How will perceptions of migration influence Britain’s EU referendum?

According to Professor John Curtice from the University of Strathclyde, Britain’s EU referendum is likely to be decided in relation to two ‘poles’ of debate: the economy and immigration. However, if Simon Tilford of The Centre for European Reform is to be believed:

If Britain votes to leave the EU it will be because of hostility to immigration. It will not be because of the threat of Eurozone caucusing, the role of national parliaments vis-a-vis the European Parliament, regulatory threats to the City of London or concerns over the competitiveness of the EU economy. Disillusionment with the EU has risen in the UK because membership has become synonymous in many voters’ minds with uncontrolled immigration.

Public opinion polls regularly depict a UK population paranoid about immigration. In 2013 the British Social Attitudes survey revealed that over three quarters of the British public are in favor of reducing immigration, with 56% stating that the number of immigrants should be ‘reduced a lot’. Although a historically salient issue, immigration concerns have risen to new levels in recent decades and more recently still in relation to EU migration. While in many EU countries the public is considerably more favorable towards the EU than non-EU migrants, Transatlantic Trends data from 2014 shows little difference in UK public opinion toward these two groups. Concern about migration applies to both EU and non-EU migration.

Many Brits hope that British exit from the EU (Brexit) would give the UK greater control over its borders and, crucially, over who is allowed in. According to one poll, 65% of Leave voters believe Britain will never be able to control immigration unless it leaves the EU. However, claims like that of Migration Watch UK that a British exit would reduce net migration by 100,000 a year are far from universally accepted and others warn against idealizing the possibilities for migration control post-Brexit.

It would be dangerous to believe that Brexit would leave the UK without immigration policy dilemmas. Yes, leaving the EU would allow the British Government to impose visa requirements on migrants from the rest of Europe but this does not mean that they should or would want to. While some may want to put an end to the ‘Polish builder phenomenon’ that Migration Watch talks of, they forget that these migrants may be exactly what our economy wants and needs.[1] It’s often said that we need to prioritize highly-skilled migrants and yet we lack the capacity to fill low-skilled roles, instead employing educated and skilled migrants from overseas in low-skilled employment and manual labor.[2]

When it is claimed that introducing work permits for EU citizens would ‘reduce net migration and its resultant pressure on our population and public services’, a pressure on public services is wrongly assumed. Haven’t we been told enough times that EU migrants are net contributors to the public purse?

To what extent is this about the realities of migration?

As we draw closer to June’s referendum the importance of migration and free movement in the debate becomes ever more obvious. However, while this may be unsurprising given its persistent position among the top three ‘issues’ facing Britain, it is important to remember that people’s assumptions and perceptions of (im)migration are just as important, if not more so, than ‘the facts’.

Several studies have shown that opposition to immigration is more often rooted in abstract cultural concerns (national unity and values for example) than in individuals’ economic circumstances or self-interest. Nearly a decade on from McLaren and Johnson’s 2007 finding that opposition to immigration is driven primarily by perceptions of “symbolic threat”, a new opinion poll has found that 47% of the British population think that the EU is ‘undermining Britain’s distinctive identity’.

This was the point made by Dr James Hampshire in a recent talk at the University of Sussex who suggested that concerns about identity may be the most useful predictor of an individual’s position in the referendum debate.

The other question, and one often put to Leave campaigners, is what Britain’s migration system might look like post-Brexit? Would it be better and better for whom? Whose needs would it serve? The idea that ‘Britain’ should decide on its own rules and policies, who it wants and who it doesn’t assumes that ‘we British’ are a homogenous group with the same ideas and values. I would suggest, however, that this ‘we’ needs interrogating. Who is the ‘we’ who should have a say? Who gets to decide who is and is not suitable, worthy, valuable, or desirable? Is it the Saudi oil tycoon, the Polish graduate happy to work as a coffee barista, the Australian teacher, or the Syrian refugee?

I for one would not wish to see a retreat back to the racialized immigration rules of the 1960s which divided the British citizenry along racial lines, albeit indirectly, into (‘coloured’) Citizens of the UK and Colonies and ‘proper’ (white) Britons from the UK and Old Commonwealth.[3] However, I feel equally uncomfortable with a system that judges people solely in terms of their economic value, ignoring any historical or family ties and discriminating against people on the basis of income.

That said, with half the British public concerned about Britain’s identity it may be that underlying a vote to Leave is an assumption that if Britain had even greater control to pick and choose who comes and who stays, it can pick those least likely to ‘challenge Britain’s cultural identity’. Given this, it may actually be more useful to consider what that identity is perceived to be, and who is perceived as a threat to it.

Undeniably immigration will be a factor, an important one, in this summer’s EU referendum but it may not be in the way that we think.


[1] Paradoxically it may be that the UK would need to loosen its migration rules to fill gaps in the labor force left if EU migrants moved elsewhere e.g. by opening up Tier 3 which until now has not been opened. However, as Portes points out, it is possible, at least in theory, that this “might over time incentivize firms into productivity-enhancing investment or training” to low skilled on unemployed British people.

[2] A8 migrants are more likely to have tertiary education that a British person:

[3] These rules constructed ‘belonging’ in Britain and Britishness in terms of heritage and descent, with substantive national membership deriving from “the historic ties of language, custom and ‘race’”.


  1. astute angle · · Reply

    You’ve missed the most obvious one. Our infrastructure simply cannot cope with the number of people. This is particularly an English issue rather than a British one and England as England has an unsustainably high population density of more than a thousand people per square mile (it is now slightly more crowded than the Netherlands). Americans simply can’t grasp this issue because their country is so vast. It is immigration – and immigration alone – that is driving population growth as the birth rate among the indigenous population is below replacement level.


  2. astute angle · · Reply

    Sorry, I can’t edit the above but it should read ‘This is particularly an English issue rather than a British one as England has an unsustainably high population density …’


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