Britain has become increasingly liberal in recent decades, including on race equality, but has never embraced mass immigration and never been asked what it thought about it—until nowby David Goodhart / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Brexit vote was evidently not just about immigration. But if there is a paramount reason for Britain’s shock decision to leave the European Union it is the seething discontent of a large slice of the public created by 20 years of historically unprecedented immigration and the insouciant response of the political class to this change—one that never appeared in an election manifesto and was never chosen by anyone.
The consensus of establishment opinion over the past generation—minus several tabloid newspapers—has ranged from a happy embrace of the change to a belief that it is an uncontrollable force of nature. Yet around 75 per cent of the population (including more than half of ethnic minority citizens) has consistently told pollsters that immigration is too high with the salience of the issue rising to the top of the list of national concerns in recent years. Immigration is also a metaphor for the larger disruptions of social and economic change, especially for those who have done least well out of them. In the quiet of their living rooms most people have quite nuanced views on different forms of immigration and tend to be more positive about the local story, yet immigration overall still stands for “change as loss.”
This should be no surprise. Large-scale immigration is always and everywhere unpopular—Canada is a partial exception, where mass (albeit highly selective) immigration has become part of the country’s national identity.
It is a basic human instinct to be wary of strangers and outsiders. In rich, individualistic societies, tribal and ethnic instincts may have abated but they have not disappeared completely and have been supplemented by anxiety about sharing economic space and public goods with outsiders. Yet Britain has not become a country of angry nativists. Indeed, the growing opposition to immigration in recent years has been accompanied by increasing liberalism on almost all cultural matters. As recently as the early 1980s, about 80 per cent of the population thought same-sex relationships were wrong; now a large majority support gay marriage. The number of white British people objecting to someone of a minority race marrying into their family or being their boss is now in single figure percentages.