Huffpost UK uk
Jessica Elgot Headshot

It's Harder To Be British In 2014 Than A Decade Ago, British Social Attitudes Survey Finds

Posted: Updated:

Want to be British? We've raised the bar a lot in 10 years.

The British Social Attitudes survey, the UK's most authoritative barometer of public opinion which releases its findings today, said almost everyone surveyed (95%) said that to be “truly British” you must be able to speak English, up from 86% in 2003. Over three quarters said you must have lived in Britain for most of your life to be ‘truly British’, and 74% said it is important to have been born in Britain to be considered British.

It is not only outsiders that are the targets of a chronic climate of distrust. The British public are especially sceptical of the government’s ability to explain its decisions to voters and to protect citizens from poverty. There is a considerable discrepancy between the public’s expectations here and their perceptions of what British democracy actually delivers, with a sizeable minority of people perceiving a ‘democratic deficit’.

The report could not be more timely, with the recent announcement by Education Secretary Michael Gove that 'British values' would soon be a requirement to be taught in schools, and the ongoing debate about what this might mean in practice.

ukip british

Has it been the Ukip effect that means we've raised the bar on what you need to do to be British?

"95% of people thinking that you must be able to speak English is really big figure, almost unheard of, and it'sup about 10% since 1990," one of the report's authors Alison Park told HuffPost UK. "But just 24% thought you had to be Christian, and that's a major distinction between the reality and what we've heard from politicians in recent months, with the debate over whether David Cameron should have called Britain 'a Christian country'."

The furious public debate around immigration fueled by the European elections and the ascent of Nigel Farage's Ukip is reflected in the survey's findings. Half of all people thought the main reason immigrants come to Britain is to work, but nearly a quarter said the main reason is to claim benefits - a higher proportion than think they come mainly to study, to join their family or seek asylum.

Those who expressed the most concern about immigration are more likely to think that immigrants come to Britain to claim benefits.

Attitudes have hardened in the past decades, and there has been a considerable fall in the number of people who believe legal immigrants who are not British citizens should have the same legal rights as British citizen, from 40% in 2003 to 27% now. And more people than a decade ago think that immigrants increase crime rates, 43% in 2013, up from 37% in 2003.

Ukip's predictions that the party would never do well in London because the capital has a different attitude to immigration have borne out, said Park. "There is a very clear difference between London and the rest of the country, as well as between different socio-economic groups, on the general perception of immigrants.

"All the stats say the most common reason is to work, that's fairly clear, but people hugely underestimate the number that come here to study in our universities."

Ukip spokeswoman Suzanne Evans told Radio 4 the party had difficulty appealing to the "educated, cultured and young", after poor results in the capital's local elections. And the report shows this to be the case, that those who are better off and better educated are far more positive about immigration than the rest of the population. 60% of graduates think immigration has benefited Britain economically, compared with 17% of those with no qualifications.

More than half of Londoners take the view that immigration is good for the economy compared with 28% of people around the rest of the country.

Penny Young, Chief Executive, NatCen Social Research, said: “In an increasingly diverse, multi-cultural country, we might expect people to be more relaxed about what it means to be British, yet the trend is going in the opposite direction. It is now harder to be considered British than in the past and one message comes through loud and clear, if you want to be British, you must speak English.

"And as we debate whether UKIP’s vote will hold up in the General Election, British Social Attitudes shows that the public is yet to be convinced that politicians have got a grip on immigration. They want tougher rules on benefits and many are unaware of the policies that are in place to control immigration.”