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[Johnny Runge] Are Britons really softening on immigration?

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Published : Oct. 22, 2018 - 17:17

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In the United Kingdom, the new conventional wisdom is that attitudes toward immigration are softening. A headline in the Financial Times this July stated that “negativity about immigration falls sharply in Brexit Britain.” Likewise, a recent report by the UK Migration Advisory Committee surmises that “the UK may find itself in the position of ending free movement just as public concern falls about the migration flows that result from it.”

This is notable, considering that it has been only two years since a widespread public backlash against uncontrolled immigration delivered a victory to “Leave” in the Brexit referendum. Moreover, there have been no major changes to immigration policy. Britain is still in the European Union, and EU citizens are still free to move to the UK. And though migration levels have dropped somewhat, they remain extraordinarily high by historic standards, far exceeding the government’s net immigration target of “below tens of thousands.”

Still, opinion polls have undeniably changed. Survey respondents are now more positive about the economic and cultural effects of immigration, and fewer people now name immigration as one of the most important issues facing the UK. Moreover, this trend appears across the political and social spectrum, and equally among Remainers and Leavers. And while it has actually been observable since the turn of the millennium, it has gained momentum since the Brexit vote.

The apparent disconnect between the attitudes that fueled Brexit and the attitudes that show up in opinion polls cries out for investigation. Until we understand what’s driving these unexpected changes, we need to be mindful of how survey findings are presented, and how they inform policymaking decisions.

To that end, we at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research recently assessed the available evidence of Britons’ social attitudes toward immigration over time. In a new study, we show that there are several possible explanations for the extraordinary shifts in the polls on this issue.

For starters, the UK is finally having a conversation about migration. And while this conversation has often been confrontational and dominated by extreme views, it may have prompted some people to consider the pros, rather than just the cons. After all, there is ample evidence to show that immigration has benefited the UK economically.

Similarly, since the Brexit vote, the debate over the rights of EU citizens already residing in the UK, along with the recent controversy over the so-called Windrush generation of immigrants from the Caribbean, has attracted public support for migrants. These conversations seem to have tapped into people’s sense of fairness. Previously, the principle of fairness had been used against migrants, such as when asylum seekers are accused of trying to exploit the British welfare system.

An alternative explanation is that some Britons have modified their views after witnessing an overwhelmingly negative public debate on immigration in recent years. Previously, even slight skepticism toward migration was perceived to be anti-immigrant. But the realization that others hold more extreme views may have led people to see themselves as more positively inclined toward immigration. They have adjusted their responses to survey questions accordingly.

Similarly, some immigration skeptics, or those belonging to the “anxious middle,” may feel misrepresented or misinterpreted in a public debate dominated by extreme views. If so, they may have moderated their position on immigration in recent survey responses. Alternatively, there may be a “reassurance effect” among immigration skeptics if they feel that their concerns are already being addressed. By the same token, immigration liberals may have been galvanized by the Brexit vote and the rise of the nationalist UK Independence Party in recent years.

Lastly, the image of immigrants that survey respondents have in mind may have changed in recent years, now that EU migration and the Windrush generation have dominated the media coverage. When answering survey questions, the average Briton may be thinking more about these cohorts than, say, asylum seekers and refugees fleeing from conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. In other words, a change in people’s idea of the average immigrant may have made them more supportive of immigration generally.

Many other factors could explain the shift in the polls on this issue. But the change in survey responses does not necessarily imply a softening of public attitudes toward immigration. Rather, it tells us that our knowledge about public sentiment needs to improve. As British Future’s National Conversation on Immigration and NIESR’s own work with focus groups in Kent have shown, people’s views on migration are nuanced and multifaceted.

As British policymakers set out to design a new post-Brexit immigration policy, it is very important that we continue to develop our understanding of why people hold and express the views that they do. Simply assuming that we already know the answer is not an option.

Johnny Runge
Johnny Runge researches social policy at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. He is a co-author of the recent report “Post-Brexit Immigration Policy: Reconciling Public Attitudes with Economic Evidence.”

(Project Syndicate)