Does anyone care about Brexit?

Our policy and research officer Kate James talks us through why the Communities up Close research didn’t focus on the big political issue at the time

Brexit lurked in the background throughout this project. Communities up Close began in March 2018 a few weeks before the UK was due to leave the EU. The project team had numerous conversations about fieldwork planning. Would the research robustness be adversely affected if fieldwork happened both pre and post-Brexit? Should we include an additional ‘Brexit’ element in the project? Undertaking research on migration and communities at a pivotal moment in UK history seemed both an opportunity and a challenge. An opportunity for insight into communities’ perspectives at a local level at a critical moment for the UK, but there was also the anxiety that the Brexit theme could dominate and not allow us to understand ‘normal’ times outside of that issue.

In the end we didn’t ask directly about Brexit, or compare ‘before’ and ‘after’, because the political extensions to Article 50 meant our fieldwork all took place before the UK left the EU.

And as it turned out, our fears were groundless. In many of the focus groups with predominantly British participants, the word ‘Brexit’ was barely uttered, and when it was, in mildly apologetic tones, and received with a quiet, resigned collective sigh of … what? Fatigue? Frustration? The 2019 general election result appeared to send a clear signal that most people want the whole business over, that we just need to ‘get Brexit done'.

The silence we observed in the CuC focus groups makes me curious about how deeply most people do care about Brexit at this point. It’s hard to know where the silence came from. Participants’ utter weariness of the topic? A perception of the researchers as metropolitan liberal remain voters? Simply that fact that we didn’t explicitly ask about it? Even later in the fieldwork when two Brexit deadlines had come and gone without the UK leaving, it was not on people’s lips.

Participants certainly didn’t hold back on sharing their views on other topics they weren’t directly asked about. For example I remember being struck in the first focus group by the prominence of austerity as a theme. Participants knew the intended topic was migration but didn’t appear desperate to talk about this. Issues such as low incomes, homelessness and crime often seemed to be uppermost. Few voiced the view that Brexit would address any of these issues, although participants did sometimes blame migrants for overstretched public services. I wonder how they would have responded if we’d asked them?

Interestingly the place where Brexit was more salient was in our focus groups with migrants, some of whom reported an increase in hostility since the EU Referendum, and expressed fears that this would worsen when the UK fully left the EU.

It felt right that the research primarily gave participants the opportunity to talk about what was most pressing for them about local change, whether that was Brexit or not – and our fieldwork research tools show how the questions we asked gave lots of this space. In retrospect, I suspect that the everyday impact of Brexit on local communities hasn’t really been felt yet, except for migrant residents who of course did experience an immediate impact after the referendum. What many longstanding residents felt vast, painful impact from was austerity and industrial decline - much older issues. Our line of questioning allowed us to understand these key issues that constitute the longer-term context of neighbourhoods, which in turn are critical factors in shaping how communities respond to new migration, as identified by the qualitative research report Neighbourhood change and migration in Yorkshire and Humber


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Page last updated: 28/08/2020 07:21:13

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