Dating back to the earliest survey research on public attitudes toward immigration, the overwhelming majority of people in Britain have always agreed that there are too many immigrants. In the mid-1960s, opposition to immigration registered between 80 and 90 per cent of those polled. Little has changed on this front: according to consistent findings from surveys and opinion polls, a clear majority of members of the contemporary British public would like to see immigration to Britain reduced. Depending on the precise question asked and the choices respondents are offered, the number favouring less immigration typically falls between 60 and 80 per cent.
But, while the belief that there is too much immigration goes back to the 1960s, the high level of political salience is much more recent. Prior to 2000, immigration rarely registered as one of the issues of greatest public concern. Since then, in monthly polls asking people to name the most important problems facing Britain, immigration has been among the top three.
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 particularly 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.
At least three basic explanations of attitudes toward migration have been researched extensively.
- Contact theory holds that sustained positive contact (such as 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-born (or citizen) workers who compete with migrants with similar skill sets, or (conversely) from wealthier locals who feel (or perceive) a financial burden for tax-payers if migrants use public services such as hospitals or schools.
Evidence is generally strong for contact theory, but it does not necessarily account for opposition to immigration. Rather, it suggests that this attitude can be changed by interactions, especially 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’ (for example, if it involves competition for scarce resources), or is it more ‘symbolic?’ In the latter version, group conflict is more closely related to a sense of national identity that large scale immigration seems to threaten.
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 are related to anti-migrant attitudes. But these perceptions are themselves only loosely tied to individuals’ actual economic position. So, perhaps surprisingly, it is not clear that economic factors are actually driving attitudes for most people.
New research from the US, however, finds that workers in direct competition with migrants appear particularly likely to oppose the granting of visas to migrant workers. Malhotra et al. (2013) examine high-tech workers in the US facing competition from highly-skilled Indian workers; these Americans are particularly likely to want fewer visas granted to these sorts of migrant workers. This supports the economic competition model, but in revised form: these pressures may be highly relevant for migration attitudes, but only for a small subset of the public. Others who lack direct competition with (potential) migrant workers are not affected by this dynamic; their views on immigration are determined by other factors.
My work with Elisabeth Ivarsflaten and Robert Ford (2013) points to the importance of anti-prejudice social norms in shaping majority groups’ attitudes toward immigration and the impact of these attitudes on broader political behaviour. We argue that there is a widespread social norm against prejudice in western Europe. The norm coexists with negative beliefs and stereotypes about migrants and minorities, and, we argue, acts as an independent motivating force in shaping political choices and responses to campaign messages and political parties. Its power to shape behaviour, however, varies greatly across individuals and across situations. Some people are more motivated to follow this norm than others; equally important, some political situations place the norm directly at stake, while other situations are more ambiguous and allow greater scope for acting on biases (often hidden or even unconscious ones) without the feeling that one is violating the anti-prejudice norm. Thus, the impact of immigration on politics can be highly complex and volatile. In particular, new anti-immigration political parties founder on these dynamics more often than not. Parties formed with the sole purpose of mobilizing anti-immigrant sentiment usually fail; existing parties with established reputations in other issue domains are more successful as vehicles for anti-immigrant sentiment, as they can campaign on this issue while credibly claiming to be about something more than simple xenophobia.
Blinder, S., Ford, R and Ivarsflaten, E. (2013) ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: How the Antiprejudice Norm Affects Policy and Party Preferences in Great Britain and Germany’, American Journal of Political Science, 57(4): 841-857.
Malhotra, N., Margalit, Y. and Mo, C. (2013) ‘Economic Explanations for Opposition to Immigration: Distinguishing between Prevalence and Conditional Impact’, American Journal of Political Science, 57(2): 391–410.