Many commentators and policy-makers are using the anomaly of the Covid-19 pandemic and the relief of finally seeing Brexit happen to claim that Britain is now ready for a liberalisation of immigration policy. International travel is down, and many people put economic uncertainty ahead of worries about border control. However, this must not be misrepresented as a significant shift in public opinion on mass immigration.
James Forsyth writing in both The Times and The Spectator has argued that now that Britain has left the EU, the British public are no longer concerned about immigration. This is an opportunity according to Mr Forsyth, for a new liberalising of the immigration system that will encourage top-skilled people to come to the UK and boost the economy. His comments have been pre-figured or echoed by others including in The Independent and the Guardian, who say that people are now less hostile to immigration than previously. This of course ignores the fact that the public have never been hostile to immigration and only concerned about its scale and speed.
For example, James Forsyth claims that the number of people who think immigration is the most important issue facing the country is small. But how accurate is this conclusion? What were the questions that those being polled were asked that led to Mr Forsyth’s assertion?
That said, given the complete dominance of the pandemic and its impact on our lives, its daily blanket coverage by the media and the government’s total focus on dealing with it, is it any wonder that other issues, including immigration are not, for the time being, centre-stage in people’s thinking?
Before the pandemic struck, there was the small matter of Brexit, which actually happened. This naturally gave rise to the expectation of the promise to control our borders being kept. All of which was underpinned by tough talk on controlling immigration from the government. In the end, the government’s narrative and promises have proved pretty hollow. When the reality of the massive con-trick played on the electorate becomes ever clearer, people will feel both let-down and deceived. Some may even feel betrayed.
All this said and to go back to James Forsyth’s assertion, there is recent polling evidence to suggest that responses to a variety of related questions reveal a different picture to the one sketched out by Mr Forsyth.
A recent survey by YouGov reveals that when it comes to opinions about the rise in massive immigration over the last decade, people’s views have remained consistently negative. These figures from the end of February 2021 show that 57% of British people think immigration over the last decade has been too high. In July 2019, the figure was 58%, revealing that there has been no real change in attitudes to mass immigration. As of February 2021, 24% think immigration in the last ten years has been about right and 7% think it has been too low.
One reason for this difference in polling data could be the distinction between manageable levels of immigration and mass immigration. If the public believes borders are now being controlled, and they see a temporary reversal of immigration trends due to Covid-19, then this simply shows that British people are welcoming and open to sensible levels of immigration, as they always have been. However, when asked specifically about the trends towards ever-continuing mass immigration, they remain as concerned as they have always been. By and large, our political class, business leaders and proponents of open doors immigration throw all immigration into one category (as they do with ethnicity through the BAME acronym), but subtle nuances in public opinion show that this is not representative of how people think about border control.
Indeed, a recent report by pollsters, when citing recent survey results from the British Social Attitudes survey on immigration, noted that ‘participants became more inclined to back control’ not less (see January 2021 study based on the British Social Attitudes Survey by NatCen and UK in a Changing Europe, p.4).
It added (on p.12): “Even those voters who think that immigration can be beneficial may still feel that Britain should have some control over who comes here and over the conditions attached to their entry and settlement. After all, they may well think that by controlling immigration the country may be better placed to ensure that those who come are indeed those who are most likely to make a positive contribution to the nation’s economic and cultural life.”
General liberalisation of immigration control is not what people want. Other polls conducted just a few years ago showed that 73% backed the government’s then target of reducing net migration levels to less than 100,000. Meanwhile, 70% – 80% want tough policies to deter and tackle illegal immigration and more than 60% say those crossing should not be allowed to settle in the UK (poll for i by Redfield & Wilton Strategies, reported here). Over 60% also say those arriving illegally in this manner should be removed (Ipsos, Autumn 2019).
The public certainly do not want the breakdown in enforcement of the rules that we are currently witnessing (see our summary), nor do they want to see the overwhelming and abuse of the asylum system which cost the taxpayer last year nearly a £1bn. (see our asylum brief). Much has also been made of the Office of Budget Responsibility’s report claiming that Britain’s population could have shrunk by 1.3 million during the Covid pandemic because of an exodus of foreign workers returning home.
This supposed ‘exodus’ combined with the claimed softening of public opinion on immigration is now seen by the commentariat as grounds for an increased liberalisation of the immigration system.
What this ignores is the longer trend which has seen net immigration by non-UK citizens average the equivalent of a new city containing 300,000 people arriving every single year since 2001.
The UK is still adjusting to this transformative period of time in which mass immigration has been allowed, even encouraged, to run rampant in a way never seen before in our history. In such a context, it is not at all surprising that attitudes towards immigration have been altered in a number of cross-cutting ways (as we argued in this paper).
The current moment is an anomaly and cannot be used as the basis for policy going forward. Whatever the media and ministerial class claim, the fact remains that most of the public think immigration has been too high. Analysis of recent polls on the question suggests that around 30 million people in the UK want a reduction, compared with a tiny sliver of the public who want an increase (see our paper). The needs of the country could not be more stark.