The most common word used to describe immigrants is 'illegal'

64 per cent of British people consider it to be more of a problem than an opportunity, according to the Transatlantic Trends survey. But there is cause for optimism.

New Statesman
A Liberty van responds to the Home Office's advertisements to 'go home or face arrest', aimed at illegal immigrants. Image: Getty

Few political debates are as persistently vexed and fractious as that over immigration. Successive governments have deployed tough rhetoric claiming to have a grip on the system, softened with Danny Boyle-esque nods to migrant contributions through centuries of British history. To no avail.

The British public remain stubbornly sceptical about immigration, much more so than their European neighbours. According to Transatlantic Trends, the German Marshall Fund's annual survey, published today, 64 per cent of British people consider it to be more of a problem than an opportunity. We remain much more concerned than other countries with similar or higher levels of immigration, such as France, Sweden and Italy. And when asked to estimate how many migrants live in the country, the British are especially prone to inflate the numbers. The average guess in the UK was 31 per cent. The real figure is closer to 12 per cent.

Immigration is a contentious issue in the US and in most of the European countries included in the survey. Countries such as Spain and Italy have been more severely affected by the economic crisis than the UK. And they have only recently become a destination for large numbers of migrants. Yet the British are more worried about immigration than residents of these countries in the Schengen zone, within which border and passport controls have been abolished.

However, Transatlantic Trends also shows that in the UK attitudes have remained fairly stable. The recession, rising unemployment and ongoing welfare cuts have not led to the dramatic hardening of public opinion that might be expected. Other countries have shown changes since 2008. German attitudes, for example, have become more positive, in contrast to the increasingly pessimistic French.

But are the British really as unwaveringly anti-immigrant as these findings suggest?

One reason underlying British scepticism is likely to be persistent distrust in the management of the immigration system. The current Government, like its predecessor, has been keen to demonstrate its competence in this area. Rafts of measures have been introduced to reinforce the message that our borders are well-managed and tightly controlled: from scrapping the UK Border Agency to this summer's controversial 'Go Home' van. But there has been little change in perceptions and an overwhelming majority of British people - 72 per cent - still think that the Government has been doing a poor job at managing migration.

On closer examination, it's also clear that public opinion on this issue is much more nuanced than it initially appears. A majority of British people agree that immigrants take jobs from British workers but also that they create jobs through setting up new businesses and help fill jobs where there are shortages. As for the cultural impact of immigration - an important part of the story - views are also seemingly paradoxical. While we are fairly evenly split on whether immigrants pose a threat to our national culture, a healthy majority - 63 per cent - consider that they enrich British culture.

Perhaps one key to understanding British public opinion is to consider the immigration and integration debates separately. The former focuses on numbers, borders and rights and entitlements, or the lack or abuse thereof. A recent report by the Migration Observatory at Oxford University examined broadsheet and tabloid coverage of immigration during the past three years. It found that the most common word used to describe immigrants was 'illegal.'

Integration, on the other hand, is a much slipperier concept. In the public conversation it tends to manifest itself almost subliminally, in the form of personal stories and experiences. The prize-winning heart-surgeon or Olympic medal winner who just happens to have been born in a different country. This may explain why Transatlantic Trends shows that the British public are more positive on questions of integration. A majority consider that the children of immigrants are integrating well.

It may also be that the British debate about national identity is not as closely linked to immigration as on the continent. Leaving aside whether multiculturalism failed as a state policy, as Angela Merkel memorably claimed, there is no denying that attitudes to diversity and race have transformed in recent decades in the UK. As a report by British Future last year notes, concern about mixed race relationships has fallen from 50% in the 1980s to just 15% in 2012.

During the last World Cup there was much discussion about the unprecedented diversity of the German national team, with Merkel commenting that they provided a role model "for those who are of German origin just as much as for those who want to integrate." It's hard to imagine an analogous debate in the UK. Racism remains a problem in football, but it's unlikely that Jermain Defoe and his non-white team-mates would be described as role models for integration. Few would consider them to be anything other than British.

The fact that integration debates in Britain have become more subtle in recent years is to be welcomed. But it's important to approach our seemingly overwhelming negativity towards immigration with some caution. As these poll findings suggest, the British public have complex and multi-layered views on the benefits and challenges immigration brings. And it's that debate we should be having, not one about how we can become tougher and less welcoming to migrants.

Ayesha Saran is Migration Programme Manager for the Barrow Cadbury Trust