Immigration and trust in UK politics


By Prof. Lauren McLaren (Politics)

Since the end of World War Two, the UK has grappled with the potentially conflicting aims of using cheap immigrant labour and maintaining social cohesion. Recent decades have witnessed persistent public concern about immigration, despite government attempts to assuage public opinion by trying to restrict new immigration and introducing citizenship tests designed to increase immigrant assimilation and ultimately social cohesion. My research indicates that public concern about this issue may be having detrimental effects on the functioning of the British political system. Here, I summarise these findings and discuss whether an independent Scottish government should also be worried about the potential effects of public concern about immigration.

Immigration and Trust in Politics

The British public has expressed a great deal of unease about immigration since at least the 1960s, and there appears to be a substantial cultural divide over immigration in Britain, with the British public fairly evenly divided over whether immigrants contribute to culture, threaten jobs, contribute to crime, and are generally positive or negative for the country. Also important for understanding public concern about immigration to the UK is the perception that none of the three main parties can effectively deal with immigration.  Table 1 provides Ipsos/MORI results for survey questions about which political party has the best policies on immigration and/or asylum. While the Conservative Party has always held the lead over Labour on this question, for much of the period shown here the largest response category has been ‘None/Don’t know’.  It appears that a significant proportion of the British public is not very confident about the ability of the largest British parties control the perceived problem of immigration.

Table 1: Party with best policies on immigration and asylum

Conservative

Labour

Liberal Democrat

None / Don’t know

Labour Lead

%

%

%

%

%

7–11 April 2005

36

18

10

33

-18

31 August–6 September 2006

28

11

9

49

-17

20–26 September 2007

21

17

7

50

-4

15–17 August 2008

35

14

10

34

-21

25–27 September 2009

29

15

10

36

-14

19–22 March 2010

28

17

9

35

-11

15-17 September 2012

 26

19

7

42

-7

7-9 September 2013

22

19

6

31

-3

Available from Ipsos MORI, here. The survey item used here is: ‘I am going to read out a list of problems facing Britain today. I would like you to tell me whether you think the Conservative party, the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats has the best policies on each problem…asylum and immigration’. Base: c. 1,000 GB adults aged 18+.

The problem may be even deeper than this, though. My research (McLaren 2012) indicates that immigration may be having harmful effects on public attitudes to the political system in Britain for two main reasons. First, immigration is perceived as a threat to the cultural connections that bind citizens to their political system. Second, British citizens specifically blame their government elites and institutions for failure to protect Britain from the potentially negative effects of immigration. My research also points to the conclusion that it is not just political parties that are implicated, but that long-term concern about this issue and perceptions of failures of the political system to deal with it are affecting public perceptions of British institutions more generally. In short, it is possible that high levels of distrust in the British political system can, in part, be blamed on public perceptions of the effects of immigration and the failure of the political system to control these effects. The evidence also points to the conclusion that this problem persists under the current UK government (McLaren 2013a, 2013b).

Implications for Scotland

Supporters of Scottish Independence have indicated that they would prefer a more open immigration policy than that of the current UK government, in order to fill gaps in the Scottish labour market. Generally, Scottish leaders tend to present Scotland as a far more tolerant country than its neighbours in the south. The implication is that Scottish public opinion regarding immigration must be far less negative than other parts of the UK. To what extent is this the case, though?

Tables 2 and 3 provide responses to survey questions about immigration where there are statistically significant differences between respondents in England and Scotland, and Table 4 provides responses to questions where there were no significant differences between these countries. Looking first at the significant differences between the two countries, respondents in Scotland are somewhat more likely to disagree that immigrants increase crime and terrorism. While these differences are statistically significant, it is difficult to argue that they are substantial: 41.5% in Scotland agreed that immigrants increase crime, and 47.1% agreed that they increase the threat of terrorism. This is compared to 46.3% and 52.8% respectively in England. The difference between the countries is more pronounced on the question of whether lots of immigrants threaten the English language: 33.4% in Scotland agreed with this statement, compared to 44.5% in England. On the question of treatment of asylum seekers, the difference between the countries is even stronger: 51.9% in Scotland disagreed that asylum seekers should be sent home while only 38.8% in England disagreed with this idea. We also see some difference when it comes to acceptance of multiculturalism, in that 48.9% in Scotland thought it was okay for different ethnic groups to keep their own customs, compared to only 41.1% in England. Finally, there seems to be some difference in strength of feeling that immigration should be reduced a lot (Table 3), though it must be noted that 73.3% in Scotland indicate that the number of immigrants to Britain should be reduced a little or a lot (compared to 79.3% in England).

Table 2. Attitudes to Immigration in England and Scotland (Significant Differences)

 

Immigrants Increase Crime Rates*

Immigrants Increase Terrorism Threat**

Lots Immigrants Threaten English Language**

England

Scotland

England

Scotland

England

Scotland

Strongly agree

9

6.8

16.2

10.5

15.9

11.0

Agree

37.3

34.7

34.9

36.6

28.6

22.4

Neither agree nor disagree

22.1

18.4

24.8

24.1

21.6

21.5

Disagree

26.3

33.5

19.8

22.4

27.7

37.2

Strongly disagree

5.3

6.6

4.4

6.4

6.3

7.8

N

2083

636

1333

344

1343

344

*British Election Study 2010 Post-election interview.

** British Election Study 2010 mail-back questionnaire

 

Table 2. Attitudes to Immigration in England and Scotland (Significant Differences cont)

 

Send Asylum Seekers Home Immediately*

Diff Ethnic Groups Should Keep Customs*

England

Scotland

England

Scotland

Strongly agree

15.5

11.1

3

3.1

Agree

25.6

22.5

38.1

45.8

Neither agree nor disagree

20.1

14.5

23.1

18.2

Disagree

32.7

42.5

28.3

25.5

Strongly disagree

6.1

9.4

7.5

7.4

N

2129

649

2137

650

Both questions from the British Election Study 2010 Post-election interview.

 

Table 3. Should the number of immigrants to Britain be…

England

Scotland

Increased a lot

1.7

1.9

Increased a little

2.0

1.9

Remain the same as it is

17.0

22.9

Reduced a little

23.9

27.1

Reduced a lot

55.4

46.2

N

2796

266

Source: British Social Attitudes Survey 2011

Table 4 shows a range of questions on which there were not statistically significant differences between respondents in England and Scotland. These figures imply that people in Scotland are just as divided as people in England over whether immigration to Britain has been good or not and whether immigrants are good for the economy, take jobs and help to enrich culture.

Table 4. Attitudes to Immigration in England and Scotland (Insignificant Differences)

 

Black/ Asian Immigration Good For Britain*

Immigrants Good For Economy*

Immigrants Take Jobs**

Immigrants Enrich Culture**

England

Scotland

England

Scotland

England

Scotland

England

Scotland

Strongly agree

2.8

2.8

2.5

2.8

18.0

15.5

5.2

5.2

Agree

32.2

31.5

29.5

33

31.2

31.7

29.8

32.0

Neither agree nor disagree

33

32.8

27.7

24.4

23.2

22.6

30.5

29.4

Disagree

25.5

25.6

31.5

31.9

23.0

24.0

26.8

27.0

Strongly disagree

6.5

7.3

8.9

7.8

4.5

6.2

7.6

6.4

N

2103

650

2108

639

1345

341

1335

344

*British Election Study 2010 Post-election interview.

** British Election Study 2010 mail-back questionnaire

Given the fact that where there are some differences between the countries these are generally fairly small and that on a range of survey items there are minimal differences between the two countries, it seems that people in Scotland may be only a little more open to further immigration than people in England. As noted in a report by the Migration Observatory (2013), the immigration situation in Scotland and England are quite different; in particular the rate of population increase in the latter has been far higher than the former in recent decades and population density is much lower in Scotland as well. Past experience with immigration in Scotland has been quite different from that of much of England. It is not surprising, therefore, that survey respondents in Scotland are—on some indicators—a bit less negative about immigration and immigrants than respondents in England. The public opinion data shown here indicate, however, that an independent Scottish government should perhaps proceed with caution on its immigration policy. A more open immigration regime than that in England would seem likely to attract workers, as hoped by the Scottish government, but lessons from England seem to be that too much too fast could turn a slightly more tolerant Scottish public more negative about immigration—and as my research on political trust indicates, with negative implications for perceptions of the Scottish political system.

 

Stamps © flickr.com/Joel75

References

McLaren, L.M. 2012. ‘Immigration and Political Trust in Britain’. British Journal of Political Science 42(1): 163-85.

McLaren, L.M. 2013a. ‘Immigration and Perceptions of the Political System in Britain’. The Political Quarterly 84(1): 90–100.

McLaren, L.M. 2013b. ‘Immigration and Political Trust in the UK. Political Insight 4(3): 14–17.

Migration Observatory. 2013. ‘Bordering on confusion: International migration and implications for Scottish Independence’. Available at http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/commentary/bordering-confusion-international-migration-and-implications-scottish-independence.