E.g., 12/02/2023
E.g., 12/02/2023
Engaging the Anxious Middle on Immigration Reform: Evidence from the UK Debate

The United Kingdom is often presented as having particularly hostile attitudes toward immigration compared to other countries. Momentum generated by those who are firmly opposed to current immigration levels was a major factor behind the call for a June 2016 referendum on UK membership in the European Union, and has also played a role in tough migration policies put forward by the coalition and Conservative governments.

Certainly, immigration is an increasingly salient issue in UK politics and surveys indicate that public trust in the government’s ability to manage inflows has fallen to abject levels. Immigration emerged as a key political issue in the late 1990s, and from 2013 onwards politics “caught up” with public views, as parties such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) rose to prominence campaigning on a populist, anti-immigration platform.

However, the authors of this report make the case that polls reveal far more nuanced public attitudes towards immigration and immigrants than commonly depicted in the media and political discourse. Though there are substantial minorities of strong opinion for and against immigration, most people fall into the “anxious middle.” They are skeptical about the government’s handling of immigration and worried about the effects of immigration on society and the economy, but are not hostile toward immigrants themselves, especially skilled ones who can contribute to the economy.

This Transatlantic Council on Migration report analyzes polling data in an attempt to paint a more accurate picture of public opinion on immigration—focusing on the concerns of the anxious middle. It examines several drivers of public opinion in the United Kingdom, including media coverage of immigration, before considering how recent migration policy changes can be linked to public opinion—or, crucially, what policymakers perceive to be the public will.

Table of Contents 

I. Introduction

II. The Shape of Public Opinion on Migration

A. Tribes of Public Opinion

B. A Generational Gap

C. Identifying Public Concerns on Migration and Migrants

III. A Fresh Look at Some Drivers of Public Opinion on Migration

A. Long-Term Migration Trends in the United Kingdom

B. The Realignment of British Politics

C. Media Coverage of Migration

IV. The Policy Response: Projecting Tough Control 2010-2016

A. Reducing Numbers: The Net Migration Target

B. Immigration Reforms and Ending Child Detention

C. A Hostile Environment

D. The EU Referendum

E. The Refugee Crisis

V. Implications for Reformers