Believers in the benefits of immigration into this country should look away now. You might still be part of a wafer-thin majority (51%) who think its historical impact on Britain has been positive, but that’s where the good news in this poll ends for you.
For the British public’s forward view on immigration is far more negative than what’s observable in the rear-view mirror.
It starts with controlling immigration. Six in ten (61%) want to do so with only 30% thinking it’s more important to fill jobs. Recent polling has suggested a wavering among people who want to put national and personal economic prospects first and foremost, but this evidence supports the opposite line. People think the country’s infrastructure is at breaking point and cannot take more strain – a widely held view among Conservative voters (75%) and Leavers (81%), topping out at 84% among those who fit both categories.
But it would be a mistake to think this view is held only by the usual suspects: majorities in support of scaling back immigration numbers are pervasive, being present among both genders, all age groups bar the youngest, all voter sets except the few Liberal Democrats still standing, all types of political constituency including all the most important marginals, all social grades, all regions. I could go on. Even that group desperately fighting against the Brexit tide, Remainers, feature a chunky 43% who’d opt for immigration control rather than filling British jobs with foreign workers.
So, it follows that a reduction in immigration is required, with 42% wanting a big reduction and 28% a small one (netting out at 70% compared to just 14% who want an increase). Let’s note that 60% of Remainers want a reduction, 23% of whom want a big reduction. It’s fairly single-minded stuff, this.
Some equivocation surrounds the actual numbers of people who should be allowed in though. In the year to September 2017, net migration into Britain stood at 244,000 according to Migration Watch UK but the government has set a new target of ‘tens of thousands’. Four in ten (39%) think sticking rigidly to this number is appropriate, but almost as many think some flexibility should apply (34%). Few (15%) think this cap is wrong.
In addition, the quality is just as important as the width. Well over half of us (57%) think the UK should only let in EU citizens with specialist skills, with a half as many (11%) wanting a metaphorical wall put up as wanting a continuation of full freedom of movement (22%). Most hard-line of all? If we exclude the UKIP residue, that would be Labour Leavers, a quarter of whom (24%) think all EU immigration should end. This perhaps gives us a clue why Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit position remains cloudy.
There’s one final sting in the tail, too. An expectation is building for equality of treatment between EU and Commonwealth citizens, with more than half of the public (55%) seeing no reason to favour one over the other.
To put all that into perspective it seems that the British public wants immigration to be scaled back to a quarter or so of the current level, should only allow in people with specialist skills and wants Commonwealth citizens to have an equal chance of a place. Other than that, Willkommon, Monsieur et Madam.
One might wonder though, why foreign friends might want to come here at all, given the recent Windrush episode when Afro-Caribbean immigrants from the 1950s were declared illegal immigrants rather than British citizens. A plurality of the public (45%) think that race was the defining cause of the treatment they received, something that would have been avoided if the Windrush generation’s skin colour had been white. A third (33%) disagree, not believing that skin colour had anything to do with it, Conservative voters (45%) being much more this way inclined than their Labour equivalents (24%).
And as for illegal immigration, well the only surprise is perhaps that agreement with a ‘hostile’ approach toward it is limited to just 51%, perhaps softened by recognition of the Windrush mistakes. One in three (31%) think that a hostile approach should end, but with anti-immigration sentiment dominating public opinion, it seems rather unlikely.
This article by Martin Boon was originally published on the Channel 4 News website.