Support for Brexit is dwindling amongst the general public—and could move further if things are deemed to go badly at the end of the yearby Peter Kellner / November 9, 2020 / Leave a comment
Once upon a time—a very specific time—British voters overwhelmingly rejected euroscepticism. In November 1990, a Gallup poll found that 56 per cent regarded membership of the European Union as a good thing; only 13 per cent said it was a bad thing. Never before, or since, has the EU been so popular.
For older readers, November 1990 might ring a bell. It was the month of Margaret Thatcher’s defenestration. The poll tax had come into force in England and Wales earlier that year, and she was toxic. Things came to a head when she returned from an EU summit in a fiercely anti-Brussels mood. Her deputy Geoffrey Howe resigned, and Michael Heseltine’s challenge was soon on. When Gallup asked its question about EU membership, it was in a way a proxy for “whose side are you on”—a prime minister who has lost control of her party, or her widely-respected Tory colleagues, a modernising Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats?
This trip down memory lane illuminates an enduring truth about British public opinion and Europe. Passionate Europhiles and Europhobes have been in a minority: the balance of opinion has always been determined by those who view Europe through the prism of politicians talking about it and the broader news agenda. This was evident very soon after Britain had first joined the Common Market in 1973. The next year, Labour returned to power promising a referendum on the issue, as a device to keep its divided party together. In August 1974, MORI and Gallup polls showed a clear majority for getting out. However, in the referendum campaign, almost every respected mainstream politician—including Thatcher, then enjoying her honeymoon as leader of the Conservative Party—campaigned to stay in, leaving a strange mixture of MPs far from the centre, such as Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, to argue against them. “In” defeated “out” mainly because “moderate” defeated “extreme.”
The next major attempt to get out was in the 1983 general election, when Labour’s manifesto promise to withdraw from the Common Market seemed in tune with the electorate. In November 1982,…