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The UK joined the EU in 1973 and voted to leave in 2016

Cornwall EU leave voters wanted to 'take back control' and express concern about immigration, new research shows

Leave voters in Cornwall wanted to exit the EU to “take back control” and express concern about immigration – even though most said the movement of people across the continent had not caused issues for them, a new survey suggests.

A total of 56.5 per cent of people in Cornwall voted to Leave the EU in 2016, yet the area has received some of the highest levels of EU structural funding in England.

There have long been campaigns for Cornwall to have more political autonomy, but hardly anyone who took part in the research said they voted to Leave to get more power for politicians in the county.

The most frequent reason given, found in 79 responses to the survey, was the UK had lost control to the EU, and there was need to regain it. 

Immigration was mentioned 77 times, very often paired with concerns about pressure on public services and loss of control over law-making. Comments included “uncontrolled immigration, loss of sovereignty” or ‘being told by the EU how to run our country”, “the costs of being part of the EU – could be better used in this country, immigration”. People mentioned wanting a “strong” Britain, 16 of the 21 people that raised the issue of public services, also mentioned immigration, or a need to control borders. 

However only six people said immigration was a problem in Cornwall, and only five said the issue was important to themselves and their families.  These numbers doubled when people were asked about the impact on the UK, and 41 people gave it as a reason why they voted to Leave the EU.

The research was carried out as part of an Economic and Social Research Council Impact Accelerator project to understand why regions with high levels of European Union Structural Funding support voted disproportionately to Leave.

Dr Joanie Willett, from the University of Exeter carried out carried out three focus groups with 15 participants, as well as nine one-to-one interviews, and a questionnaire seven to ten months after the referendum, to understand the key factors behind the result.  All participants had voted Leave.

The qualitative survey, which had largely open questions, was shared on social media, and email lists of business, local government, and cultural organisations. It was open for a 4-week period, and received 186 responses from Leave voters.

Dr Willett said: “Our research indicates people voted to Leave the EU because they felt like they were supporting their nation, and that would protect them, rather than a desire for stronger say in what happens in their communities. People didn’t ask for political decision making to be more decentralised, but this could be a useful response to the concerns people had about having more control.”

Only three survey responses mentioned voting Leave because it would allow more local control over decision-making.

Democracy was mentioned in 44 responses, membership of the EU being a waste of money in 43, wanting to create a strong Britain in 35, sovereignty in 18, the economy in 13, fishing and farming in 10, and freedom/independence/autonomy in 8.  The European Court of Justice received six mentions, two people made reference to Germany and World War Two.

A total of 47 people used highly emotive language, for example: “sovereignty – not to be elected by an unelected foreign elite”, but most people described their decision to vote Leave in more restrained terms. This included comments such as “Europe had too much hold on legislation”

Dr Willett said: “Many people who took part in the study wanted a strong affective economy, good public services and accessible jobs. They seem to have linked a Leave vote with expressing concerns about the association between immigration and the economy. These issues don’t appear to be grounded in people’s daily experiences.”

Date: 21 May 2021

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