4 January 2014

Pragmatic public wants immigration mended, not ended

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It shouldn’t come as surprise that people’s anxieties about immigration aren’t eliminated by being told it’s good for the economy, argues Sunder Katwala.

Commuters on London tube. Photo: Mike Knell
Photo: Mike Knell

The British Social Attitudes data may offer some important clues as to how those who want to defend the benefits of migration might best engage with public anxieties.

Supporters of immigration do more harm than good to their own cause if their main response is to suggest that people haven’t yet understood the economists’ graphs properly.

Evidence should matter for policy-making – but appeals to the facts rarely change minds to settle contested debates. This is especially true on immigration. Successive governments have acknowledged that the immigration system is not fit for purpose. The public are less likely to trust official statistics to tell the full story, especially if they compete with their lived experience.

The net fiscal contribution which migrants put into the pot matters – as long as it is combined with a clear plan to ensure resources and services to areas of rapid population change. Treasury figures showing the aggregate gain is of little consolation if people don’t feel the local pressures have been adequately prepared for. That national-local mismatch eroded confidence about the unanticipated scale of Polish migration after 2004. Yet most people also say, by 52% to 24%, that the Poles have made a positive contribution to Britain.

Concerns about immigration are a mixture of the economic and the cultural. People believe high levels of migration have been badly managed in recent years, yet understand that migration will be part of the modern world in which Britain must compete too.

For most, the question is less whether to open the borders or slam them shut – but how to actively manage the pressures to secure the benefits. The BSA research also captures how attitudes are more pragmatic and nuanced than our polarised media debate would suggest. People may prefer to see immigration at lower levels – but they don’t want to turn away the positive contribution from migrants that the NHS, care homes and universities depend on.

This article has been modified for the site. The original version appeared in The Independent here.

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