By Johnny Runge/London
In the United Kingdom, the new conventional wisdom is that attitudes toward immigration are softening. A headline in the Financial Times this July stated that “negativity about immigration falls sharply in Brexit Britain.” Likewise, a recent report by the UK Migration Advisory Committee surmises that “the UK may find itself in the position of ending free movement just as public concern falls about the migration flows that result from it.”
This is notable, considering that it has been only two years since a widespread public backlash against uncontrolled immigration delivered a victory to “Leave” in the Brexit referendum. Moreover, there have been no major changes to immigration policy. Britain is still in the European Union, and EU citizens are still free to move to the UK. And though migration levels have dropped somewhat, they remain extraordinarily high by historic standards, far exceeding the government’s net immigration target of “below tens of thousands.”
Still, opinion polls have undeniably changed. Survey respondents are now more positive about the economic and cultural effects of immigration, and fewer people now name immigration as one of the most important issues facing the UK. Moreover, this trend appears across the political and social spectrum, and equally among Remainers and Leavers. And while it has actually been observable since the turn of the millennium, it has gained momentum since the Brexit vote.
The apparent disconnect between the attitudes that fuelled Brexit and the attitudes that show up in opinion polls cries out for investigation. Until we understand what’s driving these unexpected changes, we need to be mindful of how survey findings are presented, and how they inform policymaking decisions.
To that end, we at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) recently assessed the available evidence of Britons’ social attitudes toward immigration over time. In a new study, we show that there are several possible explanations for the extraordinary shifts in the polls on this issue.
For starters, the UK is finally having a conversation about migration. And while this conversation has often been confrontational and dominated by extreme views, it may have prompted some people to consider the pros, rather than just the cons. After all, there is ample evidence to show that immigration has benefited the UK economically.
* Johnny Runge researches social policy at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR). He is a co-author of the recent report Post-Brexit Immigration Policy: Reconciling Public Attitudes with Economic Evidence.