Britain’s Complex Divide: Understanding Attitudes Towards Immigration

“Closer investigation into public attitudes on immigration reveals a much more complex picture than the binary one associated with Remainers and Leavers.”

Of the slim majority who voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum, 68 per cent gave ‘the number of immigrants coming to Britain’ as a key driver behind their vote. It seemed therefore inevitable that ongoing hostility towards immigrants would lead to plans to implement harsher policies in the wake of Brexit – as, for example, the government’s White Paper in 2018. 

The ‘hostile environment’ campaigns of ‘Go Home’ vans and the shocking removal of British nationality from so many of the Windrush generation may reflect undeniable antagonism in recent years, but closer investigation into public attitudes on immigration reveals a much more complex picture than the binary one associated with Remainers and Leavers.

The Brexit Effect

According to a five-wave longitudinal study carried out by Ipsos MORI between 2015 and 2016, attitudes towards immigrants have actually softened in recent years. The proportions of the British public believing immigration to have a positive impact has increased to 46 per cent (up from 35 per cent in May 2015), while the proportion of those regarding its effects as negative has decreased to 34 per cent. 

The salience of immigration as the ‘most important issue’ facing the British public has also decreased within the same timeframe. Unsurprisingly, during the period between June 2015 and June 2016 – the year including the global refugee crisis and leading up to the referendum –those giving immigration as the most important issue were at a consistent high (56 per cent), but that figure fell, in December 2017, to 21 per cent, dropping behind public anxieties towards Europe/the EU and the NHS.

Source: Ipsos MORI

Despite this, immigration remains a clear concern for the British public, 60 per cent of whom still want to see immigration numbers reduced, according to the aforementioned Ipsos MORI study. 

As one would imagine, hostility towards immigrants is greatest among Leave voters. However, the level of hostility varies depending on the origin of the immigrant in question. Immigrants from white, English-speaking, Christian countries – such as those from Australia – have the greatest support from both Leavers and Remainers. Immigrants from white (but not English-speaking) Christian countries receive the next-greatest support, though here the divide widens, with 61 per cent of Remainers happy to allow ‘some’ or ‘many’ Polish immigrants to live in the UK while only 25 per cent of leavers have the same attitude. Yet immigrants from countries that are neither ‘white’, nor English-speaking, nor ‘Christian’ have the lowest support of all. For example, only 45 per cent of Remainers and 15 per cent of Leavers would welcome migrants from Pakistan.

The Salience of Age

Age is a demographic characteristic that exhibits a strong correlation with attitudes towards immigration. According to a YouGov poll for British Future, 18–24 year olds are more accepting of and less concerned about immigration than any other age group: 45 per cent of young people would vote to reduce net migration to zero, a significantly lower figure than 69 per cent of the overall population.

Setting millennials apart from their parents, increasing levels of globalisation and cosmopolitanism across Britain makes younger generations far more likely to integrate with individuals from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Young people are more likely to view immigration as economically beneficial to society and view ethnic diversity as a key component of ‘Britishness’, in comparison to older generations, who view national identity as synonymous with Englishness.

The Immigration Picture in Scotland

There are interesting comparisons to be made between Scottish and English attitudes towards immigration. The two nations exhibit very different behaviours at the ballot box, with those north of the border demonstrating consistent support for progressive, left-leaning policies. In contrast, England as a whole tends to be notably more conservative. With this in mind, it can be understood why Scotland is associated with more positive views towards immigration. 

The SNP-led Scottish government assert that immigration is essential in order for Scotland to remain economically competitive. Scotland’s demography is somewhat unique- its dwindling working age population and low birth rate result in notable labour market shortages. Increasing the inflow of migrants has been touted as a means of counteracting this. There is a growing belief that control over immigration should be devolved to Holyrood, as this would enable Scotland to shape policy in accordance with their needs and objectives. At present, the £30,000 salary threshold and need for a job offer from a sponsored employer makes skilled migrants difficult to attract. Scottish public opinion towards skilled immigration in particular is positive- something plausibly borne out of the economic challenges faced by the country. Taking this into account, there is a degree of harmony between Scottish government proposals and public opinion in this regard.

It is therefore apparent why England and Scotland’s respective populations are thought to substantially differ in their attitudes towards immigration. Yet curiously, closer analysis reveals a remarkable degree of similarity between the two nations. According to research from NatCen, 46 per cent of those in England believe that immigration has a positive impact on the economy, a viewpoint held by 47 per cent of those in Scotland. Further demonstrating the likeness of opinions on both sides of the border, an identical percentage stated that they believe immigration is culturally beneficial. What emerges from the research is that- whilst geographic location is important- other demographic traits are more accurate indicators of stance on immigration. One such trait has already been discussed- age. Younger generations in both Scotland and England exhibited far more positivity towards the impact of immigration than their older counterparts.

Source: NatCen

The outcome of the referendum suggests universal hostility towards immigrants in the UK, but the differentiation of attitudes is dependent on a multitude of factors, from demographic differences to geographical location. Understanding the complexities and subtleties of attitudes towards immigration across the country is of monumental importance; it will help facilitate a healthier relationship with a subject matter that is steeped in division.

Maddie Grounds and Cameron Boyle are content writers for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors.

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