YouGov have a new poll out which, they claim, is measuring “Brexit extremism”. The headline findings are that among Leave voters 61 per cent think “significant damage to the British economy [would] be a price worth paying for bringing Britain out of the EU”, and 39 per cent think “Brexit causing you or members of your family to lose their job [would] be a price worth paying for bringing Britain out of the EU”; on the Remain side, 34 per cent think significant economic damage would be worth paying to keep Britain in the EU, 18 per cent think losing their or a family member’s job would be a price worth paying to Remain, and, in an additional question, 19 per cent think significant economic damage after Leaving would be a price worth paying to “teach Leave politicians and Leave voters a lesson”.
Cue screaming heeby-jeebies among people who already knew that they hated Leave voters, who surely must be fundamentally awful people. This “proves baby boomers hate their children”, according to the New Statesman.
But what does this poll really show?
The questions were posed “regardless of whether you think such an occurrence is likely”, but whether the person being polled thinks such an occurrence is likely is surely essential to making the judgement. Most Leave voters don’t think “significant damage to the British economy” is likely due to Brexit, as we saw when they disregarded Project Fear (and, thus far, the economic news has proven them more right than the Treasury’s alarmist forecasts). Therefore it’s bogus to report their poll responses as if they were choosing such damage. Most Remainers, likewise, don’t think significant economic damage would be a likely result of Remaining.
Nor, notably, is there any timescale put on the question. Leaving the EU is often talked of in some quarters as though it means permanent impoverishment, but plenty of people view it as a temporary disruption opening a door to greater improvements in the medium- and long-term. We quite often as a society face decisions that involve some pain in the short-term as a trade-off for longer-term benefits: reining in the deficit, for example; or spending to get through a financial crisis; or funding a health service which costs heavily up-front but helps us when we fall ill later on. If someone told YouGov that they were willing to bear the significant economic cost of funding the NHS as a “price worth paying”, the pollster would be unlikely to characterise them as an “extremist”.
In fact, only one of the five questions asked tested respondents’ support for something that they do think to be likely – the last question, in which Remainers were asked if economic damage would be a price worth paying to teach Leavers a lesson. We’ve all anecdotally witnessed incidents of people openly hoping for Brexit to be a disaster precisely for this reason, but now we have a figure for quite how many people are actively willing it to happen. That isn’t Leavers saying they’d hypothetically accept economic pain that they don’t really believe is going to happen in order to honour their principles, that’s a sizeable minority of Remainers saying they actively desire disaster that they do believe likely in order to be able to boast that they were right all along. Where are the appalled New Statesman headlines about 19 per cent of Remain voters, nine per cent of those who voted last year, declaring themselves supporters of disaster?
That’s as maybe, you might say. 61 per cent of the Leave camp might not believe they put us on the road to economic harm, but they’re saying that if they had then it would still be worth it. What does that say about them?
Well, if we ignore that they don’t in fact believe that’s the choice they’re making, and that the terms of that supposed choice isn’t clear in the question, it says that some people think some things are more important than money. It says that some people, at least, are still willing to say that fundamental principles are worth undergoing some hardship to sustain.
If YouGov have found that some voters, while believing (rightly) that democracy leads to greater prosperity, would still rather live in a democracy than not even if it meant less money in their pockets, is that inherently a bad thing to believe? What price democracy?