an age-old tabloid theme: immigrants come to Britain to live off its sumptuous state benefits. But Leavers were equally concerned about homegrown scroungers. “The English are feral,” lamented one woman in the West Midlands. “If you stubbed your toe, you got Disability Living Allowance for the rest of your life, and you don’t go to work.”
Leavers wondered why few young Britons had replaced immigrants as fruit pickers. Did youngsters nowadays just want to be vloggers and “influencers”? These complaints sounded more like generational incomprehension than generational conflict. Still, in Leaver rhetoric, disgust about contemporary Britain often overshadowed pride. It’s a disgust that Brexiter politicians cannot admit to publicly.
Remainers, too, expressed national despair. Some apologise for Brexit when meeting Europeans. Many now describe themselves as “European”, feeling that Brexiters have usurped British identity. A West Yorkshireman said he considered the Union Jack a Brexiter symbol, and wouldn’t fly it.
A West Midlands Remainer said, to widespread agreement, that he felt ashamed: “Ashamed by the decisions we’ve made. Ashamed by how insular we are. Ashamed by how we’ve handled this whole Covid thing.” There’s little sign of Brexit restoring national self-confidence.
Remainers haven’t discovered any upsides to Brexit. They now associate trade deals with Donald Trump and his chlorinated chickens. However, they have abandoned the fight. One woman intended to “make the best of a very, very bad job”. Some Remainers have switched passions to a cause that has risen in prominence since: climate.
Both sides share certain hopes: above all, a return of power from Brussels and Westminster to Britain’s regions. “Take back control”, for many voters, means localism. People also yearn for a rebirth of British manufacturing, perhaps supported by state aid and “Buy British” campaigns.
As the West Midlands Remainers wrapped up their session, one man urged, “We should retain our sense of humour.” “We’re going to need it,” a woman replied. We certainly will. Two years ago, the choice was between soft Brexit (which usually meant staying in the EU single market) and hard Brexit (leaving the single market with some sort of deal). Now it’s more brutal: between hard Brexit and no deal at New Year. Brexit could totter back to life in 2021, terrifying an exhausted country.