Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Brexit: it’s the economics, stupid.

The Global Future report published about a week ago, and particularly the polls it contained, received some attention, but in my view not nearly as much as they deserved. Respondents were shown four possible Brexit scenarios, together with an estimate of what each would do to the amount of money available to spend on public services. One of these options was the government’s preferred bespoke deal. All the options were overwhelming rejected, by Leave voters.

The Jack of Kent blog had a take on something similar that could also be applied to this poll result, after a well known children’s book: ‘That’s not my Brexit!’. It is very apt for this poll because it makes clear that none of the four types of Brexit offered are remotely like the Brexit people voted for. What is wrong with EEA, FTA, WTO or Bespoke in the mind of these voters? They all imply substantially less money for public services. The Brexit people voted for involved more money for public services.

This fits with the finding that most Leave voters continue to believe that they will be better off in economic terms as a result of Brexit. Many voted for Brexit because they were told more money would go to the NHS. The Remain side said that would not happen because of adverse macroeconomic consequences, but many voters believed the Leave side when they said these claims were just Project Fear. They were told that the EU would not decrease the ability of UK firms to trade with the EU because it was not in the EU's interests to do so. 

This is why polls that ask “In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the European Union?” only show a narrow majority for staying in the EU. In answering that question most Leave voters still believe they will be better off after Brexit. When presented with specific options that show we will not be (i.e. when presented with likely reality), you get quite different answers.

Forget those who say that the Brexit vote was all about sovereignty and not about economics. Economics matters, and the poll shows that in this case it matters a lot more than sovereignty or immigration. What Project Fear achieved, with considerable help from the media, was to take the economic factors that mattered off the table, or even replace them with mythical economic gains. [1] Voters went for what they saw as certain: £350 million a week, plus less immigration reducing pressure on public services. Both were lies, but Leave voters did not know that. Which is why most Leave voters continue to believe they will be better off, and why none of the four options they were presented with in the Global Future poll was the Brexit they voted for.

In short, half of the voting public bought snake-oil believing the claims made for it. Most continue to believe the claims, and put down the fact that the government appears not to be delivering what they were promised to something other than that they were sold a pig in a poke. If you think that is implausibly foolish, your main source of news is probably not a pro-Brexit newspaper or even the BBC.

The implications of this are huge. The Global Future poll shows that most Leave voters, and certainly most voters, do not want any Brexit deal that is actually possible. They only want the impossible deal they were promised by Brexiters. That means that any referendum on the final deal that included the government’s own realistic assessment of its economic consequences would result in a massive majority to Remain in the EU.

This is why Brexiter claims that everyone (and for the maths to work it has to be almost everyone) who voted Leave knew that meant leaving the Customs Union are beside the point, as well as being as economical with the truth as most Brexiter claims. Most Leave voters probably had only a hazy idea of what the Customs Union and Single Market were, but most clearly wanted a Brexit that delivered more money for public services. As it is now quite clear that the Brexiters cannot deliver that, then there is no mandate for Brexit. That is what these polls show.

I do not normally disagree with Martin Wolf, but I do when he says another referendum would tear the country apart. Instead, it would be the opportunity for most of those that voted Leave to realise that what they voted for is not on the table because it is not possible, and for them to gracefully retreat by changing their minds in the privacy of the voting booth. On the other hand to continue with Brexit would do far more harm to the UK’s body politic. We would have allowed politicians to put forward a fantasy and get away with it, which means every election from now on will involve claims more and more divorced from reality. The government, desperate to avoid the disappointed expectations of Leave voters, will resort to ever more populist tactics. The lurch towards an anti-pluralist democracy that we have seen since the referendum result could become entrenched in the UK.

Governments have been elected making impossible claims before, but when it turns out that they cannot deliver they can get voted out after 5 or less years. We have to think of the referendum in the same terms. We will have had two years to see if the government can produce the Brexit people voted for, and what these polls show is that they have failed to do so. That may be no surprise to many, but it is news for Leave voters. These polls show that Leave voters do not want the Brexit that is likely to be delivered. To deny people the chance of recognising that the Brexit they voted for is not possible in a referendum on the final deal is deeply undemocratic.

[1] I argue Trump did something very similar.


  1. You seem to be assuming that a) the estimates are accurate, and that b) they would be accepted as accurate. They are very big assumptions.

    I'd also like to remind you that in a few years we may well have a Marxist Chancellor hellbent on changing the economic model in ways that are impossible within the Single Market. If we adopt a new economic model then all long-term estimates would be hopelessly wrong, high or low.

  2. Jesus Simon that second to last paragraph is awful. Are you not able to put ideology away for a short while.

  3. It seems to be men of a certain age who are drawn to the argument that the country will become violent if the referendum of 2016 is not enacted.

    Having seen to age profile of Leave voters, it is the Remain side only that has the potential to become physically disputatious.

  4. Have you taken into account that many Leave voters whose actual motivation was anti-immigration may have lied to the pollsters about opposing actually-existing Brexits on economic grounds, because they'd rather be seen as dupes than as racists?

  5. An interesting post.
    However if you asked almost anyone: “Is £1000 per week, per household a) a price worth paying, b) too expensive, for a good health service”, they would (honestly) reply b) too expensive. If you were the right wing press you might take this as indicating there is little support for the NHS. This, of course, would not be true. It merely indicates that they think the costing for a good health service is wrong. So, likewise, with the Global Futures poll it does not, necessarily, mean that they are rejecting any of the options just, perhaps, that they think the costing is wrong. That’s a completely different issue.

  6. Most Leave voters probably had only a hazy idea of what the Customs Union and Single Market were,

    That is one thing, and one which a long tradition of survey research in political science backs up solidly.

    But another thing is that UK voters have a far hazier idea of what the Customs Union and Single Market are than voters in other EU countries. Living in Finland, I make scores of purchases of goods every year from small businesses and private persons in other EU countries, via Amazon, eBay, etc. And my estimate is that somewhere between 30% and 50% of packages that I receive from the UK have a customs declaration painstakingly filled in by hand, signed and dated and affixed to the package. While, as far as I recall, I have only ever received two packages from any other EU country accompanied by such a superfluous customs declaration. (One from Italy and one from Belgium.)

    Of course leaving a customs union won't feel significant if you believe that goods circulating within the customs union nevertheless pass through customs while doing so!

  7. You say:"Forget those who say that the Brexit vote was all about sovereignty and not about economics. Economics matters, and the poll shows that in this case it matters a lot more than sovereignty or immigration."

    Well, as the report was about four economic options only, you can't conclude as you have done that "it's all about the economy stupid".The other issues were important and I don't see how you can dismiss them so blithely.

    As for Martin Wolf he is right; a second referendum would tear the country apart. May has played her hand with World class ineptitude admittedly but asking for a second referendum not only looks like the EU tactic of "vote till you get the right answer" which, in itself, would inflame a good many, it also exposes the hollowness of the current political structure and deplorable standards of governance. In this situation many will perceive a vacuum that needs to be filled and we will take a lurch to the right as they are in the process of doing in eastern europe.

  8. The false premise of benefit and gain staying in or leaving the EU is precisely the problem with the debate as a whole, and why I voted remain although I do not believe in the EU. This whole debate is skewed on false predictions, quite simply because no one has the faintest idea as to what gains or losses will amount to. This is a non argument.

    "They all imply substantially less money for public services. The Brexit people voted for involved more money for public services".

    Lots have said this before on these blogs,(what I am about to say) but essentially, Public expenditure is not a factor relating to whether we remain in the EU or leave, as we have our own sovereign currency, we can spend into our economy without limit, the difference though means if we stay in and adopt the Euro then our country would revert to the Neo-Liberal fantasy world of being treated as though we were a household, and the only way we could spend into the economy would be through earning Euros through trade, or extra borrowing as they can't devalue their currency......... None of which need constrain us in Britain today.

    Neo-Liberal fantasy economics remains supreme in Europe, that is why there are riots in France and fascism is on the increase, Just a cursory glance at this chart shows why the EU cannot resolve its trade imbalances, and why it is in the interests of winning nations to keep it that way.,_2016_(EUR_billion).png

    Europe is an economic time bomb and Remainers never consider the impact it will have into the future.

    Conversely the talk here is that it is inevitable that the Tories version of Brexit is the only one to discuss, there is a real alternative that never sees the light of day because once again whether we remain in or out Neo-Liberal fantasy economics is used to describe both out comes, it really doesn't have to be that way. There is a real alternative.


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