Peace Polls

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Yes – Brexit did need a peace poll

Colin Irwin   Wed 20 Mar 2019   updated: Tue 23 Apr 2019

Prime Ministers are always concerned about their legacy and how history will regard them after they have left office. For Prime Minister Tony Blair his most significant policy failure was the Iraq War and for David Cameron it was losing the EU referendum. For Prime Minister May, above every thing else, she did not want to be remembered as the Prime Minister that split the Conservative Party condemning them to years in opposition or split the Union with the loss of Scotland or Northern Ireland. So she wanted a EU Withdrawal Agreement that would satisfy Conservative MP ERG Leavers while also avoiding a second EU referendum that might be a prelude to a second Scottish referendum in which the Scots would vote for independence and continued EU membership. So both a national consensus Norway style deal and/or a People’s Vote were never going to be her preferred policy options. It was her deal or no deal. The Prime Minister’s interests and the interests of the Conservative Party were placed above the national interest and in this context research and research funding was dominated by the NGOs that supported the Remain and Leave camps and by the agenda of Prime Minister May’s Government. Support for a national consensus would only come when and if the Prime Minister’s option totally failed. On Tuesday the 12th of March, the Government’s proposals for leaving the EU were voted down for a second time by a margin of 149 votes and the Prime Minister in her statement to the House of Commons said the other options of no deal, a second referendum or some form of soft Brexit were now “choices that must be faced.” Clearly public opinion research and public diplomacy was now needed in support of this new agenda and on March 20th May’s Government asked the EU for an extension to Article 50 which would give time for such research.

The five short articles and three Brexit pilot peace polls published on The UK in a Changing Europe website were restricted to the format for Google Surveys. On the plus side they were very inexpensive and easy to run but were limited in style and word length as they were run on an Android app platform. Significantly the questions were also limited to blocks of ten short questions. However, the questionnaire, In Search of a Settlement, used to detail all the elements of the Northern Ireland Belfast Agreement contained 252 questions and was run as a small booklet in face-to-face interviews (Irwin, 2002). None of the polling done in an effort to resolve Brexit was undertaken to this level of sophistication to detail all the possibilities for the future arrangements for the UK and EU because that was not part of the Withdrawal Agreement. But this bridge now has to be crossed with all the possibilities for trading and other social and security arrangements being tested against public opinion ranging from World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements, to Canada-style deals, to a Customs Union and/or Single Market arrangements, similar to a Norway-style deal with perhaps elements taken from existing European Economic Area (EEA) and European Free Trade Area (EFTA) treaties to produce some kind of European Community 2.0 type deal, or more, or less? (For recent reviews on these options see Wallace, 2019 and Trefgarne 2019). The A New Framework Agreement (1995) was used to set an agenda for both the In Search of a Settlement Northern Ireland peace poll and subsequent Belfast Agreement. Similarly the Political Declaration (2018) can do the same for a UK/EU agreement with each element unpacked and tested against public opinion for all the possible options available.

This was not done to resolve Brexit because the Government only wanted their deal and no other deal. But that is ‘water under the bridge now’ and in an effort to mitigate the inevitable Parliamentary party political dysfunction over the future UK/EU relationship a programme of research that addresses all these issues should be undertaken proactively with willing Parliamentarians, as was done in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the hundreds of polls on Brexit that are in the public domain are, to some extent, just the tip of the iceberg of the polling completed with significant amounts of polling undertaken privately by the major political parties and UK Government. But the degree of sophistication achieved in Northern Ireland by engaging with the politicians from all the parties elected to the negotiations has never been duplicated elsewhere and, most importantly, all the results of all those peace polls were made public to both inform the public and bring the public with the politicians to an agreed consensus on the way forward. The same now needs to be done for Brexit. Critically, such public diplomacy peace polling will not only inform the British public and their elected representatives what they want but also those in Brussels and across the EU with whom the future arrangements have to be negotiated. To date the Brexit negotiations have been a resounding failure consuming and paralysing Parliamentary politics to the exclusion of other domestic and foreign policy issues that should have rightfully been addressed since the referendum of 2016. This paradigm needs to change with the future research serving the needs of the nation, not the government alone and not the narrow interests of Leave or Remain lobbyists.

Indicative Votes

On Monday March 25th amendment (a) moved by Sir Oliver Letwin in the House of Commons was passed by 329 votes in favour to 302 votes against and the main Motion (as thereby amended) was then passed with 327 votes in favour to 300 against. It provided for a procedure to allow ‘the House to debate and vote on alternative ways forward, with a view to the Government putting forward a plan for the House to debate and vote on…’ This was done to allow MPs to complete a series of ‘Indicative Votes’ on options chosen by the Speaker of the House that reflected the kinds of options for resolving Brexit tested here. However, the methods used here are designed to ‘square the circle’ between the wishes and opinions of Parliamentarians and the wishes and opinions of the people they represent. It has not been used to provide Parliamentarians with a method of voting for various options although it would be most interesting to try it and see how it worked out. Accordingly, in the first instance, Parliament should use voting methods they are familiar with and trust.

To this end, Sir Oliver Letwin suggested in the debate leading up to the vote on his amendment that the first vote should be for Members’ first choice only, to discover and reveal the political topography of the House on all the options available. This seemed to be most sensible but then, as several members pointed out and as the research reviewed here indicates, this might not bring the House to a resolution of the issues at hand and certainly would not identify the best possible compromise. With this point in mind the voting system used in the House of Commons to select Members of Select Committees was proposed but there was then some discussion as to how many options should be rank ordered to do this. Again experience from Northern Ireland might help here where those Members are familiar with the single transferable vote system (STV) that allows any number of candidate options to be rank ordered as illustrated in Table 1.

In the Northern Ireland Assembly Members there can also designate their political identity as Unionist, Nationalist or Other. Similarly Members of the House of Commons could designate themselves as Leavers or Remainers having voted Leave or Remain in the 2016 referendum. A conflict resolution analysis from this perspective, as well as political party analysis, would also be most revealing and as an academic exercise would have been tried if research funding for such an exercise had been made available in 2018. It would also be interesting to see how such a method, analysis and outcome would compare with Members noting the value of each option on the five point ‘essential’, ‘desirable’, ‘acceptable’, ‘tolerable’ and ‘unacceptable’ scale used in Northern Ireland and around the world. Even if this is not done to help resolve these issues in Parliament it still can be done for all the issues that remain unresolved and are yet to be negotiated and settled between the UK and EU as was done in Northern Ireland between Unionists, Nationalists and Others. Finally, it should be remembered, to take one more lesson from Northern Ireland, that the Belfast Agreement was tested in a referendum to give it political legitimacy. Likewise the Brexit peace process may still have some way to go.

In the first Indicative Vote held on Wednesday March 27th 16 motions were proposed and 8 selected by the Speaker of the House of Commons. These are listed in Table 12 along with the results for the three attempts by the Government to pass their Withdrawal Bill. The motions rejected by the Speaker tended to be duplicates of those selected, or ‘aspirational’ motions such as ‘(A) Constitutional and accountable government’ which in public opinion terms would be characterised as ‘motherhood and apple pie’ and therefore meaningless, or items that could not be realised as they had already been rejected in negotiations. Parliamentarians were characterising these motions as ‘unicorns’.

The two motions that came closest to passing were a ‘customs union’ having lost by only 8 votes, and a ‘confirmatory public vote’, which lost by 27 votes. Both of these motions failed by fewer votes than the Government’s Withdrawal Bill, which, even on its third attempt lost by 58 votes. In Northern Ireland this outcome would have been seen as a clear victory for potential compromise and a way forward. But the UK public had not been properly prepared for Indicative Votes with a programme of public opinion research and public diplomacy so even The Guardian (2019), a liberal newspaper, reported this outcome as a failure with the headline “Parliament finally has its say: No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No” and “Commons rejects all eight alternatives in indicative votes” when in fact it was a success to be built on from a conflict resolution perspective.

This supposed political ‘failure’ was further reinforced by Sir John Curtice (2019) in his review of public opinion polling on the Common Market 2.0 or Norway-style Brexit option published on March 29th. Critically he selectively cited data that supported his conclusion that “a Norway-style Brexit could find itself in much the same position as Mrs May’s deal proved to be – with few friends who are willing to take it to heart” while ignoring research that came to the conclusion that it was potentially the most preferred Brexit outcome (Grant et al 2018). But the Government failed to support this compromise when it was brought to the House for a second time on April 1st. However with Labour Party support it now lost by only 21 votes while the Customs Union proposal narrowly lost by only 3 votes (Table 13). Accordingly the proposer of the Common Market 2.0 compromise, Nick Boles MP, resigned from his party and joined the opposition benches.


On April 2nd, following an eight hour cabinet meeting Prime Minister May announced that she would now seek to negotiate a compromise to her Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, with the Opposition, in an effort to draft legislation that would pass in the House and facilitate the UK leaving the EU. But the polarised politics of the past two years had not prepared the British public for that compromise and the research and polling community had similarly failed in this regard. In this context the ‘Father of the House’ (its longest standing Member) Ken Clarke MP (2019) recommended that the country now needed a long extension so as not to rush the negotiations for new arrangements between the UK and EU and also to start to mend relations between Leavers and Remainers in both Parliament and the wider UK public.

When Theresa May lost her majority in the House of Commons in the General Election of 2017 she was advised by her Conservative Party Chief Whip, Julian Smith MP (2019) that she should seek a compromise on her Brexit deal if it was to pass in the House of Commons. But she did not, believing that by will of personality she could overcome the facts of Parliamentary arithmetic. Such misplaced self-confidence and hubris is characteristic of many political leaders that ‘soldier on’ against the realities of their circumstances, unwilling to compromise with opposition forces in numerous unresolved conflicts around the world. In the end all such politicians and their societies have to come to terms with the necessities of managed conflict resolution or remain destined to become frozen conflicts. Arguably the divisions over Europe in the British Conservative Party are a frozen conflict and until that fact is recognised and addressed history may continue to repeat itself with ethnic entrepreneurs in the body politic all too willing to play the populist, narrow nationalist, ‘identity card’ for short term electoral advantage.

On April 10th the European Union granted Britain an extension until October 31st 2019. But in the context of contested EU elections on May 23rd the prospect of using that extension to mend the divisions between Leavers and Remainers would be more than problematic. A longer extension was probably needed to undo the damage done over the past several years (Renwick, 2019). But even so the prospect of using Citizens Assemblies (Jayanetti, 2019) and peace polls to mend those divisions would be very challenging in the absence of a proactive approach to conflict resolution. In Northern Ireland the British and Irish Governments opposed the use of independent peace polling there, but the ten political parties elected to negotiate the Good Friday Agreement overruled the two governments in their negotiations business committee and went ahead with the peace polls against the two governments wishes. Similarly the Parliamentarians in Westminster should form an all-party business committee (Lucas, 2019) in the House of Commons to manage and implement a programme of Brexit reconciliation, and by taking ownership of it ensure its success in the National interest. Finally the EU should complement these efforts with a programme of their own to deal with the negative effects of identity politics at the core of Brexit politics in the UK and elsewhere. Like Britain the EU had experimented with Citizens Assemblies (Butcher and Stratulat, 2018), but like the UK they had also prevented those researchers from running and publishing effective peace polls (EUSurvey, 2019) . Objective independent polling and transparency is needed on both sides of the Channel.

For tables, data, references and a full analysis download the attached WAPOR paper.

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Did Brexit need a Peace Poll WAPOR