A referendum is not like an election. While the two sides of the campaign produced lots of literature supporting their view, there wasn’t anything like a manifesto as such. How could there be, given those leading the campaigns were not those who would end up actually implementing the decision? As far as the referendum was concerned, Brexit did indeed just mean Brexit – no more and no less. Nothing on the ballot paper said it was specifically this sort of Brexit or that sort of Brexit.

This has left a certain void, and one that politicians and others have sought to fill. Naturally, they have largely attempted to do so with their pre-existing prejudices rather than evidence. To listen to some it would appear that Brexit was driven by people who wanted {insert policy idea that I wanted to begin with}. A lot of this has been around how important an issue immigration was to Leave voters, and too what extent this was an anti-immigration vote. The alternative argument is often that the vote was mostly driven by concerns about sovereignty and freedom.

At the simplest level, if you want to know why people voted for something… ask them.

In YouGov’s final poll they asked people to pick which one factor was most important to people in deciding how to vote. Among Leave voters the most popular answer was allowing Britain to act independently (45%), followed by immigration (35%) and the economy (8%). Full tabs are here.

Lord Ashcroft’s poll after the referendum asked leave voters to rank four possible reasons for the vote – sovereignty, immigration, the economy or the risk of future EU integration. 49% of Leave voters picked sovereignty as their first reason (78% as either their first or second answer), 33% of Leave voters picked immigration as their first reason (64% as either their first or second reason). These two issues dominate, but the structure of the question suggests that people couldn’t say “I didn’t care about this issue at all”, so its somewhat limited (tabs are here, the relevant questions are on page 256!)

In both of these examples sovereignty came top, followed by immigration. However, it’s possible that this was down to the particular options the pollster offered or the particular wording used in the question. One way of getting round this issue is to ask it as an open-ended question and allow people to say in their own words why they voted as they did – two other polls did this.

In Ipsos-MORI’s final poll they asked what issues would be important to people in deciding how to vote in the referendum, letting people pick more than one option. The interviewer then picked which category or categories matched their answer most closely. In this case immigration came top among Leave voters, picked by 54% (18% also said the cost of immigration on welfare and 12% said the number of refugees coming to Britain – though given people could choose more than one option these cannot be added together). The next highest option among Leave voters was 32% who said the ability of Britain to pass our own laws, followed by 19% who said the economy and 9% who said jobs.

The pre-election wave of the British Election Study did a similar thing, asking respondents to type in what the most important factor driving their vote was and coding it up later. Taking a word cloud of the responses gives one extremely prominent answer…

wordcloud_leave-1024x575

…but this is actually a little misleading. Once the answers are coded up individually sovereignty comes very narrowly ahead of immigration. Just over 30% of verbatim responses from Leave voters mentioned sovereignty or control in some way, just under 30% mentioned immigration in some way (the word cloud appears as it does because most people who mentioned immigration used the specific word immigration, but people who mentioned sovereignty used a variety of different terms like sovereignty, control, making laws and so on). Suffice to say, immigration and sovereignty were, between them, the main two issues driving the Leave vote.

Referendums and elections are complicated things, and the human beings who vote in them are even more so. Anyone who tries to boil down the referendum to one factor and say “this explains it all” will almost always be wrong. While the order of the two issues differs between polls, all the polling evidence is clear that Leave voters were most concerned about the issues of sovereignty and immigration, and anyone claiming they were motivated by one but not the other is very likely projecting their own views onto the voters.

While they were clearly the dominant issues, there are undoubtedly others too – for example, as John Curtice explores here, there’s a very strong correlation with views on the impact of Brexit on the economy too, so while immigration and sovereignty were strong factors in favour of Leaving, another important factor seems to be that most leave voters did NOT think that Brexit would bring economic damage. I should also give my usual reminder that people are not necessarily very good judges of what makes them vote. We are not particularly rational creatures and the way people vote at referendums and elections is not a dry comparison of policy offers or facts, but often a mixture of vague feelings, bias and heuristics – so things like a lack of trust in the traditional media and “experts” and a perception that the remain campaign were speaking for an out-of-touch establishment rather than ordinary people were probably also factors in driving the Leave vote.

In short – the factors motivating Leave voters are many and varied and 52% of the voters will, by definition, contain people with many, many different views and priorities. However, every effort to ask Leave voters why they voted to leave found sovereignty AND immigration as the clear big issues.


117 Responses to “Was Brexit an anti-immigration vote?”

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  1. Thank you for this. The next question to ask is: ‘How much economic pain are you willing to suffer for your wishes about sovereignty and immigration to be fulfilled?’

  2. But what motivated the remain voters?

  3. Do they get it now?

  4. RICHARDW

    Perhaps we can ask everyone to put how ever much money they want to into a voluntary fund to mitigate the effects of Brexit for those most affected.

    We could use a crowdfunding model with different thresholds for different flavours of Brexit.

    …and the 600 Billion stretch goal, complete and eternal isolation!

  5. “Brexit did indeed just mean Brexit – no more and no less. Nothing on the ballot paper said it was specifically this sort of Brexit or that sort of Brexit.
    This has left a certain void, and one that politicians and others have sought to fill.”

    Which simply demonstrates that the referendum question was incompetently constructed. If there is “a void” as to what the question, and the result meant, then Cameron and the UK Parliament which endorsed the wording are confirmed as being useless.

  6. ON
    There is no ambiguity here. The vote was to leave. What the relationship is with the EU bloc is a by product of the decision to leave. The arguments over what “sort of Brexit” is a nonsense- and merely an attempt to delay what the British people voted for.

  7. Jasper22

    So no matter what the future relationship between Britain and the EU is in future as long as we aren’t in the club that’s OK with you?

    Unfortunately, some Brexiteers are a bit more picky than that, hence the discussions over which subset of the population to keep happy.

  8. “Suffice to say, immigration and sovereignty were, between them, the main two issues driving the Leave vote. ”

    I’m sure that is true – but “sovereignty” for what purposes? If the main motivation for it was to restrict immigration, then the figures would need to alter.

    The YG question “Which ONE of the following will be most important to you in deciding how to vote in the referendum? ” doesn’t help much on whether “Britain’s right to act independently” is the same as “sovereignty” – and in any case, whose sovereignty? – The Queen in Parliament? The people?

    Of more import in that YG poll for the current political situation that the referendum has left us in is “If you HAD to choose one or the other, which of the following would you prefer?”

    “Britain having full control over immigration from Europe, but British businesses no longer having free access to trade with the EU” Remainers 13% Leavers 83%.

    “British businesses having free access to trade with the EU, but Britain having to allow EU citizens the right to live and work in Britain” Remainers 87% Leavers 17%.

  9. Oldnat

    I also suspect that there were more people who really felt it was immigration but used “control” as a more palatable reason when asked than vice versa.

  10. Jasper22

    “There is no ambiguity here”

    We can all see the numbers. There was a small majority in the UK to leave the EU.

    What that actually means, of course, is wholly ambiguous!

    It could mean a Norwegian style deal or having no trade with the EU states at all.

    A vote whose consequences can encompass any position within those extremes, can hardly be described as certainty!

  11. Alan

    “I also suspect that there were more people who really felt it was immigration but used “control” as a more palatable reason when asked than vice versa.”

    I suspect you may be right – but there is no way of knowing that.

  12. Oldnat

    Ply your respondents with booze?

  13. The findings seem pretty accurate, fairly reflecting my reasons for voting to leave.

    The huge cost of the EU and the fraud/corruption/waste therein were also pretty significant.

  14. Alan

    An interesting concept! Would responses vary according to favourite tipple?

    Are wine drinkers more likely to support the EU while scrumpy drinkers be more inclined to demand English sovereignty (and a brand new combine harvester)?

  15. Oldnat

    If so, at least when people talk about scotch voters they might be accurate with their language for once!

  16. “British tea, jam and biscuits will be at the heart of Britain’s Brexit trade plans”

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/18/british-tea-jam-and-biscuits-will-be-at-the-heart-of-britains-br/

    It’s not as daft as it sounds – but the UK is just a bit late in thinking about expanding that market – and they intend to piggy-back on the considerable expansion which Scottish producers have already achieved.

    Ian Wright, Director General of the Food and Drink Federation, said: “We are supporting the Government’s export drive with an ambition to grow branded food and drink exports by a third by 2020 to £6 billion

    I presume that £6bn figure is a misprint, since the Scottish target for Food & Drink exports by 2017 is £16.5bn – unless Leadsom knows something we don’t?

  17. OLDNAT

    Re English drinking habits, see https://youtu.be/KzBCcbvYdps

    I should add that I watched this live around 1970 but the recording post dates Cutler’s death.

  18. OLDNAT

    OTOH, Brexiteers may prefer https://youtu.be/_uukBpYD9PU

  19. More Cabinet leaks about Brexit and Cabinet Committee discussions in the Guardian tomorrow. It really is getting shambolic.

  20. Alan

    But Scotland distils 70% of the gin in the UK too. Those drinking “London gin” in the spirit of the Empire, might be concerned that much of it comes from Fife.

    I recommend the Bruicchladdich distillery’s Botanist Gin – not too much tonioc though!

  21. Barbazenzero

    :-)

    Ah! If only England had listened to the Wurzels.

  22. OLDNAT

    Quite so. The Welsh quarter of me prefers this
    https://youtu.be/bBZUjgMep94

  23. Oldnat

    Good to know I’ll still be able to get my hands on Jammy Dodgers after my self imposed exile! Is this what they mean by softening the impact of Brexit?

  24. It’s a great pity that there weren’t earlier referendums over the EU treaties in the UK – as this would allow the UK to vote for or against them without needing to leave the EU.

    Obviously anecdotal, but: One of my most important reasons for voting “Leave” was because I didn’t want to give my assent to being part of a European single-state and I was worried that saying remain would be read as that by the politicians both here and elsewhere in the EU (whose words to the contrary I did not believe). But if there had been an option to return to pre-Lisbon – or preferably pre-Maastrict – in the UKs relationship with the EU, then I’d happily chose that.

    But really that ship had sailed; the question should have been asked of the people then and the consequences of leaving the EU would not have arisen (probably).

  25. why does nobody ask the remain voters why they voted remain.There may be some pretty peculiar answers and fear might be the biggest factor of all. I suspect that not many will say it wa s because the EC was doing a good job.

    [They did – all these polls also asked remain voters, so just follow the links. The economy appears to have been the dominant issue – AW]

  26. Well, if sovereignty was an issue then people have been misled hugely. National sovereignty was only tangentially affected by our membership of the EU, and in very limited areas only, so I simply cannot see how people would vote for such a drastic step as leaving the EU simply because of this.

  27. @SORREL

    “Obviously anecdotal, but: One of my most important reasons for voting “Leave” was because I didn’t want to give my assent to being part of a European single-state and I was worried that saying remain would be read as that by the politicians both here and elsewhere in the EU (whose words to the contrary I did not believe). But if there had been an option to return to pre-Lisbon – or preferably pre-Maastrict – in the UKs relationship with the EU, then I’d happily chose that.”

    You seem to have been given the wrong facts. Britain had an OPT OUT from ‘ever closer union’, so we would not have been involved in what you call the ‘European single state’. This path was closed to us by the deal Cameron negotiated – this is crystal clear. In terms of going to back to pre-Lisbon and pre-Maastricht this is nonsense as you can’t join a club and then try to change the rules to suit you. But the key thing here is that we had a lot of opt outs, so if you voted Brexit just for sovereignty reasons then you made a huge error of judgement.

  28. @CAMBRIDGERACHEL

    “But what motivated the remain voters?”

    Do you want to know what key thing motivated me? The need for stability. I am not at a stage of my life in which I want to see much changing – I want stability and security. I believed (and still do) that voting remain would have ensured that. Being in a club of practically ALL the countries of Europe, other than the ex-USSR ones, gave us that stable way forward in a strong association of nations working together to increase our prosperity.

    Sovereignty was never an issue for me because I took the view that in order to get a good deal you have to give and take, as you do in business. People who can’t see this are either blind, obstinate or simply stupid.
    Immigration was and is a concern for me, but I am a lot more concerned about non-European immigration and I don’t see the majority of EU immigrants as anything but beneficial for the economy and the consumer.

    The pro-Brexit supporters have thrown away decades of political and economic association with our European neighbours in a fit of pique, encouraged and nurtured by malevolent and mendacious anti-EU propaganda, spewed out by the Sun, Mail and Express, and repeated by several pro-Brexit politicians. We will all pay a high price for this lunacy unless it is stopped, and I believe it can!

  29. @SORREL

    “It’s a great pity that there weren’t earlier referendums over the EU treaties in the UK – as this would allow the UK to vote for or against them without needing to leave the EU.”

    No, it is not a pity. We live in a parliamentary democracy, not a direct democracy. If people want change they can vote for a party that offers the change they seek. Referenda are unnecessary and divisive.

  30. I’d like to see a regional breakdown. Down here in deepest Tory Sussex all the leavers I know were primarily concerned about “sovereignty” (whatever that nebulous concept may mean). I rather suspect that in the less affluent Labour north the leavers were immigration-wallahs.

    But this is just guesswork and anecdotal. Is there any solid evidence (other than small crossbreaks) to validate or refute it?

  31. I think immigration and “sovereignty” are closely linked.

    Having no say over your borders is a pretty clear abrogation of your sovereignty.

  32. Tancred

    Wasnt really asking for individual reasons for voting remain, just observing that we did not have similar data for the remainers which makes this poll one sided. I suppose my natural reaction when faced with something that only examines one side is to be suspicious of what story is being pushed at me.

  33. Tancred

    “Well, if sovereignty was an issue then people have been misled hugely”

    “Sovereignty” is a particular status defined by the constitution (codified or otherwise) of individual states. It involves the ability to make (and break) treaties with other sovereign states. Since the Queen in Parliament is the sovereign body in E&W (and by their dictat elsewhere in the UK too), then a decision by the UK to leave the EU demonstrates that it is, indeed, sovereign.

    Where Sorrel’s argument about not wanting to be “part of a European single-state” falls down is that pre-Lisbon, there was no mechanism for a state to leave the EU. What s/he wants to return to appears to be one in which there is no UK sovereignty!

    It does seem, however, that the UK convention of Parliamentary Sovereignty is under serious challenge. The current UK Government seems to prefer, in principle, the use of the Royal Prerogative rather than Parliamentary Sovereignty when it suits them. [1] [2] [3]

    What those concerned with “sovereignty” actually seem to be most concerned about is the detail of which powers have been agreed to pool sovereignty on, and which powers should be reserved to the constituent parts of the Union.

    In other words, it’s much the same as the indyref! Most Scots are unconcerned about pooling sovereignty (even though in the UK English constitutional convention doesn’t recognise that the Scots people have any).

    The burning question is who exercises which powers over which areas of policy – and whether your Union partners agree.

    [1] Hence the importance of the current court cases in establishing the limits of executive power

    [2] Devolved executives can also use the Royal Prerogative to bypass their Assemblies/parliament – as has been demonstrated in NI.

    [3] Theoretically, the Scottish Government could use the Royal Prerogative to abrogate the 1707 Treaty of Union, and if the UK Government’s argument that they can use it to end the right of UK citizens to vote in EU elections is successful, so could the Scottish Government use that precedent to end Scots citizens right to vote in Westminster elections – a dangerous game, going to law!

  34. Lates from the BBC:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-37691270

    It’s all very well to allow parliament to vote on the final deal after article 50 is invoked, but then what could parliament do if they rejected the deal? May is trying to present parliament with a ‘fait accompli’ in which voting against a deal would result in leaving the EU without any deal at all! This is devious in the extreme.
    What we need is a parliamentary vote on the invocation of article 50, not a Soviet style rubber stamp on a deal ready to be signed.

  35. @MISERABLE OLD GIT

    Well, the old Tory curmudgeons and retired Rotarian/Women’s Institute brigade would certainly be more concerned about sovereignty as their wealth makes them pretty much immune from the worst problems of immigration. They might meet the odd Polish shop assistant during their visits to Waitrose and M&S, but other than that immigration does not affect them much.

  36. @NEIL A

    “I think immigration and “sovereignty” are closely linked.
    Having no say over your borders is a pretty clear abrogation of your sovereignty.”

    You could look at it that way, I suppose. However, as I said, membership of the EU has always been about making compromises on sovereignty – this was understood from the start, it’s nothing new.

  37. Interesting news over the court case:

    http://news.sky.com/story/brexit-court-case-in-the-balance-for-government-10622814

    It appears that the judges are not easily fooled by the ridiculous government argument that the referendum itself was a ‘decision’. Of course the referendum itself decides nothing as it is not binding.
    It would be very ironic if the government had to appeal to the ECJ after possible defeats in the high court and supreme court.

  38. @CR

    ‘But what motivated the remain voters?’

    That’s obvious: inspirational leadership from Dave and Jeremy

  39. CR

    “But what motivated the remain voters?”

    I realise that was something of a rhetorical question, but Prof Curtice has some answers from the BES survey as to why a significant number of Scots (who might have matched the demographic characteristics of some English Leave voters) voted Remain.

    http://blog.whatscotlandthinks.org/2016/10/why-did-scotland-vote-to-remain/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

    Though I think Curtice may have fallen into the trap of thinking that those thinking that leaving the EU would reduce immigration, necessarily thought that would be a good outcome!

  40. Guymonde

    I didn’t think Jeremy Hunt played that big a role in the campaign.

  41. Oldnat

    Thanks for that, very interesting

  42. Alan
    You seem to be a long time going.

  43. Valerie

    There is an obvious riposte to your comment to Alan. :-)

  44. Valerie

    I’ve always made it clear it’s going to take me a year to get a new qualification and then depending on the state of the economy, I’ll decide whether to go or not. With conditions as they are now, I would go. I also expect them to be worse one year from now.

    The worse they get, the clearer my decision will be. I might be surprised and employers raise salaries to keep real wage levels the same to offset the drop in the pound, otherwise I’ll be making use of my right of the freedom of movement of labour while it lasts. Ultimately, it’ll be up to them if they want to compete in terms of salary with other employers on the continent.

  45. @Popeye

    Have responded in previous thread. Basically, you changed what you said again, and even then, still doesn’t work.

  46. Where’s Prof Howard when you need him?

    I’m confused by the Ulster Unionist position.

    They vote against “Northern Ireland to be granted special status within the European Union.”

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-37680584

    But their leader then complains that Brexit will mean cutting off NI from the rest of the UK

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/nesbitt-says-brexit-will-cut-northern-ireland-off-from-rest-of-uk-35137543.html

    Are they arguing for a “hard border” across Ireland?

  47. @Alan

    “Perhaps we can ask everyone to put how ever much money they want to into a voluntary fund to mitigate the effects of Brexit for those most affected.”

    ———

    Synthesists are quite badly affected…

  48. “I’d like to see a regional breakdown. Down here in deepest Tory Sussex all the leavers I know were primarily concerned about “sovereignty” (whatever that nebulous concept may mean). I rather suspect that in the less affluent Labour north the leavers were immigration-wallahs.
    But this is just guesswork and anecdotal. Is there any solid evidence (other than small crossbreaks) to validate or refute it?”

    —————

    There’s a danger, even with proper polling, that peeps may not give the real reasons.

    Like, if concerned that immigration may dilute a voting bloc’s hegemony, they might not say that…

  49. Pete B

    Tancred

    “so if you voted Brexit just for sovereignty reasons then you made a huge error of judgement.”

    Not really. It’s a question of trust. There seems to have been no desire or will on the part of successive British governments to resist the idea of ever closer union. We may have notional opt-outs of certain things but what do they actually mean in practice? The people have waited for 40 years to have a say. It was now or never.

    “membership of the EU has always been about making compromises on sovereignty – this was understood from the start”

    It certainly wasn’t made clear at the time of the last referendum (on the Common Market). It may have been mentioned, but it certainly wasn’t a central argument.

  50. I think last time they said summat about beer becoming cheaper if we joined?

    Yeah, right….

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