I like to think there are three angles to understanding public opinion on issues and their impact on politics – support, salience and image – and all three are necessary to understand the issue of Europe.

Support is the most basic and simple to measure level of public opinion, and in the case of Europe is relatively straightforward. The British public tend to have a negative impression of the European Union – asked to rate their feelings towards it on a scale of 0 to 10, 38% say 0-3, 33% 4-6, 19% 7-10. 45% of people think that Britain’s membership of the EU is a bad thing, compared to 22% thinking it is a good thing. 50% think membership has had a negative effect on the UK, 29% a positive effect. While the figures are different depending on the questions asked, the same rough pattern normally emerges – putting it very crudely around a quarter of people are generally positive towards the EU, around half are suspicious or negative towards it.

When YouGov have asked people directly about Britain’s relationship with Europe they’ve found around 10% of people who support a more integrated Europe, 13-17% happy with the status quo, 33-40% supporting a less integrated Europe with more powers returned to the UK, 23-29% in support of total withdrawal from the EU.

On a forced choice between staying in or getting out, those who support a less integrated Europe tend to come down on the side of get out, meaning straight YES/NO polls on British membership of the EU tend to show much higher figures in favour of withdrawal – around 50% – and questions on how people would vote in a referendum on EU membership tend to show a big lead for withdrawal (for example, 27% stay, 51% go here.) Asked how people would vote in a three option referendum, people prefer renegotiation to withdrawal – 15% would stay, 47% renegotiate, 28% go.

Polls on attitudes towards Europe have become increasingly anti-EU in recent years, but this is not a long term trend. Looking at long term trackers from MORI, attitudes towards the European Union and its predecessors have ebbed and flowed over the years – the peak of opposition towards Europe was in the early 1980s, its nadir in the late 1980s and early 90s (while I’m on the subject of changing attitudes towards Europe, it’s probably also worth noting the experience of the 1975 referendum. Before the campaign started polls showed a majority in favour of withdrawal, eventually people voted 2-1 in favour of staying in – so don’t assume that because polls currently suggest people would vote to leave the EU that they actually would in practice).

Finally, polls nearly always show a large majority in favour of a referendum, a result that should largely be ignored. Referendums are popular per se, and I have yet to see any poll showing, in a straight question, that people think there should not be a referendum on an issue. Asking if there should be a referendum on an issue is essentially asking if politicians should decide an issue, or whether the respondent should be allowed a say. That said, a referendum on EU membership is more popular than referenda on some other issues – a YouGov poll for the Constitution Society last Sept asked which of a list of various constitutional issues people would like to see a referendum on, and the EU came top with 43%.

That brings us onto salience. We know that far more British people are negative than positive towards the EU, but do they actually care? People saying they support or oppose something when a pollster intrudes into their lives and asks about it is entirely different to them thinking about it the rest of time. If we hadn’t have asked, perhaps it would never have even crossed their mind.

Polling people on whether they support an issue is relatively straightforward. Polling on whether an issue is important or not is tricky. You cannot ask “whether issue X is important”, as people will almost always say yes because they feel they should consider these issues important. The real question is whether issue X is important when compared to issues A, B and C. (There are similar problems with the question “will policy X make you more or less likely to vote for party Y”, but I think I’ve ranted about that far too many times in the past. Suffice to say that the way people actually answer such questions means they really only measure support or opposition and tell us virtually nothing about salience)

The best regular measure of salience is Ipsos MORI’s monthly issues tracker, since it is entirely unprompted. MORI ask people what they think the most important issue is facing the country, and what other important issues there are facing the country. Europe normally rates very, very low on this survey. In September 3% of people counted Europe as an important issue facing the country, which is typical of the last five years. When placed alongside issues like the economy, immigration, crime, health and unemployment people simply do not care about Europe.

However, it is also important to note that while very few people care about Europe presently it is not incapable of being a salient issue. Go back to the 1990s and up to a third of people were regularly telling MORI that relations with the EU were one of the most important issues facing the country, and indeed that it would be an important issue in deciding how they would vote. So while people don’t care now, it doesn’t follow that they won’t in the future if it becomes a major issue of political and media debate.

The final angle on any issue is the most difficult (indeed, often impossible) to measure. What difference does a party’s stance upon that issue make to the overall way the party is viewed? Does going on about an issue people don’t much care about make you look out of touch, does arguing about it make the party look divided. Are some issues associated with moderation and others with extremes, some with being modern, others with being stuck in the past? Take the Conservative party’s attempts to rebrand itself under David Cameron – he spoke a lot about an issue that not many people care much about (the environment), and virtually ignored a very salient one (immigration) because (one assumes) the party thought talking about the first one made the party look more modern and moderate, and the latter would have reinforced existing negative perceptions of the party as bigoted and intolerant.

I have yet to see a really good way of measuring the effect of policy standpoints on party image, so with no evidence to back it up I am not going to suggest that a particular policy on the EU would have an impact one way or another, but we need to recognise that this impact is there. One thing we can be more confident about is the risk to perceptions of party unity – looking again at MORI’s long term trend data, in 2010 just 13% of people described the Conservative party as divided, their lowest for 23 years. At the peak of the Maastricht rebellion in 1993 50% of people described the Conservative party as divided, and it didn’t fall below 30% again until 2005. This is probably not a party image the Conservatives wish to regain.

So, in summary, the British public are generally hostile towards the EU if asked, but will tend to favour renegotiation or repatriation of powers over withdrawal if given the choice. Secondly, while it has been regarded as an important issue in the past, only a tiny minority particularly care about the issue at present. Thirdly, the Conservative party are seen as vastly less divided these days than during the years of arguing with each other over Europe, a unity that took a decade to reforge and which they would probably be well advised not to throw away lightly.

203 Responses to “Public opinion on Europe”

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  1. If UKIP wins a seat at Westminster watch Salmond laugh himself silly; UKIP are the equivalent of the USA Republican tea party–nuts with no policies.

  2. @all

    Watching the EU referendum deabte on the Beeb live feed. It’s actually quite good stuff!

  3. Looks like Cameron’s trying to play both sides with the EU referendum.
    ‘I’m Eurosceptic!.. but I’m against having a referendum where the two eurosceptic options (the only eurosceptic options) are pulling out or renegotiating our relationship’.
    So all words and no action?

    I wonder how long certain Tory MPs will ‘put up with’ Cameron before they seriously consider joining UKIP…

  4. I also wonder how the LibDems are going to try to spin ‘We had a referendum in our manifesto but now we’re voting against it’.

    Surely they can’t use, ‘But we’re in a coalition’?

  5. Unfortunately, the truthful answer for the Lib Dems is probably “but we never expected it to be voted through.” Which is even less credible than “But we’re in a coalition”.

  6. @tingefringe
    No Tory MP will move to UKIP. I might equally ask, why does Denis Skinner (among others) not move to the Socialist Workers Party.

  7. Chris Neville-Smith

    “If the best reason the government can come up with for a U-turn in for a major project, HS2 or otherwise, is to pander the the Tory Right in a few constituencies facing competition from UKIP, I think it would cost them a lot more than four seats elsewhere in the country.”

    It isn’t the best reason they can use because they can also say we can’t afford it. Those who think we should spend heavily on infrastructure projects at this time won’t be impressed though.

  8. @Wolf, Chris Neville-Smith

    HS2 will indeed be a freight line as well in it’s own right, not just open up capacity on the other lines. HS1 is actually the only UK line rated for and capable of accepting EU freight wagons, and HS2 will increase that reach.

  9. “I might equally ask, why does Denis Skinner (among others) not move to the Socialist Workers Party.”
    Because the SWP (under the name TU&S) gets 12,275 votes in a general election while UKIP gets 920,334? (Making it the 4th largest party in the UK).

    Because the SWP is totally discredited, while UKIP isn’t?
    It’s a pretty poor comparison to make.
    A better comparison would be the ILP (and parts of Labour) after it’s split from the Liberals.

    And while the Tories continue to play ‘All words and no action’ over the EU, they leak support to UKIP (which split the right-wing vote in enough seats to deny the Tories a majority in 2010).
    And of course, a house divided always stands – there’s never been parties literally split over issues.

  10. I’m looking forward to the smuggling opportunities if Scotland gets independence and the rest of the UK gets out of the EU :-)

  11. Actually the reason for opposing HS2 is exactly the same as for opposing Trident renewal. They are enormous open-ended vanity projects of the sort that politicians love, but where the money would be far better spent on lots of smaller, lower-level schemes in the same departments that would do much more good for Britain.

    But that sort of stuff is boring and doesn’t please those bountiful international corporation like the big stuff does.

    We will see just how split the Tories are this very night.

  13. Pete B
    I’m looking forward to the smuggling opportunities if Scotland gets independence and the rest of the UK gets out of the EU

    Quite :D

  14. Pete B

    Presumably, you know the extent of smuggling across the Norwegian/Swedish border?

    I’d appreciate your telling us all the details of that.

    A typically arrogant stance from you Roger. Tell me how HS2 will stop a future Chinese dictator threatening us with nuclear weapons.

    No, second thoughts don’t trouble.

  16. @Chouenlai,
    We will – and then we’ll see what the reaction from the grassroots is.

    ConHome poll of 1,125 Tory members-
    72% want their MP to vote for the referendum.
    64% doubt that Cameron is serious about his promise of repatriation of powers.

    I suspect that if the MPs who’re currently hinting at rebellion end up doing what a lot of LibDem “rebels” ended up doing (voting for or abstaining) in NHS and tuition fee votes, the grassroots will not be very happy at all.

    Of course, the loyal partisans will be very happy – there seems to have been a suspicious change in tune from them – from ‘The EU is stalinist evil incarnate!’ to ‘The EU is good for us, we can’t have a referendum!’ – but partisans are always happy with their party.
    That’s the nature of partisanship.

  17. Chouenlai

    As a matter of interest, how many European countries who don’t have nuclear weapons have been threatened with nuclear destruction as opposed to those which do, since the end of the Cold War?

  18. @Chouenlai

    And how does Trident actually protect us from this hypothetical crazy future Chinese dictator?

  19. @old nat
    You may very well wish to take that statistic as a safeguard for your country my friend. I however, will pay up and look big. Just having the terrible, immoral thing around makes me feel better about England’s defence.

  20. chouenlai

    Tell me how HS2 will stop a future Chinese dictator threatening us with nuclear weapons.

    Assuming the Americans wouldn’t be backing us, tell me how Trident will, given the Chinese have a lot more missiles (and a lot more country to bomb).

    Unlike you I’m all ears. That’s because arrogance always goes with a willingness to listen to the other side.

  21. Chouenlai

    But “England’s defence” is also paid for by Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish. “The terrible, immoral thing”, of course, isn’t “around” you, but just across the firth from me.

    If it’s England’s defence, take the damn things back and pay for them yourself.

  22. @JAY BLANC
    Sorry Jay I really have not got time for this. Some people think death is the worse thing that can happen, some don’t. As for hypothetical Chinese warlords, who knows, you certainly don’t have anymore idea than me. You merely see a lot of money that could be handed to the “poor”, rather than being hopefully squandered & wasted on Trident. God I hope so.

  23. @old nat
    We will be doing, when you get your hearts desire. As for situation, if we have incoming on Newcastle, wouldn’t want to be you anymore than now.

  24. ROGER,
    Where did I say Britain, (England) has the slightest prayer against the likes of China ? If the threat is there it might, I say might ,make them think. That’s all, it might make them think.

  25. The Paper That Must Not Be Named is reporting an ICM poll on its front page. Only reporting EU withdrawal figures at the moment – very similar to those Anthony discusses above. Nothing on ICM site yet – I assume VI and details will be in tomorrow’s paper.

    Also I probably missed discussion of it last week, but Marketing Means South West poll for October is also now available:


  26. Chouenlai

    If you consider it even a possibility that you have ” incoming on Newcastle”, then the money spent on a “deterrent” will have been a total waste.

    Of course, you may be able to wipe out a few million Chinese in response. But that, of course, would be MAD.

  27. Chouenlai

    “That’s all, it might make them think.”

    Thank you for that clarity of thought.

    Doubtless, some future Chinese, French, American, Korean ….. dictator will think it unwise to target England, and direct the missiles against Dublin, Brussels and Amsterdam instead.


    I also wonder how the LibDems are going to try to spin ‘We had a referendum in our manifesto but now we’re voting against it’.

    Very simple. A referendum was only promised if the government was about to make major changes in our relationship with Europe. It isn’t, so there is no need for a referendum.

    Why do people deliberately misconstrue this quite simple point?

  29. Frankly if China threatened Scotland with Nukes, the Scots would remind them of the whisky.

  30. Statgeek


  31. chouenlai

    I see your point, but as you admit yourself it’s a fairly tenuous one, and I can’t help suspecting that if we wanted to set up nasty nuclear surprise packages for hypothetical dictators, there would be cheaper ways of doing it. After all we’re always being assured that terrorists could acquire nuclear capability for sixpence.

    What bemuses me is a situation where people who are actually fighting in actual armed combats are being sacked and yet vast sums are being spent on weapons that (might) work in situations that are only remotely possible.

    Similarly massive investment is put into big infrastructure projects such as HS2 and CrossRail. These will, if ever, only show benefit way in the future and are for the use of a fairly small part of the travelling public (the wealthy and well connected ones). The same money would carry out a tremendous amount of improvements across the whole network, but those things won’t be done.

  32. Oldnat

    There is quite a bit of crossborder smuggling between Sweden and Norway. Part of it is higher taxes on our side of the border and part of it is protection for our farmers which makes the price of meat high here. Smuggled items are mainly cigges spirits beef and Bacon. Of course I’m too far away from the border to benefit.

  33. RiN

    Thanks. I presumed that there would be. However, if you need to be near the border to benefit, then that suggests that the smuggling isn’t very organised – or that it isn’t actually smuggling, but just people nipping across the border to buy things cheaper – which is common in all taxation border areas around the world!

  34. The same debate has gone on since I was16 years old. The reasons why we don’t need and should not have a nuclear deterrent. On the other hand, if the other guy has got a knife, a broken bottle is much better than nothing.

    Of course its easy for various shades of liberals to gang up and take the mick out of a Tory on this issue. The bottom line is this, we all hope it is the most crazy waste of money, but………………..

  35. Reading the poll tables I notice something very strange

    More people want looser links between EU countries but more people want the EU to work more closely with each other in almost every issue polled. Very contradictory!! :d:

  36. Chouenlai

    I don’t discriminate!
    I also take the mick out of the Labour and LD eejits who want to spend my money on WMD.

  37. Oldnat

    No its not organized but you do get stories of 500kg of beef being seized…..but a lot of the time folk who nip over the border are actually making a small loss when you factor in petrol and time etc.

  38. Oldnat

    We could always sell the WMD, lots of countries want them. Iran would probably be the highest bidder shame we got rid of gaddafi it would have bid the price up a bit

    Anyway if trident is based in Scotland then after independence it would become Scottish. You could then sell it to england

  39. @OLDNAT

    I remember going on the ferry from Helsingborg to Helsingor and being amazed by the number of Swedes with trolleys full of empty beer crates…and returning with full ones. It would have driven Hamlet mad.

  40. Chouenlai

    Re: Trident

    Like you I find it scarey the number of apparently otherwise intelligent people on here who don’t understand the point of a deterrent – or are simply just fatalistic.

    The phrases “hope for the best” and “Peace in our time” spring to mind.

    I know plenty of others who think the same – don’t worry, you are not either insane or alone on this.

  41. RiN

    I think you’ll find that at the time of the referendum, all the Trident subs will be at sea.


    Actually, we have listened to the arguments for MAD.

    It’s just that we find them unconvincing.

  43. I can understand the deterrence argument very well, that’s why Iran wants nukes and that’s why north Korea has them. But I’m not sure that’s why we have them

  44. @RogerMexico

    You’ve done something very unusual: altered the mind of a blogger! I was in favour of the HS train, but find your arguments in favour of many smaller projects rather than one big one wholly convincing (subject, of course, to the advance funds being ring fenced and not subsequently diverted to, eg, meaningless military expenditure).


    Since you’re in the mood to counter the asiatic imperialists by spending vast sums on deterrence, might I suggest that, in addition to big bang bombs, we station a large and imposing fleet in a friendly Pacific Ocean port. Somewhere like, say, Singapore. Whoops… thinking back…. we may have tried this once before…

  45. @RiN

    “Anyway if trident is based in Scotland then after independence it would become Scottish. You could then sell it to england”

    It’s one of the strangest arrangements in the world. If the ghost of William Wallace could press the button…

    Any other countries in the world storing their nukes in that of an old enemy? US ones in the UK?

  46. EU Referendum vote fast approaching!

  47. @Statgeek

    To many, Trident is considered simply a way for the US to continue storing their nukes in the UK, *and* getting us to pay for them too.

  48. @steve coberman
    If you are going to do it Steve, don’t just have the guns out to sea and fixed. The Yellow peril my come down the Malay peninsular and take you in the rear. Not a pretty sight.

  49. Jay Blanc

    That’s my feeling, I don’t believe we would ever be able to use them without permission, and I’m certain that if we tried the Americans have the over ride codes

  50. Ayes: 111

    Noes: 483

    Majority: 372

    No Referendum!

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