‘Most Leave voters… think violence towards MPs is a ‘price worth paying’ for Brexit.’ ‘A majority of Remain voters… think protests in which members of the public are badly injured are a ‘price worth paying’ to stop Brexit.’ So claimed a press release from Cardiff University about a Brexit opinion poll published last week. Professor Richard Wyn Jones, director of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, and co-director of the Future of England Survey, was ‘genuinely shocked’ by the results. Newspapers, and Twitter, inevitably picked up on that sentiment.
But look more closely at the poll. Respondents were told: ‘Some have suggested that leaving the European Union might present challenges to the UK but others disagree, labelling this as Project Fear.’ They were then given a list of possibilities, ranging from ‘the break-up of the United Kingdom’ to ‘violence directed towards members of parliament’ and asked whether each was ‘a price worth paying’. A similar set of questions was posed about the consequences of stopping Brexit.
Most people’s answers to these questions would be shaped, at least partly, by how likely they thought was a particular outcome. The poll shows that, in England, almost twice as many Leavers thought violence after Brexit was unlikely as thought it likely; barely half of Remainers thought that stopping Brexit would lead to violent protests (though more predicted violence against MPs). The figures are similar in Scotland and Wales.
Respondents were not accepting violence. Rather, many, especially Leavers, thought such violence unlikely. There is, in fact, a difference between the views of Leavers and Remainers on possibility of violence. Remainers seem far more likely to imagine that violence is possible, whatever the Brexit outcome. This might be an indication of how each side views the other rather than of their attitudes to violence itself.
Suppose the question was posed in a different way: ‘Would you change your mind about Brexit if you thought there might be violence following your preferred outcome?’ Now, the answer ‘No, I wouldn’t change my mind’ doesn’t seem particularly outrageous. And that may well be how respondents read the question.
The poll did not reveal a thirst for violence among either Remainers or Leavers. The portrayal of the results suggests, however, that too many want to think the worst of their fellow Britons.
A version of this article is published in the Observer, 27 October 2019. The image is from the Institute of Government.