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Brexit: History Says Brexit Will Be Beaten

The “Brexit” camp should enjoy its current slight bounce in the polls, for it may not last. If history is any guide, then “Remain” is still heading for victory on June 23. Past referendums in Britain have tended to produce a late move to the status quo. The record from six such contests in the past four decades is striking:

1975 U.K.-wide referendum on the Common Market
 Gallup’s polls during the final five weeks of the campaign showed that support for leaving the Common Market peaked point with two weeks to go — though the lead for “staying in Europe” was still a massive 28 percent. Gallup’s final eve-of-referendum poll put the lead for the status quo at 36 percent (68-32 percent). The result: a 34.4 percent gap (67.2 percent in, 32.8 percent out).

1979 Scottish referendum on devolution
Just over two weeks before the vote, Mori reported a 28 percent lead for the pro-devolution camp (64-36 percent). With one week to go, the margin was 20 percent (60-40 percent). The swing to the status quo accelerated in the final week. Mori’s eve-of-referendum predicted a 50-50 percent outcome. The result: a narrow 51.6-48.4 percent lead for devolution—a margin too small to reach the winning line set by Parliament, which insisted that 40 percent of Scotland’s entire electorate should support devolution; on the day only 33 percent did so.

1979 Welsh referendum on devolution
With three weeks to go, an Abacus/BBC survey said that 58 percent would vote for the status quo and against devolution. By referendum week, that figure had jumped to 75 percent. On the day, 79.7 percent of voters opted to reject a Welsh assembly.

1997 Welsh referendum on devolution
Three weeks before the vote, Beaufort Research showed a majority of almost two-to-one for devolution. The appetite for change receded significantly towards the end of the campaign; but an eve-of-referendum poll by NOP still indicated a 12 percent lead for devolution (56-44 percent). In the event, Wales did vote to set up its new Assembly, but by the narrowest of margins: 50.3-49.7 percent. Support for the status quo had jumped by 16 points in the final three weeks.

2011 U.K. referendum on the voting system
Three weeks before the vote, telephone polls showed an average 12 percent lead for the status quo (46-44 percent), while online polls showed the two sides neck-and-neck (49 percent for the Alternative Vote, 51 percent for first-past-the-post). With ten days to go, support for the status quo had climbed to 60 percent in telephone polls and 57 percent in online polls. The final online polls showed a 22 percent lead for first-past-the-post (61-39 percent), while the final telephone polls put the margin at 34 percent (67-33 percent). The result: 67.9 percent for the status quo, and 32.1 percent for change—a victory margin of 35.8 percent.

2014 Scottish referendum on independence
The u-turn pattern here was even more dramatic than in the 1975 referendum on the Common Market. For much of the spring and summer, ahead of the September 18 referendum, support for independence hovered around 40 percent. Then, during August and early September, the appetite for independence grew, and with around two weeks to go, three polls by different companies showed the race neck-and-neck.

Read more: History Says Brexit Will Be Beaten

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