Results from the Transatlantic Trends survey, published today, give a robust insight into what people in Britain think about immigration. The findings are striking, not least because the survey compares British attitudes with those of the Americans, French, Germans, Italians and Spanish.
The central message is that British citizens are deeply concerned about immigration, and are more so than their continental neighbours. In fact, the British are more than twice as likely as any other nationality to consider immigration the most important issue facing the country. (Only the economy and unemployment attracted more votes).
The British are more likely—than any other European nationality—to feel there are too many immigrants in the country. 57 per cent of Britons believed this compared to a Europe-wide average of 42 per cent. There is also evidence that negative attitudes toward immigrants are hardening; while the British are more likely than any other nationality to agree immigration is “more of a problem than opportunity” (68 per cent), they are also more likely to say so today than in 2008. Prominent voices have set out the case for immigration, but it appears few voters are convinced.
This scepticism is clear when you look at attitudes to the economic and cultural impact of immigration. We are more likely than our continental neighbours to think that immigrants are having negative economic effects, whether by taking jobs (58 per cent), bringing down wages (52 per cent) or burdening social services (63 per cent). But we are also the most likely in Europe to think immigrants are negatively affecting our national culture (50 per cent compared to a European average of 35 per cent). As above, we are more likely to hold this view today than we were in 2009.
British scepticism towards immigration extends to integration where, again, we appear the most negative. Of all the nationalities included in the survey, Britons are the least likely to think immigrants are integrating successfully; only 45 per cent think this process is going “well,” while the number who think Muslims are successfully integrating is less than half. In sum—and as the survey points out—the British are consistently the most sceptical about immigration.
But it is since 2001 that these concerns have reached historic levels. Some of this can be traced to a new phase of immigration that started in the late 1990s, following the accession of states such as Poland to the EU in 2004, as well as more liberal policies of the post-1997 Labour governments, as well as often alarmist and profoundly negative coverage of these issues in tabloid media. These attitudes should not be ignored or dismissed by campaign strategists as being irrelevant for election outcomes.
New research by my colleague at the University of Nottingham, Dr Lauren McLaren, suggests that when public concerns over immigration go unresolved, this can lead to a broader erosion of trust in the political system. Put simply, the concerns outlined above are unlikely to diminish, and they may well have an impact beyond the immigration issue itself. Formulating a more coherent and realistic response to them is a vital task, if a difficult one.