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Has Brexit made us a more tolerant nation?

Immigration is climbing to new heights and the British people seem intensely relaxed about it. Is a remarkable change in attitudes underway?
May 12, 2022

Brexit did not have a single cause, but immigration was the primary one. The Blair government’s decision to allow immediate free movement from countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 supercharged the issue. In 1997, just 2 per cent of people told the pollster Ipsos MORI that immigration was one of the main issues facing the country. By December 2007 it was 46 per cent. This gave Ukip, a party that had been fruitlessly campaigning against the EU for some time, a platform. It came second in the 2009 European elections. 

By 2015, immigration from the EU was outstripping that from the rest of the world and David Cameron had been forced into promising a referendum to fend off the threat to his right, with Ukip regularly polling above 15 per cent. That September, concern about immigration reached its highest-ever level: 56 per cent. Cameron failed to get any concessions on free movement from the EU, which left Remain campaigners with no good answers on the issue. 

Since Leave won, though, something quite remarkable has happened. Immigration initially dropped but then started rising again. There was a brief pandemic blip in 2020, but 2021 saw levels rise to new heights—well above pre-referendum numbers. There are fewer people coming from the EU but they have been more than replaced by non-EU visas for skilled workers and students. Arrivals from India, in particular, have rocketed. 

And yet concern about immigration has plummeted. In April, just 6 per cent of people said it was a top issue. It’s dropped off Ipsos MORI’s top 10 list completely. It started dropping even before the referendum and hasn’t stopped since.

This is problematic for a number of narratives. It seems to completely contradict the right-wing populist line of Farage and friends, who insisted the British would never accept high levels of net migration. But it also suggests Remainers who blamed the Brexit vote on barely disguised racism were wrong too. Non-white immigration has significantly increased and no one seems all that fussed. 

So what’s going on? The pessimistic answer, for liberals at least, is that this is a temporary blip caused by the lack of right-wing press focus on the issue, and the utter uselessness of the post-Farage populist parties. Therefore it would only require a sustained effort from rabble-rousers to force the blame for our various national woes back on to migrants.

It’s possible—the salience of the issue has gone up and down over the decades—but it seems unlikely. First, because the right-wing papers have tried to push the issue with regards to illegal migration via small boats, panicking the government into a truly foul plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, but that still hasn’t led to increased public concern. 

Arrivals from India have rocketed—yet concern about immigration has plummeted

Another possibility is that the Brexit vote really was about control—that people never minded immigration, just the fact we didn’t get to choose who arrived under free movement. Perhaps an Indian doctor or nurse is more welcome than a Romanian carpenter. I suspect there is an element of this. The Hong Kong relocation scheme has been almost entirely unopposed. Skilled immigration has always polled better than free movement.

Notably, people have become more aware of the way in which immigration supports the health and social care sector. In April, YouGov found just 7 per cent of people saying fewer migrants should be allowed to come in to work in the NHS, with 52 per cent wanting more. 

But I don’t think that’s the whole picture either. There also seems to have been a real liberalisation in attitudes towards immigration, which goes beyond the control issue, in quite a short space of time. There was very significant majority support for taking more Afghan refugees after Britain and the US abandoned the country to the Taliban (52 per cent vs 29 per cent); and even more so for Ukrainian refugees (65 per cent vs 22 per cent). We have even seen a softening of attitudes towards asylum seekers arriving by boat—with 56 per cent now saying they have sympathy for them against 39 per cent who don’t. And this is a group of migrants over whom the government has clearly lost control.

There are several plausible reasons for this trend. The first is simply that society is liberalising across the board, due in part to the ever-increasing number of people getting a degree, which we know reduces authoritarian attitudes. The second is the ever-greater representation of immigrants, and the children of immigrants, in public life. Thirdly, broadcast media has got better at letting migrants tell their own stories. The British Future think tank found that net support for the statement “Britain should protect refugees fleeing war and persecution” rose from 41 to 58 per cent after participants watched a 60-second clip of refugees talking about their experiences.

It’s entirely possible we could see attitudes change again; there is still a substantial minority that wants immigrant numbers reduced. As the economy deteriorates, migrants could again be made scapegoats. But it seems more likely that while the salience of immigration will continue to rise and fall, it won’t ever again reach pre-referendum levels. Perhaps the great irony of Brexit is that it has made us a more open, tolerant nation.