Immigration: polarising British society?

Immigration: polarising British society?

Penny Young, NatCen Social Research

Unless you’re a hermit, or your head is buried in the sand, you’ll have clocked by now that a large majority of British public wants to see immigration reduced – three quarters do – although this isn’t something new. The long running British Social Attitudes Survey from NatCen Social Research finds a number of ways in which the British public is negative about immigration. On balance, more are negative than positive about the impact of immigration on the economy; and on the cultural life of Britain. The 2014 report also finds a considerable fall, from 40% in 2003 to 27% a decade later, in the number of people who believe legal immigrants who are not British citizens should have the same legal rights as British citizens. A a clear majority want migrants from the EU to wait three years before being able to claim benefits.   This shift demonstrates the challenge for politicians – still wrestling with how to deal with a decade of hugely increased net inward migration – whose hands are tied because of the EU’s commitment to free movement of citizens. It is therefore not surprising that we have also seen the increased popularity of UKIP and frustration with the EU itself.

But this year’s British Social Attitudes chapter on immigration (Ford and Heath, 2014) also reveals three key things politicians should ponder as they consider how to lead the debate and respond to public concern about immigration.

First, views are polarised among the British public, and no more so than by education. Sixty per cent of graduates think immigration has had beneficial economic consequences for Britain the same is true of 32 per cent of those whose highest qualification is at A level or equivalent, and just 17 per cent of those with no qualifications at all. There is also a geographical divide, with 54% of Londoners taking the view that immigration is good for the economy compared with 28% of people around the rest of the country.

Second, politicians have not succeeded in conveying the dynamics and rules of the immigration system to the public, and there is a good deal of misunderstanding.   The public significantly underestimates the importance of migrants coming to Britain to study – in fact as many people come to study as to seek work. Given this level of misunderstanding, it’s perhaps not surprising that as many as one quarter believe migration is driven by a desire to claim benefits. What’s more, most people do not know about the controls already in place to manage migration from beyond the EU. Even though a points based immigration system designed to favour skilled migrants was introduced in 2008, two fifths of people (42%) say that the UK does not have a points based system governing migration from outside the EU and 14% say they don’t know if there is one.

Third, and this is something that politicians really cannot do much about: people with migrant heritage, and those with migrant friends (all of whom are more likely to have regular direct contact with migrants) have more positive than negative views about immigration’s effects. The most intensely negative views are found among the oldest voters, and those with no migrant friends.

So the story of attitudes to immigration is one of discontent, polarisation and misunderstanding. Even if immigration could be successfully reduced, as many people would wish, we would still have a society where some people are more relaxed and others feel negative, and where attitudes are highly correlated with factors such as education, social status, geography, and familiarity with migrants.

Politicians can do little to change these dynamics, and have the tricky task of talking about immigration in ways that do not alienate one constituency or another. Part of the answer lies in correcting misunderstandings. But addressing the concerns of the less well qualified will take more than this – and at heart, may depend on improving their life chances as much as addressing concerns about immigration.


Penny Young is Director of NatCen Social Research.