Michael Gove, the British environment secretary, sparked a heated debate when he said recently: “Britain has the most liberal attitude towards migration of any European country. And that followed the Brexit vote.”
His implication that the Brexit vote was a force for a more positive view of immigration in Britain has been vigorously challenged by some.
And you can see why it might grate: analysis by King’s College London shows that media coverage of immigration tripled in the campaign, and was “overwhelmingly negative”.
But Gove is right to say that people in Britain are now more positive about immigration, as shown by new polling released by Ipsos MORI, tracking attitudes towards immigration after the recent Windrush scandal.
Gove cited an Ipsos survey from the end of 2017, which does indeed show that from the ten European countries included, Britain is most likely to think immigration has had a positive effect on the country.
A more recent European Commission survey across all 28 EU countries shows that, while the UK is not quite top, it is the third most likely to say that immigration is an opportunity rather than a problem, behind only Sweden and Ireland.
And this is a shift that can’t be explained purely by the weight of negative media coverage of immigration dying down after the referendum. I’ve been reviewing immigration attitudes for nearly 20 years, and I’m really not used to seeing Britain at the top of any league table of immigration positivity: this is something new.
As the chart below shows, positive attitudes have doubled in Britain since 2011, while they’ve flatlined at a low level in most other countries, or fallen in the case of Sweden.
And as our new survey published by Ipsos MORI shows, this trend remains stable. The switch from a negative balance of opinion to a positive one started before the 2016 referendum on EU membership, in the middle of 2015 – but it did gain pace after.
Reassurance and regret
There are two broad explanations for why this is happening – that the change is being driven by “reassurance”, or “regret”.
The first is the idea that people feel they can now say that immigration has positive aspects, because numbers are coming down, or they believe numbers will be lower in the future, as a result of Brexit.
Regret, on the other hand, could be driven by a realisation of what we’re losing from lower immigration: as numbers fall and warnings of skills shortages and economic impacts increase, the extent to which the country benefits from immigration becomes more obvious.
Clearly these are simplifications – there are other explanations and these are not mutually exclusive views. But in our latest survey, we tried to assess the balance between these two explanations for the first time, by simply asking people why they are more positive.
And as the chart below shows, there is an almost perfect balance between the two explanations: around four in ten say they’re more aware of the contribution that immigrants make, and the same proportion say they’re reassured numbers are falling or will fall.
An emotive debate
As with so much about immigration attitudes, there is no one clear answer or view, and therefore no clear indication for future policy and political direction. The very real trends of increased positivity actually give the government little clue as to whether they should loosen their drive to control numbers, or stick to their guns on the “hostile environment” immigration policy that has come in for so much criticism in recent months.