Last week, the results of the British Attitudes Survey were published. Here, Professor Rob Ford who authored the survey’s chapter on immigration, looks at what the results mean for attitudes and potential policies around immigration.
- There has been a sharp increase in the share of Brits who see both the economic and labour market impacts of immigration as positive
- There is enduring concern over the impact of immigration on cultural life in Britain
- The public is deeply divided about immigration, by age, education, class, heritage, social trust and by economic insecurity
- Political leadership is now needed to build some form of consensus but compromises risk antagonising both sides in an extremely polarised debate
- The political parties should lay out in full the Brexit options that are really on offer, debate the costs and benefits of these, and explain what they think is in Britain’s best interests
The newly released BSA report on the annual British Attitudes Survey reveals some wide-ranging and interesting trends, from signs of moving back in favour of wanting more tax and spend and greater redistribution of income, to record proportions of people being comfortable with same-sex relationships, pre-marital sex and abortion. But the areas that show the deepest divisions in society are around Brexit and immigration.
The general trends
On the whole, British people do not have unusually negative views on immigration; that was the case in 2002, but since then we have seen one of the largest positive shifts in attitudes towards immigration.
There has been a sharp increase since 2002 in the share of Brits who see both the economic and labour market impacts of immigration as positive. The proportion of respondents judging immigration to be good for the British economy rose from 27% to 40%, and the percentage saying immigration creates jobs rose from 22% to 32%. However, these rises are from a low base, so even after a significant positive swing, immigration enthusiasts barely outnumber sceptics on overall economic impact, and in 2014 slightly more people still see immigration as threatening to jobs than see it as an engine of job creation.
In 2014, less people worried about immigration in relation crime than in 2002, but this still leaves 50% of people who think crime is worsened by immigration. People are also more supportive of many or some migrants from different ethnic groups to them, and while there was a small increase in people also wanting ‘none’ from Europe, this is still a minority overall.
Where there is enduring concern though, is the impact of immigration on cultural life in Britain. Yet even here, the negative change in attitudes is relatively modest given the scale of change. The largest inflow of migrants in British history has not produced a general negative change in the public mood about migration’s effects.
Selection is an area where we have seen big changes – British demands for greater selection of migrants by education, language & skills have risen significantly, with a 16% increase in people saying it’s important for immigrants to have good educational qualifications AND speak English AND have work skills that Britain needs. At the same time, the percentage of people wanting immigrants to be white or of a Christian background has significantly decreased, perhaps matching the more socially liberal values we see reflected in other areas of the report,
It is worth noting though, that these questions were asked well before the prominent discussions of immigration surrounding the EU referendum, which may have changed views. And although there has been remarkably little change in views about migration levels, these are based on somewhat vague options (‘many, some few or none’).
The real action is beneath the headline numbers though; the public is deeply divided about immigration, by age, education, class, heritage, social trust and by economic insecurity. Almost all of those divides are growing.
On nearly every measure we find gaps of 9-30% in views between the social groups which are most positive about migration and those which are most negative. Majorities of 18-29 year olds support allowing “many” or “some” migrants from each group asked about, while majority support from the 70+ group for “many” or “some” migrants only extends to those of the same ethnic group.
This is an incredibly polarising issue and the likelihood is that these divides are even deeper now, post-EU referendum and 2017 General Election which both revealed a polarised society. Britain is not unique in this; almost all European countries are deeply divided about immigration, but it seems that British divides are deeper & have grown more over the past decade or so.
The political challenge
This polarisation means views on some aspects of immigration come with very little middle ground: people are increasingly either strongly pro-immigration or strongly anti. This creates a political challenge, as offering moderate options designed to appeal to the middle ground can in some cases end up antagonising both sides by compromising on issues they feel strongly about.
Particularly after the EU referendum and 2017 general election results, compromises on immigration policy seem to be desperately needed if we are to heal some of the divisions. While the public are amenable to compromise in many areas, the polarisation of the debate has made building support for compromise harder.
However, all of this is based on 2014 data only released now; Brexit and the surrounding debates are likely to have changed much of this. We will have to see how Brexit and its aftermath have changed attitudes. Fewer voters now name immigration as a most important problem, but I suspect many of the underlying attitudes may be even more polarised now, with the divisive debate over Brexit further hardening positions.
With a minority government, two years of Brexit negotiations in front of us and public emotions around this issue still running high, it’s now more important than ever for our politicians to show some leadership and try to build a public consensus on the next steps for Britain’s immigration policies.
Brexit is a unique opportunity in this regard, as the trade off between immigration policy and economic access to the European Union is at the heart of the negotiation process. The parties should take this opportunity to lay out in full the options that are really on offer, debate the costs and benefits of these, and explain what they think is in Britain’s best interests. This won’t end public polarisation over immigration, but may help channel it into a more productive discussion of the issue.