Are Brexit Supporters Ignorant?


Are Brexit Supporters Ignorant?

Feb 4, 2019 4 min read
Ted R. Bromund, Ph.D.

Senior Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Ted Bromund studies Anglo-American relations, U.S. relations with Europe and the EU, and the U.S.’s leadership role in the world.
Protesters seen holding placards during a demonstration by Pro-Brexit and Pro-EU protesters outside the Houses of Parliament. SOPA Images / Contributor/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Arguments that Remain is the smart take are primarily about discrediting Brexit.

This study shows no consistent differences in overall levels of knowledge between Leave and Remain voters.

Ironically, dismissing Brexit as the choice of the ignorant turns out to be — well, ignorant.

One of the common tropes of opposition to Brexit — Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) as the result of the national referendum held in June 2016 — is that voters who supported remaining in the EU are better informed than those who voted to leave.

This claim has a distinct feeling of sour grapes: no one would have much cared why anyone voted for Brexit if Remain had won. Arguments that Remain is the smart take are primarily about discrediting Brexit. Nonetheless, the question is interesting — and a new poll published as part of “Brexit and Public Opinion 2019” offers useful insight into it.

The study was produced by “The UK in a Changing Europe,” with contributions from many of the most serious academic experts on public opinion in the UK, including Tim Bale, John Curtice, and Rob Ford, among many others. The entire study is worth reading, but the chapter by Noah Carl touches directly on the question of the ignorance (or lack thereof) of Brexit voters by asking “Are Leave voters less knowledgeable about the EU than Remain voters?”

The answer, in short, is that both sides are about equally knowledgeable (or ignorant) — but they are ignorant about different things.

The Leave voters scored an average of 60.4 percent correct answers over fifteen questions — all clear and factual — while the Remain voters scored 60.3 percent correct. Such small differences are meaningless. Moreover, on the questions where the correct answer did not ‘favor’ either side, the differences between Leave and Remain was usually a few points. Again, margin of error stuff.

But when the questions where the correct answer favored one side or the other, gaps emerged. The Remain voters did much better than Leave voters (50 percent correct to 28 percent) when asked if the EU was responsible for more than 10 percent of British government spending. It is not. Remain voters also did somewhat better (29 percent to 24 percent correct) when asked if the EU employs more civil servants than the British government. It does not. The percentage of voters of any flavor who knew the correct answers here was not impressive — but anyone who has followed the British debate over the EU knows that it tends to focus on economic issues in general, and the costs of EU spending in particular.

On the other hand, Brexit supporters did vastly better on other kinds of questions. 78 percent of Leave voters knew that Britain cannot sign free trade deals as long as it is inside the EU, as compared to 70 percent of Remain supporters. Much more remarkably, only 61 percent of Remain supporters know that Britain pays more into the EU than it gets back, as compared to 88 percent of Leave supporters. The UK has been a net payer into the EU (in its various forms) since it joined over 40 years ago, and the net costs of EU membership were intensively, if not exhaustively, debated during the 2016 referendum. Nevertheless, only 61 percent of Remain supporters knew the answer.

But to me, the most remarkable item was the one which asked voters to assess the statement “The EU makes up a larger proportion of the world economy today than it did twenty years ago.” This is false. Given the economic rise of China — never mind how the EU has performed — it would be a statistical miracle if the EU had managed to increase its share of the world economy over the past 20 years. Nevertheless, while a not-impressive 37 percent of Leave votes got this right, only a miserable 23 of Remain voters were correct.

This is probably the most significant question of the lot. If the case for remaining in the EU hinges on the economic benefits of being inside the bloc, but that bloc has relentlessly shrunk in relative economic weight over the past two decades, then those advantages have also shrunk — and are very likely to keep on shrinking.

 After all, no one — not even the European Commission — expects the EU to grow faster than 2 percent annually over the next several years, and at that rate, the EU is going to keep on shrinking in relative terms. Remaining in the EU means accepting the EU’s rules, the EU’s tariff barriers, and the EU’s costs for the sake of preferential access to a shrinking market.

In closing, Carl points out that “both Leave and Remain voters were more likely to answer correctly on items that were ‘ideologically convenient’ for them.” This may have been because, if they didn’t know the answer to a question, they guessed the ideologically preferable answer. Or it might have been because they were better informed about questions that played to their beliefs. 

In any case, while characteristics like education level were highly correlated with correct answers on the factual questions that did not lean either way, education level mattered much less on questions where the answer was ideologically convenient to one side or the other.

My take-away from all of this is three-fold. First, it is entirely possible that Remain voters, as a group, are better educated than Leave voters — but that they are nonetheless no more likely to be correct when answering difficult questions about the EU than Leave voters. After all, if education is not well correlated with correct but inconvenient answers, then more educated voters may merely be biased in different ways than less educated ones.

Second, this study shows no consistent differences in overall levels of knowledge between Leave and Remain voters — which suggests that support for Brexit is correlated not with being ignorant, but with other attitudes, preferencesand beliefs. And that is no surprise. Decisions in every part of life are taken not just on a basis of facts, but also on a basis of values.

And that leads to my third take-away. The argument that Brexit was or is supported by the ignorant and therefore was the wrong choice is itself highly ideological. It is just one small branch of the wider progressive argument that (purported) expertise, not democratic consent, is what matters, and that people who know less should count for less.

This kind of argument is understandably more popular among the kind of people who tend to be disproportionally progressive — the highly-educated, including academics and journalists. It is therefore also intensely self-serving. In fact, there is no reason to believe that expertise on facts translates easily into expertise on questions where the ‘correct’ answer depends on your political or moral preferences. And ironically, dismissing Brexit as the choice of the ignorant turns out to be — well, ignorant.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes