12 November, 2019| Analysis

Attitudes to immigration are relatively similar across the union, despite Brexit divisions


Like the English, a majority of Scots (58%) support reduced immigration to Scotland. Conor Kavanagh from the Immigration Advice Service writes for Britain Elects.


Photo Credit: Rex Features

There is no doubt that immigration was a key issue during the Brexit referendum, with many believing it was a general vote against immigration rather than one against the European Union. However, the UK’s general attitude towards immigration is complex, with age and region thought to have a considerable bearing on how people view the issue. While 68% of Leave voters said the amount of immigrants coming to Britain was a key driver behind their vote, general attitudes to immigration have softened since the referendum result.

Attitudes Towards Immigration Around the Time of the Referendum

An Ipsos MORI report was carried out during 2015-2016 on attitudes towards immigration. The underlying message was that people generally wanted immigration reduced. From February 2015 to October 2016, the view towards immigration remained consistent, with six in 10 people (60%) wanting to see a reduction. In spite of this, people have generally become more positive about immigration’s impact. Since the start of the study in early 2015, the rating of immigration as a positive force for Britain went up to 46%, with the percentage of those who viewed it negatively dropping to 34%. Roughly 39% of those who held a negative view of immigration in October 2015 had moved to feeling either neutral or positive. In contrast, only 22% of those who held positive views about immigration in October 2015 had switched to saying immigration’s impact was either neutral or negative one year later.

This follows a similar trend found in previous work. In an Ipsos Global advisory survey carried out in 2011, only 19% of participants viewed immigration as positive. This number had increased to 35% in 2015. In 1994, just 5% of respondents to a similar survey thought immigration was a major concern. The level of concern rose steadily in the years that followed, reaching a peak in September 2015, when 56% of the public held this viewpoint. In order to understand why immigration grew in salience over this period, it is important to note that the timeframe saw several waves of immigration from newly accepted EU members- such as Poland in 2004. However, this alone cannot be used to explain the change in attitudes. Interestingly, concerns about immigration have dropped off significantly since the EU referendum. 48% of those surveyed viewed it as a key concern in June 2016, compared with just 21% in December 2017. This is in part due to a growth in concerns regarding our relationship with the EU.

A Breakdown of Different Attitudes Throughout the UK

The EU referendum revealed how split the countries within the United Kingdom were regarding our relationship to the EU. The voters in England and Wales clearly favoured Leave, with 53.4% and 52.5% voting to for this option. The picture in Northern Ireland and Scotland was drastically different. Northern Ireland voted 55.8% to Remain, with 62% of Scots voting the same way. The difference highlights how these two parts of the UK see our relationship with the EU in a different light to the rest. The EU and immigration are inextricably linked within the public consciousness, largely due to the principle of free movement. Yet as closer analysis shows, positive attitudes towards the EU do not necessarily translate into positive attitudes towards immigration.

Just like the rest of the UK, the majority of Scots (58%) support reduced immigration to Scotland, however, more people in Scotland think immigration is a positive for the country (41%), than a negative (31%). This is interesting, as numerous governments have attempted to tackle the issue of the declining Scottish population by implementing schemes such as the ‘Fresh Talent Initiative’, which enabled non-EEA migrants to work in Scotland after attending university. Similarly, the Scottish government wants more devolution of immigration powers so it can pursue a more liberal immigration policy than the rest of the UK. At present, non-EEA workers require both sponsorship from an employer and a salary of £30,000 per year. Altering criteria such as this would enable Scotland to grow its working-age population.

As mentioned, Scotland’s vote in the EU referendum was hugely different to England’s. Despite this, a study from NatCen shows that attitudes towards immigration are almost identical on both sides of the border, with differences in stance stemming from other aspects of demography, notably age. Older people in Scotland are much more likely to look on immigration’s impact in a negative light, whereas 52% of those aged 18-34 view immigration as beneficial to the Scottish economy. The figures for these demographics in England are similar, with 54% of 18-34 year olds and 53% of 35-54 year olds believing that immigration is good for the economy. The proportions stay roughly the same in relation to the impact that immigration has on British culture.  The notable difference is that only 45% of those aged 35-54 in Scotland see it as positive, in comparison to 53% in England and Wales. Those aged over 55 across Britain have a far more negative view of immigration. Just 36% of this age group in Scotland believe it is good for the economy, a figure almost mirrored by the same age group in England and Wales.

Despite the divisions outlined by the Brexit referendum, it is clear this is not the best indicator of how certain countries within the UK feel about immigration. Age is a far more accurate means of gauging one’s stance on the matter, with millennials looking upon its cultural and economic impact far more favourably than those aged 55 and above.