Parochial and Cosmopolitan Britain: Examining the Social Divide in Reactions to Immigration

Transatlantic Trends: Immigration Focus Papers

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Published: 2012-06-13

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British opinion is negative overall, but strongly divided: The British public is more negative about immigration than that of the other countries surveyed by Transatlantic Trends Immigration (TTI), but they are also more divided over the issue. Age, education, economic security, and migrant heritage all strongly predict views about immigration and immigrants in TTI countries, but the effects are stronger in Britain than elsewhere. These factors also all overlap, both in Britain and elsewhere; in particular, the last three are all related to age. The result is a generational divide over immigration, with older generations much more hostile about immigration than younger cohorts. This divide is wider in Britain than in other TTI countries.

The British favor migration that is economically beneficial: The British are not hostile to all forms of migration, but are much more positive about migrants who are well qualified to contribute to the economy generally or migrants who are recruited to work in specific welfare state sectors such as health care and long-term care for the elderly. British voters tend to have a knee-jerk negative response to migration in the abstract, but much more nuanced views of migration when it is placed in the context of real policy debates. Targeted migration policies such as Labour’s “points system” or recruitment to specific sectors with high demand are likely to enjoy much higher public support.

Illegal migration is the focus of concern: The British are much more concerned about illegal than legal migration, although there are deep generational divisions in reactions to both groups. Respondents are nearly unanimous in favoring stronger enforcement policies to deal with illegal migration, but are divided over the use of assistance policies such as international aid. The latter are favored by younger, more cosmopolitan voters but regarded with suspicion by the more parochial older generations. British respondents strongly, and universally, oppose providing welfare benefits to illegal migrants, but are deeply divided over providing welfare benefits to legal migrants. The British are much less willing to extend welfare benefits to migrants than respondents in any of the other countries surveyed by TTI, which may be a consequence of frequent negative media stories alleging overly generous treatment of migrant welfare claims.

The British are quite optimistic about integration, particularly for the second generation: The British public are divided about whether first generation migrants, in particular Muslim migrants, are integrating well, but are much more positive about the “second generation” British-born children of migrants. The widespread elite concern over the perceived failure of Muslim minorities to integrate is not reflected in public opinion; large majorities of Britons feel that the Muslim second generation is integrating well, and a majority of younger, more cosmopolitan Britons also think first generation Muslims are making good progress. In terms of policy responses, we find solid support for several integration policy options — language lessons, discrimination bans, and teaching respect — but divided opinion over extending political rights and access to welfare benefits. We also find that the British respondents who are most concerned about high immigration levels are the least willing to support more active integration policies.

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