Analysis

Polarisation Tracker: Five years on, Brexit is still Britain’s most polarising issue

Nick Barron

But “Remainer” and “Brexiteer” identities are slowly dissolving, and Brexit is becoming the defining issue for Conservative and Labour voters, with 2016 becoming a symbolic watershed moment, similar to the election of Thatcher in 1979.

Five years after the Brexit vote, Brexit remains the most polarising political issue in Britain between left and right-wing voters. This is a key finding of the June 2021 wave of MHP Mischief’s Polarisation Tracker study.

The Polarisation Tracker, conducted with Cambridge University’s Political Psychology Lab is a longitudinal study of British public attitudes, conducted every six months, designed to understand the most divisive political topics and groups in the country. The chart below ranks the key political dividing lines between left and right-wing people from least divisive issue, to most divisive.

Wave Two of the study, conducted in June to coincide with the anniversary of the Brexit, found no change in the list of the top three most polarising issues, with Brexit holding on to number one spot, followed by ‘traditional values’ and ‘government competence’.

There was little movement in public attitudes, despite the war of words over vaccines between the UK and the EU, tensions in Northern Ireland, Britain’s new trading relationships and a range of other major consequences (or lack thereof) materialising over the last six month since Britain left the Single Market and Customs Union.

As our Networked Age Guide to Communicating in a Polarised World showed, people find it incredibly difficult to change their minds, regardless of how the facts change, once those views have become part of their identity. Five years of calling each other “Remainers” and “Brexiteers” has caused people to entrench their positions.

However, a closer look at the data reveals some interesting underlying patterns, which suggest a fundamental realignment is taking place in British politics. Gradually, Brexit and Remain voters are depolarising in their attitude towards Brexit, while Conservative and Labour voters are becoming more polarised.

As you can see from this second chart, disagreement over the impact of Brexit is becoming more heated between people who voted Conservative or Labour in the 2019 election, but less polarising between people who voted Leave or Remain in 2016.

This suggests that how we cast our votes in 2016 is fading in importance in terms of how we see ourselves, while the issue about whether Britain should be “Global” or “European” is becoming more central to how Conservative and Labour voters see the world.

This trend will likely continue, as Conservative voters cheer each new trade deal or investment decision by Airbus or Nissan and Labour voters decry each fresh hit to shellfish exports or problem with right to remain for EU citizens.

Whether the Brexit vote represented a moment of liberation or of destruction will shape party politics for years to come.

2016 is the new 1979.

You can learn more about the MHP + Mischief Polarisation Tracker here, and the full results of Wave 2 will be published shortly.