The fewer immigrants you know, the more you'll fear them

Boris Johnson was born in New York and therefore fails most people's 'truly British' test
Boris Johnson was born in New York and therefore fails most people's 'truly British' test
Ian Dunt By

There's much to be depressed about in the new British Social Attitudes survey. A staggering 74% of people believe it's important to have been born in Britain to be considered "truly" British. At the same time, people's pride in being British has fallen through the floor, with just 35% saying they are 'very proud' to be British, compared to 43% in 2003. The public are particularly unsympathetic about spousal visas. It seems many have become sufficiently angry about immigration to support couples being split up and children raised by just one parent.

But look a little deeper into the survey and there are reasons for cautious optimism. British attitudes to immigration are increasingly split: well educated, economically and socially advantaged groups are more pro-immigration. The grading is quite clear. Sixty-per cent of graduates think immigration has been good for Britain, the figure drops to 32% for those whose highest qualification is at A-level or equivalent, and just 17% for those with no qualifications.

People who live in London, or know a few migrants, are more pro-immigration. Those who are more aware of policies and people's reasons for immigrating are more pro-immigration.

The further away you are from the impact of immigration the more anti-immigration you tend to be. People who are anti-immigration tend to have views which are furthest away from reality – either in terms of economic performance, current policy or migrant behaviour.


Long-term trends

Despite the ferocious rhetoric around immigration from Ukip and their friends in the tabloid press, opposition to immigration has not actually increased. In 2013, 77% of people want immigration reduced. It's an increase on 1995, when the figure stood at 63%, but is mostly unchanged since 2008. The public's view of immigration is at least stable – it is not getting worse. Things are probably about as bad as they're likely to get.

In fact they will probably get better. The long term demographic trends show the rise of groups who are most sympathetic to immigration and the decline of those who are most hostile.

Age is a factor. A recent survey found 57% of under-34s consider immigration either good or neutral for the economy. Earlier this week, a YouGov survey found eight out of ten people about to vote for the first time were proud of Britain's legacy of offering refuge to those who need it most.

University graduates and professionals, who are typically most pro-immigration, are growing. Unskilled manual workers and those with no qualifications, who are most anti-immigration, are in sharp decline. There are, of course, other reasons to welcome this trend, but on the matter of immigration it is particularly acute: the better you educate someone, the more pro-immigration they become.

No doubt many believe unskilled workers are more anti-immigrant because they are the ones competing with them for jobs, but that is not necessarily the case. The survey suggests it is "those most removed from direct experience of immigration who find it the most threatening".

Londoners, those with mixed heritage and those with migrant friends – in other words, people who actually come into contact with migrants – are overall more positive about immigration's effects. Older voters and those with no migrant friends are the most hostile. Just 17% of those aged over 70 think immigration had a positive impact on Britain's economy, while 53% think it has a negative impact. That compares to 36% to 40% among those aged 19-29. Over half of Londoners think immigration has benefitted Britain's economy – nearly double the figure found elsewhere.

It's also worth keeping a balanced view of current attitudes. While the overall picture is clearly negative, around half the public feel immigration has not had negative economic or cultural effects.

Challenging anti-immigrant views

The survey also offers some hope to those who believe anti-immigrant views can be challenged if we have advocates who are willing to make the case for it, rather than just ape the rhetoric of Ukip.

The relationship between ignorance of reality and anti-immigration belief is very strong.

Researchers tested respondents on whether they were aware of the limit on work permits offered to non-EU migrants. Just under half (45%) answered correctly that it existed, while 42% answered wrongly that it did not. Fourteen per cent didn't know.

Those who were aware of the system were much more positive about the contribution labour migrants make, with 27% saying the benefits of migration outweighed the cost, compared to 13% of those who answered correctly. Twenty five per cent thought non-EU migrants cost more than they contributed, but this compared to 39% who gave the wrong answer.

As the authors say, this could relate to other variables, most obviously education. But it suggests that making people aware that our system is not actually out of control and that there are restrictions in place does lessen concern about immigration. If you challenge anti-immigrant narratives, you can reassure people. Unfortunately, it won't be politicians who do this. The proportion of people who trust government "just about always" or "most of the time" is 17% - down from 38% in 1986.

There are signs people's assessment of immigration is at least partly a result of tabloid hysteria and comments from anti-immigration politicians. Statistics suggest study and work are the two prime motivators in immigration. Asylum is a drop in the ocean. But it is cited much more frequently as a main motive by survey respondents. Welfare is mentioned spontaneously by eight per cent of respondents even when it did not feature on the list of options. That figure rose to 24% when it did.

These assumptions are largely dependent on the respondent's view on immigration. A large majority of those positive about immigration – and a modest majority of those who thought it was neutral – thought work was the primary motivator. Those with negative views typically think the primary motivation is welfare or asylum. Those with the most negative views about migrants are the most likely to have concerns about 'benefit tourism'. Only a tiny minority of those who are positive about immigration feel the same.

In reality, European migrants have to show they are earning at least £149 a week for three months before they can access a range of benefits. There is little evidence of migration imposing major costs on the welfare system, and many academic papers have found migrants are not a drain on the national purse. Actually, they are less likely to claim benefits than native Brits and more likely to work.

This negative fantasy pervades the statistics. People see what they want to see and typically what they want to see is something negative. People have varying views of different immigrant groups, but they tend to over-estimate the prominence of groups they least like.

It's hard to be upbeat about results which so plainly show discomfort with immigration alongside ignorance of migrant intentions or current restrictions.

But there are reasons to be positive. The long-term trends in education, generational attitudes and contact with migrants suggest we have reached the worst point of anti-immigrant sentiment.

And the connection between ignorance and anti-immigrant thinking suggests that there is a point to countering the perpetual anti-immigrant rhetoric of the tabloid press and unscrupulous politicians and commentators. After all, where did people get the impression welfare played such a disproportionate role in immigration from? People did not construct it out of thin air.  When newspapers plaster their front pages with this stuff every day, it has an effect. This effect is consolidated when ministers like Theresa May then make public statements and pass laws which play to this imaginary problem rather than establish the reality.

Forcefully and unapologetically making the economic and cultural case for immigration can change minds. Finding and promoting the truth about migrant intentions and behaviour can make a difference on public opinion. And as the years pass and the minority population of the UK continues to grow, education levels rise, and more and more people come into contact with migrants, the picture should improve.

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