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What does a ‘good Brexit’ look like to the British public?

Ever since 52% of voters voted to leave the EU last June, politics in the UK seems to have been dominated by one question: what will a ‘good’ Brexit actually mean? Theresa May initially attempted to answer by asserting that “Brexit means Brexit and we’ll make a success of it” but that failed to quell the debate. Then, on 17 January, the Prime Minister set out a “Plan for Britain”, which included 12 priorities for the Government when negotiating Brexit.[i] But still calls for a parliamentary debate continued, which meant the government, on 2 February, published a White Paper setting out the plan for Brexit.[ii]

Whether any of this will provide the country with any clarity on what the Government or Parliament sees as a good Brexit remains to be seen – though our research suggests the prioritisation of “Taking control of our own laws” and “Controlling immigration” in the Government’s White Paper would please many (discussed below).

In order to shed some light on the views of the British public, however, Populus asked 1,000 people to suggest what a good Brexit would mean to them. The question was open-ended, unusually, and so respondents could write in whatever they wanted. What came back, perhaps unsurprisingly, was an astonishingly varied and, at times, passionate set of responses. Some of our favourites included:

“Making Britain good again, supporting our own local and home-grown businesses rather than just buying from abroad. Becoming an independent country.”

“Not an ideological ‘hard’ Brexit that benefits merely the powerful and a small, xenophobic minority. But an evidence-based position based on getting the best deal (which likely includes keeping in EU economic areas, a la Switzerland and Norway). I also personally believe that a good Brexit would possibly be one that never exists – as the referendum was based on non-information.”

“Prosperity for the UK. Europe can burn.”

“Good Brexit? It’s an oxymoron!”

“That the referendum vote was anulled as it was based on lies given by people who acted like those who start a fight in a pub and do a runner. A good Brexit to me would be a return of justice and common sense and the removal of deceit in the democratic process.”

“That we leave the excessive rules and regulations of the EU. That we negotiate a good deal for the UK. We should be able to negotiate trade deals on our terms for the benefit of the whole of the UK. We can still be part of Europe but we need to take back as much control as possible and make sure that, as far as possible, we put ourselves first.”

“To stop the influx of immigrants so that there is less of a financial burden on the UK especially when it comes to the NHS and benefits. And to be able to trade with whoever we want without restriction so that we are not bound by any laws from the EU.”

“No idea. I find it a bit confusing.”

Populus collated the main argument(s) within each of these and the other 1,000+ responses – as best we could – into groups. See figure 1 (below):

Figure 1: Theresa May has said that Brexit means Brexit. For you what would a good Brexit mean? [All respondents, n=1,025]

Our analysis suggests some main findings:

    • There was no consensus on what a ‘good’ Brexit means. Populus found that responses could, loosely, be grouped into 23 different categories and demands, but there is significant variation even within those categories. Indeed, we could have continued breaking down responses into hundreds (if not thousands) of sets of demands and hopes.

    • The most common theme was controlled immigration. Nearly a fifth (18%) of respondents said that, for them, a good Brexit meant controlled immigration. This was a particular priority for older people; 30% of those aged 65+ mentioned controlled immigration, compared with 12% of 18-24s.

    • Another core message from the leave campaign had been ‘take back control’ and 16% said that taking back control or ‘sovereignty’ was important to their idea of good Brexit. Again, those aged 65+ were most likely to mention this (23% vs. 4% of 18-24s).

    • Respondents regularly mentioned these two core themes of the leave campaign together. More than a third (36%) of those who prioritised control of immigration also included sovereignty as a priority, while 42% of those who mentioned sovereignty also mentioned controlled immigration.

    • While immigration control and sovereignty were frequently mentioned by respondents who seemed pleased with the referendum result, many remain frustrated with the referendum. One-in-six respondents (16%, rising to 21% of 18-24 year olds) said they could not see how there could be a good Brexit or that the only good result was for the result to be ignored.

    • As well as that disappointed 16%, another 9% prioritised access to the single market. Many of these respondents seem set to be dissatisfied by the Government’s suggestion that it will seek to leave the single market.

    • As well as these most common themes, a variety of other hopes were mentioned. These ranged from the arguments that a good Brexit was a quick Brexit (mentioned by 7%) or one that continued to allow free movement of people (usually in reference to holiday travel) (also mentioned by 7%), to the claims that a good Brexit involved leaving the single market (mentioned by 3%) or that it would involve the protection of many of the rights granted to Britons by the EU (also mentioned by 3%).

The varied priorities of Britons and the often vague responses to the question suggest the Government has not one but two difficult jobs in relation to Brexit. Not only does it need to negotiate the UK’s exit from the EU, but the Government needs to persuade the public – a public with diverse and ambitious aims – that the resulting Brexit is a successful one and one that satisfies them. How can a Government satisfy the voters who want a stringent crackdown on immigration from around the world at the same time as satisfying voters who want access to the single market or free movement across Europe or a cut in the international aid budget? There are sure to be many opportunities for voters to make clear any dissatisfaction with the outcome in the years to come. The context for the next general election is only just being formed.

After our analysis, one thing became clear, the responses we received were not only varied but also fascinating. Because of that, Populus is taking the unusual step of making available the raw, verbatim, responses to the question so that those interested in what the great British public had to say can explore the comments themselves. See the data tables and responses files at the bottom of this page.

Enjoy (and excuse some of the spelling – remember these are raw and unedited responses). We would be delighted to hear what you think of the responses – get in touch @PopulusPolls.

Methodological note

Populus interviewed 1,025 adults (18+) in Great Britain online on 6 January 2017. Data were weighted in order to be demographically representative of adults in Great Britain. The question text read “Theresa May has said that Brexit means Brexit. For you, what would a good Brexit mean?” and respondents could write-in their response in an open text box. Populus is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

View data tables – Good Brexit survey

View verbatims – Good Brexit survey verbatims

[i] Source: gov.uk transcript of the Prime Minister’s speech on 17 January 2017 at Lancaster House, accessed 1 February 2017, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-governments-negotiating-objectives-for-exiting-the-eu-pm-speech

[ii] Source: , accessed 2 February 2017, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-united-kingdoms-exit-from-and-new-partnership-with-the-european-union-white-paper

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