Post-Referendum Britain: Hopeful or Uncertain?

Theofanis Exadaktylos

Senior Lecturer in European Politics at the University of Surrey

Simona Guerra

Associate Professor in Politics at the University of Leicester

Roberta Guerrina

Professor in International Politics at the University of Surrey

It is widely accepted that social learning, interaction and political communication have a significant impact on individual political opinions and behaviours. Emotion can influence the cognitive capacity of citizens when challenged with a choice that cuts across their position both in the personal and public domains (Neuman et al. 2008). According to their definition, affect represents ‘an episode of massive synchronous recruitment of mental and somatic resources to adapt to and cope with a stimulus event that is subjectively appraised as being highly pertinent to needs, goals and values of the individual’ (2008: 10).

Moreover, there is growing interest in the role of emotions on political behaviour. Previous research on attitudes towards the European Union (EU) and accession referenda (Jasiewicz 2003; Guerra 2013) addressed the role of subjective evaluations in voters’ decision-making. These findings support the work of Alfio Mastropaolo (2012) on the emergence of anti-politics, suggesting that individual citizens make political decisions based on personal, and often very mundane, assessments of the wider socio-economic environment. Recently, Capelos and Exadaktylos (2017) explored how the affective content of Greek media influenced attitudes towards European integration through traumatic public events. Hence, the literature converges on results showing that emotions have a major impact on the outcomes of referenda, and that we cannot underestimate the role of negative emotions in particular (Blumenberg and Faas 2013).

Undoubtedly, the campaign ahead of the referendum on British membership of the EU, leading to the vote of 23 June 2016, was highly emotionally charged. The rhetoric deployed by both camps sought to generate “anxiety”, “uncertainty”, “anger” and “fear” (see for example, Hobolt 2016)

 In this contribution, we offer an analysis based on a preliminary study on survey data, carried out for us by YouGov, two weeks after the referendum (6-7 July 2016) as part of the research project ‘Brexit or Bremain: Britain and the 2016 British Referendum.’ While most of the literature and comments have underlined “anger” as the factor that could mobilize the vote or could further emerge from the referendum outcome, we would like to point to a wealth of moods and emotions that can profoundly impact on citizens’ cognitive processes (Schwarz 2000). These can further influence how information is selected. Positive emotions are related to a more confident attitude, and research shows that people are likely to rely on their pre-existing knowledge without much attention to information or details. On the contrary, being in a gloom and sad mood is likely to lead to a slow, but systematic, decision process, paying more attention to details. As noted by Schwarz, in ‘a nutshell, we usually feel bad when things go wrong and feel good when we face no particular problems.’ (2000: 434). Clearly, in a negative situation we tend to proceed along a more cautious path and pay more attention to information and details. Hence, we suggest that emotions do not just affect attitudes and behaviours, but most importantly they affect decision making and how information is identified, selected and processed. In addition, as noted by Schwarz, the relationship between ‘emotions and decision making is bidirectional’ (2000: 435) and that would further influence perspective decision making and emotions linked to a specific decision. This suggests that the outcome of the June 2016 referendum can extend well into the negotiation process of leaving the EU and can further affect future attitudes and decision making related to EU issues in Britain.

Our research project offered a choice of 22 emotions, and while the most cited was “uncertainty” (56%), “hope” was one of the top eight feelings (31% of the answers). Hope could definitely be detected among the open answers of respondents who voted ‘Leave,’ reflecting some of the ‘Leave’ campaign slogans that allowed people to latch on hope after exiting the EU:

  • ‘To regain control over our laws and money’,
  • [Because] ‘Immigration [is] out of control’,
  • ‘To get control of our country back’,
  • [Because] ‘A £320 million pounds a week going to the EU’,
  • [To] ‘Have the ABILITY to control borders’,
  • [To regain] ‘Sovereignty.’

In particular, UKIP voters felt “hopeful” (56%), “excited” (41%) and “happy” (31%), possibly satisfied with the referendum result. “Hope” was a feeling shared by both one in three male (30%) and female (31%) voters and a quarter of citizens in the 25-49 age group. Higher levels of education unsurprisingly correlate with negative emotions following the Brexit vote. Overall, young people (18-24) were somewhat “annoyed” (30%), and mostly felt “uncertain” (57%) and “disappointed” (42%).

As expected, our survey highlighted an increasing polarisation of emotions, with the most positive emotions generally felt by the lowest number of respondents, hope is the most cited at 31%, alongside excitement (17%), pride (15%) and happiness (11%), while uncertainty (44%) is felt by almost half of respondents, alongside apprehension (36%), anxiety (31%) and disappointment (29%). Overall, the result of the June 2016 EU referendum has led Britain to uncertainty and anxiety, that seem to persist during the negotiation process opened by the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, triggering Art. 50 on 29 March 2017. As already highlighted by Capelos and Exadaktylos (2017: 87) at ‘the juncture of emotions and cognition lies the feeling of institutional, political and social trust.’ This requires more attention to emotions, which have emerged and can persist throughout the negotiation process, where social and political engagement is significant to maintain trust towards institutions and political actors. In other words, the expectations by the electorate of the executive in Britain may lead to blustering attitudes on behalf of the government (see for example the talk on Gibraltar) and risks further isolating Britain in the final outcome. As in their open answers, ‘Remain’ respondents also stressed that during the campaign they received ‘…No clear information. Blatant lies and confusion. [It] Felt it was more about our dissatisfaction with our own government…’, it becomes now critical to address not just hopeful citizens, but a wealth of diverse expectations and attention towards the possible social and economic impact of Brexit.


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