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
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder