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.

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

A Liberty van responds to the Home Office's advertisements to 'go home or face arrest', aimed at illegal immigrants. Image: Getty
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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.