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Research Shows The Public Is More Liberal When It Comes To Immigration Than The Home Office

In recent years, we have all seen stories, cases, and policies which remind us that the Government has been pursuing a hostile approach to immigration. Indeed, anyone who reads British newspapers on a regular basis would be forgiven for thinking that the British people are fundamentally against immigration, but is this so? Recent research on British social attitudes to post-Brexit immigration policy has provided some useful insight into how the British people truly view immigration, and this suggests that the Home Office is out of touch.

What Was the Research Trying to Establish?

The research by NatCen on British social attitudes towards ‘Post-Brexit public policy’, asked the question, “How should Britain use its newly acquired sovereignty?” It further explained the purpose of the study, “Once the UK has left the EU single market and customs union the UK government will acquire responsibility for a range of policy areas that have until now been subject to collective EU decisions. This chapter looks at attitudes towards some of the key decisions that the UK will now make in some of these areas…. It both assesses attitudes among the public as a whole and examines to what extent ‘Leavers’ hold different views from ‘Remainers’”.

Research of this nature can provide a useful understanding of how people in the UK view immigration, as opposed to the often-entrenched viewpoints expressed in the media. Even with this research, it is easy to see negative stances (for example this research shows more people want an end to free movement than those who do not) being taken by those in our society, but by digging a little deeper, it is possible to see that most people have more liberal views.

What Does the Research Tell Us About British Attitudes To Immigration Post-Brexit?

In some respects, the research certainly reinforces the view that immigration is a vexed issue in the UK, but there are some hints that British people hold some liberal views on the matter. For example, it is perhaps not surprising that comparing views on immigration from France, Poland, Pakistan, and Australia, more British people favour making it ‘relatively easy’ for Australians (35%) to come to Britain than nationals of Pakistan (15%). But, for all countries, most said that it should be neither easy nor difficult for immigrants to come to the UK, and there was little support for making it relatively difficult. This may go against the beliefs of many who would assume that British people would want to make it challenging for immigrants to come to the UK, this is not so; the majority favour a balanced approach.

Another interesting area is in relation to high vs low skilled immigration. According to the research, “there is plenty of polling that suggests voters are much warmer towards high-skill migration than they are to low-skilled (Blinder and Richards, 2020; Ford et al., 2012)”. They also point out though that “there is a risk that any description of potential migrants that refers to ‘high skill’ and ‘low skill’ is almost bound to evince a more favourable reaction to the former than to the latter. People will nearly always prefer more of a desirable quality such as skill over less”.

Their research, however, suggests that matters are not this simple. It is not just a case that British people think skilled = good, and low skilled = bad. To make this point, they asked respondents whether doctors, care workers, hotel cleaners, and bankers should be ranked low or high priority, or neither. Unsurprisingly, 80% said doctors should be a high priority. What was perhaps more of a surprise was that 60% felt care workers and 18% of bankers should have high priority. This suggests that people are not just looking at this from the single dimension of skill, but other preconceptions come into play. Whether many did not see care work as low paid, or they felt it was something that there were not enough domestic workers for, and hence immigrants should be allowed to come to fill such roles, is not clear.

As the study report explains, “It would seem that voters are inclined to consider the perceived ‘social worth’ of an occupation as well as the skills it requires when considering who should be admitted into the UK. The reputation of the banking profession took a severe knock in the wake of the 2008-9 financial crash, and perhaps we should not be surprised that this is one highly skilled occupation voters do not feel a need to enlarge with migrant labour (Park et al., 2013)”. In contrast, it appears that the British public does appreciate the contribution of immigrants in care roles.

What this suggests is that while the Government is drafting new post-Brexit policies and trying to get trade deals over the line in readiness for 2021, they don’t necessarily reflect the views of the public, which are more nuanced than saying no to free movement and no to immigration. As the study concludes, “Voters – on both sides of the Brexit divide – do not necessarily regard skill or income as important a determinant as to who should be allowed into the UK as current government proposals do”.

Final Words

While the research by NatCen continues to show the divide, which has ruptured the country when it comes to immigration and the EU, it also reveals that the British public may be somewhat more generous than the Home Office when it comes to how hard immigration should be. Furthermore, they don’t see everything from the perspective of skilled and low-skilled, rather the valued contribution of migrants. Let us hope these more liberal views continue to build in the next year, and the Home Office start to listen.


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