British Attitudes to Immigration

Published 4 October 2011 / By COMPAS Communications

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What we know about overall attitudes to immigration
Even though the latest polls of the British population on attitudes to immigration can grab headlines, the results can be numbingly repetitive.  It is well known by now that a solid majority in Britain say they would like to see immigration reduced.  (The number typically ranges from 60% to 80% in different polls, depending on the precise question asked, the choices respondents are offered, and random factors inherent in any sample survey.)  Immigration is also one of the most salient issues for the British public, and has been so for most of the 2000’s.

This opposition to the arrival of immigrants in the UK is far from new.  Concerns about “New Commonwealth” immigration prompted the British Election Study (BES) to begin questioning the public about immigration as far back as 1964.  From the beginning of immigration as a topic of survey research, the overwhelming majority of people in Britain have agreed that there are too many immigrants in the UK.  In the mid-1960’s, opposition to immigration registered between 80% and 90% of those polled.

Interestingly enough, in that era the issues of immigration and race were so deeply intertwined that the BES did not ask this question of racial minorities (or “coloured respondents” in the terminology used then).  Nowadays, surveys do ask these questions of foreign-born and ethnic minority—it turns out that on aggregate, foreign-born and minority respondents are less likely to oppose immigration, but are hardly a pro-immigration monolith either.  In 2009-2010 Home Office Citizenship Survey data, about half of foreign-born and ethnic minority respondents said that immigration should be reduced.

Although the belief that there is too much immigration goes back to the 1960’s, the consistently high level of political salience is much more recent.  Prior to 2000 immigration rarely registered as one of the issues of greatest public concern (according to Ipsos MORI’s long-standing monthly polling series), but since then it has ranked consistently in the top five.  At its peak in December 2007, 46% of respondents named immigration (or race relations) among the most important issues facing Britain.  Since then, this figure has declined, partly because the economy rocketed to the top of the list with the 2008 credit crunch and subsequent slump.

Who opposes immigration?
The belief that there is too much immigration is so widespread that it can be found in virtually every sub-group of the British population.  Still, some groups are especially likely to oppose immigration.  There is some correlation with education and income levels, but even in the most educated and highest earning sub-groups, a majority support less immigration.  Similarly, opposition to immigration does not run as high among London residents as in the rest of the country (even among UK-born white London residents), but still a majority believe immigration levels are too high.

Sources of news are also correlated with attitudes to immigration, although without further research we cannot say if media use causes people’s views to change, or if people simply select news sources that reflect their views.  Nonetheless, the correlations are fairly striking – readers of tabloids and local newspapers, and viewers of ITV news are more likely than others to prefer reducing immigration, and most often would like to see it reduced “a lot” rather than “a little.”  But clear majorities of broadsheet readers and BBC TV news viewers are also in favour of reduced immigration, though less strongly than tabloid readers and ITV viewers.  Among those getting their news from the internet, SkyNews site users stood out as especially strongly opposed to immigration.  On the other hand, only a minority of those who most frequently used the Guardian website were in favour of reducing immigration.

(All of these findings from the Home Office Citizenship Survey can be accessed in the Migration Observatory’s “Create Your own Chart” feature.  See, for example, charts on attitudes by media user.)

What explains these attitudes
At least three basic explanations of attitudes toward migration have been researched extensively.

  • Contact theory holds that sustained positive contact (i.e. friendships) with members of other ethnic, religious, racial, or national groups produce more positive attitudes toward members of that group.
  • Group conflict theory suggests that migrants or minority groups can appear to threaten the interests, identities, or status of the majority (as a group), and that those who feel this sense of threat most acutely will be most likely to oppose migration.
  • Economic competition theories suggest that opposition to migration will come from native workers who compete with migrants with similar skill sets, or (conversely) from wealthier natives who feel (or perceive) a financial burden for tax-payers if migrants use public services such as hospitals, schools.

Evidence is generally strong for contact theory, but it does not really account for opposition to immigration, it only suggests that this attitude can be changed by friendships across group lines.

Group conflict theory has a great deal of support in the academic literature, but it leads to further debate about the nature of group conflict: is it more “realistic” (i.e. involving competition for scarce resources), or is it more “symbolic.” In this latter version, group conflict is more closely related to nationalism and to particular sense of national British identity that may feel threatened by large-scale immigration.

Finally, economic competition theory has found inconsistent support in the literature.  Perceptions of one’s own economic security and of migrants’ impact on jobs and wages do seem closely related to anti-migrant attitudes. But these perceptions are themselves only loosely to individuals’ actual economic position.  So, perhaps surprisingly to many, it is not clear that economic factors are actually driving attitudes.

Ongoing research
To further understanding of public attitudes to immigration, the Migration Observatory has recently conducted a survey of 1000-person sample of the resident adult population of Great Britain, through polling firm Ipsos MORI.  The survey is meant not to challenge any of the above, but produce finer-grained evidence on what members of the British public think about immigration, moving beyond the headline questions on general support for or opposition to immigration at current levels. Results will be available within the next two weeks, and will be linked in an update to this blog.

The results of the Migration Observatory's survey can now be seen in the new report "Thinking Behind the Numbers: Understanding Public Opinion on Immigration in Britain"