Related people: Stuart Fox

On 23rd June 2016, UK voters delivered one of the greatest shocks to British politics by voting 52% to 48% in favour of Brexit. The closeness of the result masked the depth of difference between the moral, political and social values held by those on each side. These differences continue to be a source of acrimony and conflict more than two years after the vote. ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’ have become forms of social and political identification, akin to more traditional notions such as ‘working class’ or ‘Tories’, that hold very different views relating not only to the UK’s relationship with Europe but also national identity, immigration, globalisation, the economy, individual rights and liberties, and environmentalism.

It is, perhaps, because the difference between a ‘Remainer’ and a ‘Leaver’ reflects such deeply held values that religion is an important – if often overlooked – determinant of which group someone fits into. As WISERD research showed during the referendum campaign, Protestant groups (and Anglicans in particular) were consistently more supportive of Brexit than the non-religious or Catholics, and almost two thirds of Anglicans voted to leave the EU while between 50% and 52% of Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists voted to remain.

These differences were still apparent even after other traits typically associated with support for Brexit and being religious (such as age) were accounted for. In our latest article – ‘Praying on Brexit: Unpicking the Effect of Religion on Support for European Union Integration and Membership’ – we looked into this religious divide and tried to explain what it was about the EU that made Anglicans so Eurosceptic while other Christian groups in the UK were more supportive of EU membership.

Source: British Election Study Referendum Panel, Wave 9. Data weighted to ensure representative sample of British electorate (excluding Northern Ireland)

Previous research has shown that attitudes towards EU membership can be split into two broad groups: those based around the policy performance of the EU (such as its management of the economy), and those reflecting support for the principles at the heart of European integration (such as the pooling of sovereignty in an international institution). We looked at how the largest Christian groups in the UK differed in terms of these attitudes, and how this was related to their votes in the EU Referendum.

We expected few differences in terms of policy expectations (after all, regardless of religious belief, nobody wants a recession or the environment to be destroyed), but clear differences in support for the principles behind EU integration because of their distinct religious beliefs and histories. Catholics, for example, have historically been more supportive of the EU because they are more comfortable with the notion of an international institution challenging the authority of a national government in certain issues, as the Papacy has for centuries. Protestants, on the other hand, have developed a lasting scepticism of such institutions because they have depended upon strong and independent national governments for protection from Papal persecution and their very existence.

We analysed data from the British Election Study’s online panel between just before, during and after the EU Referendum. Contrary to expectations, our results showed that the differences between the denominations were deeper and more extensive. Anglicans and Presbyterians are indeed more likely than Catholics (and those with no religion) to be hostile to the principle of a supranational institution with power over national governments, but they are also more critical of the EU’s policy performance. In short, Protestants’ scepticism about European integration not only makes them more likely to oppose EU membership in principle but also appears to lead them to view the EU’s policy performance more negatively. As a result, they are less likely to feel that the EU deserves credit for economic successes, for example, or that it was pivotal in ensuring peace in Europe.

We also found differences between Protestant groups, with smaller denominations, such as Baptists or Methodists, that do not have the same historic relationships with national identity or government as Anglicans in England or Presbyterians in Scotland being more supportive of the principle of EU integration and positive about the EU’s policy performance. This, we argue, reflects the fact that such denominations did not enjoy the same protection and support from national governments, and so they have less reason to feel that challenges to national sovereignty are problematic. In fact, Baptists, Methodists and others were actively persecuted by the government for their ‘non-conformism’.

While not as important as traits such as age or education in explaining why someone voted for or opposed Brexit, therefore, religion played an important role in explaining why the UK voted to leave the EU. Our research shows that the religious beliefs and communal identification of British citizens will be central to understanding how they feel about the relationship the UK eventually forms with the EU, and the ongoing debates and battles between ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’.

This research was carried out with Dr Ekaterina Kolpinskaya, Swansea University, and was supported by the UK Economic and Social Research Council.


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