The British government's most challenging task will be to bring together remain and leave voters to forge a path ahead. So far anything resembling a consensus has been elusive.

Almost 19 months have passed since Britain stunned the world by voting to leave the European Union (EU). Since then, there has emerged a lively debate about whether or not the 52 per cent of voters who supported Brexit will change their minds, whether Brexit will even happen and, if it does, what Britain’s new relationship with Europe will look like.

Some argue that the British will change their minds or are actively campaigning to do so. Groups like ‘Best for Britain’ are trying to convince Leave voters to switch over to the Remain side and have given money to pro-EU Members of Parliament. This is in the hope that there will be a big reversal in public opinion and then a second referendum, either on the terms of the deal that is currently being negotiated between the UK and the EU, or a second ‘remain or leave’ vote - although currently both of these seem unlikely.

Linked closely to this is the idea that the British will change their minds because of economic reasons. Advocates of this view point to the fact that Britain’s economy, while it is growing and has avoided the widely predicted recession, is nonetheless trailing behind the faster growth rates in many other advanced economies. 

Furthermore, higher inflation has squeezed households and so it is only a matter of time until Leavers change their minds, or so we are told. But is this really the case? What is happening below the surface?

The reality is that very few people seem to be changing their minds. According to a regular opinion poll ‘tracker’ of what the British think, public opinion is remarkably stable. 

In the most recent poll, which asks people whether they think in hindsight Britain made the ‘right or wrong’ decision by voting to leave the EU, 43 percent of the population say it was ‘right’, 44 per cent say it was ‘wrong’, and 13 percent say they don’t know either way. Just like at the referendum the country is neatly divided into two big and opposing blocks.

And these numbers have not really changed all that much since the 2016 referendum. In the immediate aftermath of the shock vote, 46 percent thought the vote was right and only 42 percent thought it had been wrong. 

Never more than a few points have separated the two camps, so we really have not seen a major shift. 

Certainly, since August 2016 we have seen a slight increase in the numbers of people who feel that the decision was ‘wrong’, but the general picture is basically a stable one (and once we take account of things like survey error, that the polls are often out by a few points, it is difficult to know whether these shifts are real).

What is clear is that these numbers also hide big differences across different groups in British society. Young voters, Remain voters, supporters of Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, people in London and the more financially secure middle-class are all more likely to think the decision was wrong – in fact, 54 percent of London, 58 percent of 18-24 year olds, 69 percent of Labour voters and 87 percent of Remain voters think the Brexit vote was the wrong decision. 

Yet these groups face others in Britain who are far more convinced that the vote was the right decision for the country - 51 per cent of the more economically precarious working-class, 62 percent of pensioners, 72 percent of Conservative voters and 85 percent of Leave voters think it was the right decision.

Furthermore, many of those who backed Brexit did so not for economic reasons but because of their intense worries about national sovereignty, borders and immigration. 

Since the referendum in 2016 almost every major study of the Brexit vote, including our own book Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union, has shown how these concerns about security and identity were absolutely central.

Yet the fact remains that Britain today is a very divided nation. These groups not only hold fundamentally different views about the outcome of the referendum but also hold different views about where Britain should head next, and what the negotiators should be focused on. For instance, when it comes to the Brexit ‘deal’ that is currently being negotiated between the UK and the EU, what do Remain and Leave voters actually want?

The short answer is they want very different things! 

The polling company YouGov recently asked Leavers and Remainers to select their three top priorities for the negotiation. Remainers want to see Britain trade with EU states without tariffs or restrictions, maintain cooperation on security and anti-terrorism, and protect the rights of UK citizens who are already in the EU. 

But Leavers want very different things – for Britain to be able to make its own trade deals with countries outside of the EU, to be able to control immigration from within the EU, and to make sure that Britain does not have to obey rulings from the European Court of Justice. 

Whereas Remainers focus more on trade within the EU, Leavers focus more on trade with the rest of the world. Whereas Remainers focus more on protecting the rights of individuals, Leavers focus more on being able to curb immigration into Britain. It is difficult to see how these two groups will find a consensus.

Therefore, as Prime Minister Theresa May and her fragile government continue to try and steer Britain through the aftermath of the Brexit vote there is no doubt that they are leading a nation that is divided about what has just happened and what should happen next. 

Looking ahead, it seems almost certain that the negotiations will fail to satisfy both sides and that as Britain gradually moves away from the Brexit vote it will have to face an even tougher question: how can it bring Leavers and Remainers together?

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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