Few issues attract as much heated political and media debate as immigration, particularly at present as the Coalition government pursues a wide range of contentious policies, including strict limits on labour migration from outside the European Union, income and language requirements for family reunion migration and a tougher student visa regime, in order to meet its self-imposed goal to reduce net migration to "tens of thousands" by the end of the Parliament.
Given the salience of the issue, and the passions it arouses, more detailed and nuanced data on what the public think about immigration is urgently needed. In new work published today as part of the British Social Attitudes annual report, my co-authors and I aim to provide just that.
Our results support the conventional wisdom that the British would like to see immigration reduced: 75% agree with this, and 51% want to see migration reduced "a lot". This figure is largely the same as previous surveys in 2003 and 2008, despite large shifts in both economic conditions and migration policy over the past decade. Neither the great recession, nor the tougher Coalition approach on migration, appear to have had much impact on attitudes to date.
Numbers, however, are not the whole story.
Previous research suggests people have a poor understanding of overall migration levels, tending to exaggerate the size of inflows, and tend to favour reductions in migration regardless of the number of migrants coming in. A different way to look at the issue is to ask voters about impacts: has immigration been good or bad for Britain over the past decade? We distinguished two kinds of impacts - on the economy, and on culture - and found that the British had become both more skeptical on both. Subtracting negative judgements from positive ones, the net rating of economic effects shifted from -17 in 2002 to -22 last year, while on culture the shift was even larger, swinging from +11 in 2002 to -14 last year.
The British are thus more downbeat about the effect migration has had on their society. But this overall pattern also masks a second interesting development: growing social polarisation. Many groups in British society - university graduates, middle class and high income voters, and those with migrant heritage themselves (including those who were born here, but to parents born abroad) were on the whole positive about migration in 2002, and remained so in 2011. The increase in anxiety over immigration has been concentrated among those parts of the population who were already most worried about migrants in 2002 - in particular poorer, less educated and less economically secure voters. The result is a society divided over immigration: relaxed views among the economically comfortable and socially cosmopolitan, intense anxiety among struggling, white working class voters.
Questions about "immigration" in the abstract can only take us so far: it is not clear who voters have in mind when asked about the issue in the abstract, and what evidence we have on this point suggests a large divergence between the immigrants who loom largest in the public imagination (asylum seekers, unskilled labourers) and those who loom largest in migration statistics (students, family members).
We wanted to gain a clearer picture of how the British feel about concrete groups of migrants, like students, workers and family members, and how this is affected by migrants' characteristics, such as what skills and qualifications they have, and where they come from.
So we gave respondents brief descriptions of three migrant groups and, in each case, asked whether they regarded settlement of migrants like this as good or bad for Britain. What respondents did not know was that each group description they saw was randomly varied. By randomly varying the "treatment" characteristics - skills, region of origin and so on - we can get a good handle on how these characteristics influence attitudes, much as medical researchers can gauge how effectively a drug works by randomly varying whether patients receive it or something else.
The results of these survey experiments are very striking. They reveal a much more pragmatic and flexible British public than the aggregate figures suggest. When considering labour migrants and student migrants, Britons are strongly swayed by qualifications: large majorities favoured the settlement of professional migrants or highly qualified students, from all parts of the world. Equally, large majorities opposed unskilled labour and poorly qualified students. In short, qualification matters: the British support allowing the highly skilled to come and work or study in their country. This should be acknowledged more than it is in current debates, which tend to focus only on the overall numbers.
We can sum up the British view of migration as "fewer, but better". It is clear that the British would like less migration, but it is also clear that they do not regard all migrants as cause for concern. Given voter concerns about numbers and about qualifications, clear and well enforced rules make sense, but given voter pragmatism about particular migrant flows, a more disaggregated and flexible approach makes sense as well.
The current migration "cap" is not such a policy. It is inflexible - treating all forms of migration the same. And it is not practical: the target of net migration in the tens of thousands can only be realistically achieved through sharp reductions in the acceptance of migrant groups, such as students, that do not concern the public very much, because other large migrant flows, such as unskilled workers migrating from Eastern Europe, cannot be controlled without dramatic policy shifts such as leaving the EU.
Given the evidence of pragmatic attitudes we have found, policymakers should be more flexible about overall numbers, more honest about what forms of migration they can and cannot control, and more pragmatic about what the costs and benefits of such control would be, and what it can achieve. A rational and mature debate about immigration which moves beyond the "numbers game" to grapple with these difficult questions is what the public really demand, and what they deserve.
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