Is Brexit Britain pro-immigration and what does it mean for business?

How have British feelings about immigration changed in the past four years, since the Brexit referendum - and where does the UK go from here?

Think Global People Autumn 2020 issue
This article is taken from the first issue of Think Global People, the new home of Relocate Magazine.
Click on the cover to access the digital edition or read all of the articles on our website.
A month before the June 2016 referendum that was to result in the UK quitting the European Union, Ipsos Mori's 'Issues Index' showed that 49% of those poised to vote "leave" identified their most pressing concern as the number of immigrants coming into Britain. All other matters trailed this single issue by 15 or more points.

Immigration: no longer in the top 10 list of concerns

Now fast forward to this summer when, not surprisingly, the Issues Index was dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic. But the surprise lay in the issues that followed: the economy, Brexit, race relations, healthcare, poverty, education, unemployment, the environment, and crime, with immigration – so often atop the list in previous years – not even mentioned in the top ten.The fact is that, with the end of the Brexit transition period looming, the UK's decades-old prejudice towards legal immigration has all but disappeared.As Bobby Duffy, Professor of Public Policy and Director at the Policy Institute at King’s College London, told the Financial Times recently, "We've gone from being among the more negative countries in Europe when it comes to immigration, to among the most positive."

Covid-19 boosts support for UK immigration

Not surprisingly, the Covid-19 outbreak has done much to boost support for immigration in recent months, with media coverage highlighting the extent to which the healthcare and social care systems rely on the skills and dedication of workers originally from abroad. More than that, the coverage has often focused on other areas – from driving trucks to picking farm produce – where foreign workers play such vital roles.In a poll this summer conducted by the Open Democracy think-thank, 72% of 'leave' voters – the ones most likely to be sceptical about the benefits of immigration – supported offering automatic British citizenship to National Health Service doctors and nurses. More surprisingly, perhaps, more than half also backed automatic citizenship for care workers, and about 40% also felt it should be offered to delivery drivers, supermarket staff and agricultural workers.But Sunder Katwala, the Director of British Future, a think-tank promoting equality education, insists that the idea that the public has suddenly realised the benefits of immigration because of the pandemic is "misplaced"."Attitudes have become more positive, but that has happened over four years, not four months," he says. “What is happening is that politicians are now catching up with the public. We’ve heard a change of tone on so-called ‘low-skilled’ immigration. There have been policy U-turns on NHS surcharges and leave to remain for the families of health and care staff.“Overall, attitudes have remained broadly stable over the last quarter and people care about immigration much less. Even before Covid-19, it had fallen out of the top five issues for voters – now it doesn’t even make the top ten.”
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Brexit referendum came "slap bang" in the middle of a rapid decline in anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK

Indeed, research published earlier this year by Patrick English, an associate lecturer in data analysis at the University of Exeter, used 40 years of data from sources such as the British Social Attitudes survey, the European Social Survey and the World Values Study to argue that the Brexit referendum came "slap bang" in the middle of a rapid decline in anti-immigrant sentiment, which actually began from a hostility peak in 2010.While he accepts there has been a substantial softening in attitudes towards immigration since the time of the EU referendum, he says the data show that there had been a much larger and more dramatic change in public opinion taking place since well before the 2016 vote.Dr English believes this change in attitudes was the result of what he calls the “thermostatic relationship” that Britons adopt towards the nation's political environment, which basically shows the more the public is pushed in one direction, the more likely people are inclined to resist and oppose the status quo.Future-fit-in-text-banner3He argues that Tony Blair's liberal and multicultural policies in the 1990s and early 2000s, along with the admission of mainly eastern European nations to the EU, led to a rise in anti-immigration feeling and the emergence of the likes of the hard-right BNP and the UK Independence Party.But after Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2011 declaration of the "failure of multiculturalism" and of his "war" on its proponents, pro-immigrant sentiments began to grow in response."If we understand public opinion as involved in a symbiotic, responsive, ‘thermostatic’ relationship with the political environment – where movements ‘too far’ in one direction by either one will be reciprocated by a movement in the opposite direction by the other – we can in turn understand the recent dramatic positive change in public opinion towards immigration," Dr English maintains.

"Migration from other EU countries has not had an adverse impact on the wages and job prospects of UK-born workers"

Historically, the most commonly-held objection towards immigrants – especially those from the EU27 nations – was that they took jobs that would otherwise go to Britons. Such views have been roundly refuted by academics, notably in an extensive research paper, published by the London School of Economics just before the referendum, which concluded that "migration from other EU countries has not had an adverse impact on the wages and job prospects of UK-born workers".The report stated: "EU immigrants pay more in taxes than they use public services, and therefore they help to reduce the budget deficit. Immigrants do not have a negative effect on local services such as education, health or social housing; nor do they have any effect on social instability as indicated by crime rates."In a recent analysis of changing attitudes, Reiss Edwards, a London-based, specialist immigration law firm, concluded the idea that migrant workers damaged the work prospects of domestic workers "has very much been debunked".Au20-in-text-bannerThe report added: "Those who still maintain that the UK's immigration policy has harmed wages and jobs will need to wait until 2021 to see how leaving the EU really pans out for them in terms of job prospects. Already the Home Office has stated categorically that low-skilled migrants will not be allowed into the UK, and hence such roles will ultimately need to be fulfilled by British nationals and settled workers. Whether this increases job prospects and wages across the economy will remain to be seen."

UK immigration: "Ethnic hierarchy"

However, there has also been a historical prejudice against some immigrants based on their country of origin and skill levels. Research by Oxford University's Migration Observatory found that only 10% of Britons polled objected to Australians coming to the UK to work, compared to 37% who would say no to Nigerians being allowed in."Such patterns have sometimes been described as an ‘ethnic hierarchy’," the observatory reported. "At the preferred end of the scale are those who are white, English-speaking, Europeans and from Christian countries, while the least preferred are non-whites, non-Europeans and from Muslim countries. Romania is an interesting anomaly. Despite being a European and Christian country, opposition to immigration from Romania is at similar levels to opposition to immigration from Pakistan."But ethnicity has not been the only factor influencing British attitudes. The observatory research revealed that when migrants had professional qualifications, opposition to their presence had been low, regardless of where they came from. "When migrants are unskilled, opposition is high," said the observatory's report. "Further, when asked about professional immigrants, British people do not appear to distinguish between countries of origin.

British preference for highly-skilled migrants

"This British preference for highly skilled migrants fits with other research showing that, when asked about what criteria should be applied to incoming migrants, British people attach high importance to skills, but lower importance to skin colour and religion."All of which could explain why current government ministers stress that the UK will still be open to the "brightest and best" from around the world when the current Brexit transition period ends on December 31.As Home Secretary Priti Patel says, "Now we have left the EU, we are free to unleash this country’s full potential and implement the changes we need to restore trust in the immigration system and deliver a new fairer, firmer, skills-led system from January 1 2021."But as the Financial Times commented this summer, "Brexit Britain, it turns out, is not really the Brexit Britain we’ve come to know and despise. Brexit Britain, it turns out, is quite pro-immigration! Or, at least, is becoming less anti-immigration."People now view immigration both as a more positive thing, and a less salient issue. And that’s despite the fact that while EU immigration has fallen significantly since the Brexit vote, non-EU immigration hit a record high in 2019."


Think Global People Autumn 2020 issue
This article is taken from the first issue of Think Global People, the new home of Relocate Magazine.
Click on the cover to access the digital edition or read all of the articles on our website.

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