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British Attitudes Towards the European Union

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are typically grim.  It must be part of the genetic code for the Conservatives to bicker to the point of self-destruction over the EU; indeed, a Tory backbench revolt will surface in a vote tomorrow on whether or not the UK should hold a referendum on continued membership in the EU.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 Tory MPs are expected to defy a three-line whip ordered by the Prime Minister.  The Economist is correct to point out both that the referendum won’t happen, and that leaving the European Union is a terrible idea anyway.  Furthermore, how credible would a “renegotiate” result be?  First, the other 26 countries in the EU could simply reply non, and second, they would correctly point out that the UK has renegotiated or opted out of a hell of a lot already; the UK does try to treat the EU as an À la carte experience as it stands.

Hypothetically, what would the results of such a referendum look like?  UK Polling Report has a nice article today on public opinion towards the EU, and makes several good points, the best of which is that public opinion today might look quite different from that which follows a campaign:

Polls on attitudes towards Europe have become increasingly anti-EU in recent years, but this is not a long term trend. Looking at long term trackers from MORI, attitudes towards the European Union and its predecessors have ebbed and flowed over the years – the peak of opposition towards Europe was in the early 1980s, its nadir in the late 1980s and early 90s (while I’m on the subject of changing attitudes towards Europe, its probably also worth noting the experience of the 1975 referendum. Before the campaign started polls showed a majority in favour of withdrawal, eventually people voted 2-1 in favour of staying in – so don’t assume that because polls currently suggest people would vote to leave that they actually would in practice).

The article then proceeds on to a nuanced discussion of salience: why it matters, how it’s difficult to measure, etc.  I’d add here that salience matters only insomuch as it should color our understanding of polling data in absence of an actual referendum; it’s possible that the strong anti-EU tendencies in public opinion are reflexive expressions of attitudes towards an issue of minimal importance, and once it’s real, and debated within the broader context of a campaign, then low-salience issues are more susceptible to shifting opinion.  However, once the voter is actually confronted with the two-stage decision of whether or not to vote, and if so, for what?, salience should only affect the first decision.  In other words, salience is a non issue once a voter decides to vote in such a referendum: public opinion on low salience items are less immutable, but salience per se should not have a discernible impact on the choice.

I’m not as sanguine as the paragraph quoted above regarding the chances of a majority (or even plurality in a three-option referendum) coming out in favor of continued membership int he European Union.  Likewise, neither are all three major party leaders, which is why all three have issued three-line whips to their MPs to prevent such a referendum from hitting the ballot.

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