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The University of Southampton

UK legacy for political trust ‘up in the air’ post-Brexit says Southampton Professor

Published: 19 January 2021
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The after-effects of Brexit on political trust amongst voters in Briton are explored by University of Southampton Professor Will Jennings in a new report from the academic think tank UK in a Changing Europe.

Brexit and Beyond underlines the challenges and opportunities that confront the United Kingdom now it has left the European Union. The report brings together some of the country’s leading social scientists, who have written pieces addressing a swathe of issues ranging from the constitution to Covid-19, from consumer protection to relations with China.

Each of the 72 chapters has been written by a recognised expert in the field who address key themes via a consideration of where we have come from, where we are now and where we are heading. The report aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the key issues confronting the UK in the months and years ahead.

In his chapter, entitled ‘Trust, Brexit and Beyond’, Jennings – who is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy – considers the levels of political trust expressed and experienced by those who have supported the Leave and Remain campaigns, and how those sentiments might be expressed going forward.

To make his forecasts, Professor Jennings draws on survey data from the British Election Study and the experiences of participants in focus groups run by Professor Jennings and his colleagues on behalf of UK in a Changing Europe during the summer of 2020 in towns and cities in England.

He points out, for example, that the referendum of 2016 was well-supported by those with strong attitudes on issues such as immigration supported by the Leave campaign, with distrust of Government a significant predictor of those voting for Britain’s exit from the EU.

“The various leaders of the Leave movement exploited tailwinds of rising disenchantment with politicians and elites more broadly (a trend that dates back over half a century but which was turbocharged by the parliamentary expenses scandal and the global financial crisis) thereby weakening already shaky confidence in Britain’s political class,” writes Professor Jennings.

“In the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, political trust rallied slightly as the [Theresa] May Government enjoyed an initial honeymoon with voters,” he continue. “That trust collapsed, however, in the aftermath of the disastrous showing of the Conservatives in the 2017 election, as Brexit hit an impasse with successive deals [with the EU] rejected by Parliament, leaving many voters frustrated.

“Survey data from the British Election Study reveals how political trust has been realigned since Boris Johnson came to power,” Professor Jennings concludes. “Among Leavers, who were previously more likely to express distrust, trust in MPs has climbed steadily since the summer of 2019, a trend that has been sustained into the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, trust among Remainers has declined.”

To date, Professor Jennings says that achieving the mantra of ‘getting Brexit done’ has restored some trust in British politics, though not on the Remain side. Looking ahead, he can see a myriad of possible scenarios emerging – from Brexit becoming a bonus for political trust, especially after the UK Government’s successful agreement of a last-minute deal with the EU, to Brexit, as “a card that has already been played” and having no or little impact on future levels of political trust.

Amongst other possible scenarios Professor Jennings describes are the gradual depletion of political trusts, accelerated by what he calls “performance-based shocks” or that Brexit ceases to be a focus for political trust altogether. He points out, for example, that “any disruption to transport and businesses in early 2021 as the UK adjusts to its new terms of engagement with the EU could yet deliver a competence reckoning for the government, reducing trust among Leavers and Remainers alike. This is why how the deal works out in practice will be crucial in ensuring a smooth transition free from snafus.

“Our focus groups suggest a desire among many Leavers and Remainers to move on, look to the future and attend to ‘real’ priorities,” he explains. “It may be that political trust will only be restored through addressing the concerns of citizens on other policy issues — such as overseeing post-Covid-19 economic recovery, delivering on promises of ‘levelling-up’, and addressing social and economic inequalities that the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare.

“Brexit’s legacy for political trust remains up in the air,” he concludes, “but it ultimately will be determined by how Britain’s political class deliver on the outcomes expected by voters on both sides of the Brexit divide.”


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