NEWS22 October 2021

Trust in government remains polarised between leave and remain voters

Brexit Covid-19 News Public Sector UK

UK – Public trust and confidence in government increased during 2020 after a record low recorded in 2019, but is largely confined to those who voted to leave the European Union, the latest British Social Attitudes survey has found.

Big Ben and EU flag

Brexit has led to a turnaround in public attitudes towards the European Union and public confidence in government, the annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) report suggests, but this is predominantly driven by ‘leave’ voters as voters remain polarised, with the way they voted in the 2016 referendum still impacting levels of confidence.

The latest survey, conducted in 2020 by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), found that 23% of respondents say that they trust the government to ‘put the needs of the nation above the interests of their party’.

The figure represents an increase from 15% in 2019 – the lowest level recorded by the survey – and is the highest figure recorded since 2007.

Of those who voted for Brexit in 2016, 31% said that they trust the government to ‘put the national interest first’, compared with 12% in 2019. However, only 17% of ‘remain’ voters expressed the same view, according to the latest research.

Speaking at the launch of the BSA report, Alex Scholes, senior researcher at ScotCen, said: “From what we’ve seen so far, the increase in levels of trust and confidence in government in the wake of Brexit seem to have been primarily driven by ‘leave’ voters. There has been an increase in trust and confidence, but polarisation between those two groups of voters still remains.”

NatCen carried out the survey between October and December 2020 with 3,964 people, and also ran an additional survey in July 2020 with 2,413 previous respondents. The fieldwork was conducted online by samples of respondents randomly invited by post.

The survey has run annually since 1983. The most recent data shows for the first time that people who are sceptical about Europe were more likely than those with a more favourable attitude towards the European Union to express trust and confidence in government.

Scholes said: “In 2003, those who were sceptical in their attitudes towards the EU were less likely to say that they trusted government most of the time. In 2016, that gap had closed and the figures were around the same for Europhiles and Eurosceptics. Now it has flipped – there has been an increase in trust of government among Eurosceptics and a fall to new lows among Europhiles. This is the first time Eurosceptics are more trusting in government than Europhiles.”

He added: “The delivery of Brexit has led to a remarkable turnaround in terms of attitudes towards the EU and attitudes towards and confidence in the government.”

Professor John Curtice, senior research fellow at NatCen and professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said: “Brexit has restored trust and confidence in government to levels not seen since the EU referendum. Yet this response has been a highly partisan one – largely confined to those who voted for Brexit. As a result, Britain is left divided between one half of the country who now feel better about how they are being governed and another half who, relatively at least, are as unhappy as they have ever been.”

The pandemic appears to have had an impact on public attitudes towards inequality, with 64% of respondents to the BSA survey agreeing that ‘ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth’, compared with 57% in 2019.

However, while the proportion of people who perceive Britain as an unequal society has increased slightly, perceptions of inequality have not necessarily translated to support for governmental action to redistribute income and wealth, the research suggests.

The proportion of respondents who agreed with the statement that ‘the government should redistribute income and wealth from the better-off to the less well-off’ increased in NatCen’s two 2020 surveys from 39% in 2019 to 42% and then to 46%, the proportion who disagreed also rose, from 27% to 30%. 

Speaking at the launch event, Curtice said: “There was a lot of discussion early on in the pandemic about how it would create on opportunity to reset British and western society generally.

“Some things have changed but we should not presume that the Britain likely to emerge after the pandemic is markedly different in terms of its social and political attitudes to the one beforehand. Policymakers will find a landscape that looks rather familiar.”