Overall attitudes to immigration: persistent concerns, deep divides
We begin by looking at public views about the overall economic and cultural impact of immigration. To assess this we asked the following two questions:
On a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is extremely bad and 10 is extremely good, would you say it is generally bad or good for Britain’s economy that migrants come to Britain from other countries?
And on a scale of 0 to 10, would you say that Britain’s cultural life is generally undermined or enriched by migrants coming to live here from other countries?
As Table 5.1 shows, the balance of opinion is negative in both cases, but attitudes vary considerably. Thirty-one per cent think immigration has been good for the British economy, while 35 per cent believe it has enriched British culture. Another fifth think the economic and cultural impact of immigration has been broadly neutral. In all, therefore, around half of the public feel that immigration has not had negative economic or cultural effects. The other half of the public take a much more negative view: 47 per cent think immigration has had a negative economic impact, while 45 per cent think it has undermined British cultural life. It is worth noting that the views of immigration critics are more intensely held – 18 per cent regard the cultural and economic impact of immigration as being very negative, compared to the 6 and 3 per cent respectively who take the most positive view of its impact. If we compare these figures with the earlier finding that 77 per cent of people would like to see immigration levels reduced it is clear that those who would like to see less immigration include people who do not necessarily think it has been bad for Britain.
These overall figures suggest more diversity of opinion about immigration than is commonly assumed – while the balance of opinion clearly favours the sceptics, whose views are more intensely held, a lot of people are positive about immigration or see its impact as neutral.
Of course, these aggregate statistics will mask wide social divides. Views about migration are likely to be influenced by a wide range of factors, including a person’s social position, their ideological values more generally and their own experience of migration (which will vary considerably, as migrants are unevenly distributed both geographically and socially). Table 5.2 focuses on two of the key social factors which we might expect to be associated with attitudes to migration – social class and education – and not surprisingly reveals significant social divides. The most economically secure and higher status sections of society – the professional middle classes and degree holders – are very positive about both the economic and cultural impact of immigration, while all the groups in less privileged positions within the social hierarchy are more negative. Those in the most precarious positions – unskilled manual workers and those with no educational qualifications – are the most intensely negative about immigration’s effects. This is particularly true with regard to education; while 60 per cent of graduates think immigration has had beneficial economic consequences for Britain, the same is true of 32 per cent of those whose highest qualification is at A level or equivalent, and just 17 per cent of those with no qualifications at all. Another way of comparing groups is via their net score, which is the difference between the proportion in a group who take a positive view of immigration and those who take a negative view. This varies from +38 (among graduates) to -45 (among those with no qualifications), showing a huge gap in the balance of opinion between the university educated and those who left school at the earliest opportunity.
While socially marginal groups worry the most about the impact of immigration, those most likely to be directly exposed to migration in their daily lives have much more positive views. As Table 5.3 shows, Londoners, those with migrant heritage, and those with migrant friends (all of whom are more likely to have regular direct contact with migrants) have more positive than negative views about immigration’s effects. The most intensely negative views are found among the oldest voters, and those with no migrant friends. For example, 17 per cent of those aged 70 and over think immigration has had a positive impact
on Britain’s economy, while 53 per cent think it has had a negative impact – compared with 36 per cent and 40 per cent respectively among the 18–29 age groups. There are hints here that it is often those most removed from direct experience of immigration who find it the most threatening.
The underlying distribution of attitudes revealed in this table suggests a deep divide between the politically and socially dominant social groups, and those in regular social contact with migrants, and the rest of the British population. Middle-class professionals, graduates and Londoners (the groups who tend to dominate British political and social institutions) all tend to be more positive about immigration, while majorities of most other groups are negative. This divide may explain the commonly made claim that the ‘ruling classes’ are out of touch on the issue. Political and social elites may sincerely find the intense negative sentiments about immigration found among other groups hard to comprehend, because these are sentiments they rarely encounter in their everyday experience, and which run strongly counter to their own views on the issue.
Here we summarise people’s views about the economic and social impacts of migration (the two scales shown in Table 5.1). For each scale, those whose score was above the neutral point were rated “positive”, those whose score was equal to neutral were rated neutral, and those whose score was below the neutral point were rated “negative”.
Bases for Table 5.2 are as follows:
Bases for Table 5.3 are as follows:
The question wording for international students read simply “overall do you think the benefits for Britain of international students from outside the European Union outweigh the costs they bring, or do the costs outweigh the benefits?”
For this analysis we use a measure that combines people’s views about the economic and social impacts of migration (that is, the two measures shown in Table 5.1). Those whose average score on the two scales was above the neutral point were rated “positive”, those whose combined score was equal to neutral were rated neutral, those whose average score on both scales was equivalent to a somewhat negative score on each individual scale were rated “somewhat negative” and those whose average across the two scales was equivalent to strongly negative scores on both were rated “strongly negative”.
In 1989, 7 per cent of British Social Attitudes respondents were graduates, and 44 per cent had no qualifications. Now graduates (25 per cent) outnumber those without any qualifications (20 per cent). Meanwhile, the proportion of people in professional and managerial jobs has increased from 35 to 37 per cent, accompanied by a drop from 37 to 29 per cent in the proportion in semi-skilled or unskilled manual work.
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