Concern among the public about immigration has increased dramatically since the 1990s. Reaching an all-time high in September 2015, when it was mentioned by 56%, it has remained in the top three issues throughout 2016. Successive governments have failed to allay public concerns on the issue and no political party is seen to have a credible or convincing policy on how to manage the scale of immigration; the Conservatives have consistently failed to meet their net migration targets and even among UKIP supporters, only just under a half (46%) think their party completely reflects their views on immigration.

As we entered 2016, immigration was set to play centre stage in the EU referendum debate. It did. As the campaign got into full swing, concern about immigration increased sharply by ten percentage points from 38% in May to 48% just before referendum day, overtaking concerns about the economy. It was one of the key vote deciders, particularly for Leave supporters, for whom – in their own words – it was by far and away the top issue in determining their vote.


Immigration was a lightning rod issue and it has exposed a number of fractures in British society. There has been much discussion about how Brexit was a protest vote and symptomatic of widespread anti-politics1 and that it has given currency to ‘nativism’, which asserts protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants. Parallels have been drawn between the Brexit vote and the rise in popularity of Donald Trump – as Ben Page discusses elsewhere in his article on the US election, Trump’s support was largely driven by anti-immigrant, nativist views.2

The public’s concern over levels of immigration is not a uniquely British preoccupation. Our global study of 22 countries3 this summer showed that, everywhere, people are uncomfortable with current levels of immigration. Half (49%) believe there is too much immigration in their country and 46% agree that immigration is causing their country to change in ways they don’t like. In our What Worries the World study, Britons were more likely (42%) than any other country (even Turkey, a country currently struggling with an influx of Syrian refugees) to say they are worried about immigration control.

06_chart_2So as Theresa May carefully navigates the ‘bumps in the road’ towards exiting the EU, there are high expectations of greater controls on immigration. However, there seems to be little indication of a radical shake up of controls, with the Leave campaigners’ much vaunted Australian-style points based system being swiftly dismissed by the Prime Minister as soon as she took office. Despite claims made during the campaign by the Leave side, the public is split about the extent to which Brexit will actually bring down net migration; 48% think it will increase or make no difference to the number of EU migrants coming to the UK and an equal proportion (49%) thinks numbers will reduce. Given that more immigrants come from outside the EU, some realism will be important.

At the Conservative Party Conference the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, proposed a series of potential measures to curb immigration, such as restricting numbers of overseas university students and tightening the tests that companies have to pass before recruiting employees from abroad. Businesses who rely heavily on both skilled and lower skilled migration (from inside and outside the EU) have met these proposals with disapproval. Ipsos MORI’s Captains of Industry survey shows that over half (57%) of senior business figures consider the ease of visa-free recruitment of people from across the EU a significant advantage to UK business. Furthermore, evidence suggests there is actually little appetite among the general public to reduce numbers of overseas students or highly skilled workers; 70% want to see the number of overseas students to increase or stay at current levels, compared with just 24% who want to see a reduction. For the most highly-skilled workers the figures are 76% and 19% respectively. Therefore, any change in immigration control will require a careful balancing act between supporting the needs of businesses and the economy and the desire among the public to see migrant numbers reduced. In October we found the public split between controlling immigration (39%) and securing access to the single market (45%).

Theresa May has made it very clear that reducing EU immigration is a priority in the Brexit negotiations. Therein lies the conundrum; in this era of globalisation and mass movement of people, is it possible to design an immigration system that both supports the economy and satisfies voters, or will something have to give?

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