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Divided Kingdom: How do Attitudes Towards Immigration Vary Based on Demographic Differences and Voting Preferences?

Article by Cameron Boyle

November 1, 2019

Divided Kingdom: How do Attitudes Towards Immigration Vary Based on Demographic Differences and Voting Preferences?

Since Brexit’s inception, immigration has been a hugely dominant theme. Theresa May’s government pledged to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’, a proclamation[1] aimed at capitalising on anti-immigrant public opinion. Yet attitudes towards the issue are far from simple, and closer inspection reveals a nation hugely divided in its views.

Scotland and England vote very differently to each other. Recent referenda have brought this matter to the fore of public consciousness, with both Brexit and the campaign for Scottish Independence shedding light on the extent of divergence between the two electorates. Whilst the independence referendum ended in defeat for the Yes campaign, the process as a whole opened up the political discourse, demonstrating the continued support for progressive, left-of-centre policies north of the border. Immigration is an issue that encapsulates said differences- the Scottish National Party (SNP) promote the idea of Scotland as an inclusive, tolerant nation, and state that they will ‘stand firm’[2] against the demonisation of migrants and those without British citizenship.[3] The Yes campaign was framed in these progressive terms, with Scottishness celebrated as a civic identity. Such ideas stand in stark contrast to the rhetoric espoused by the Leave campaign in the EU referendum, which emphasised the need to end free movement and regain control over our borders.

With this in mind, the way the respective countries voted in the EU referendum[4] was unsurprising; 62 per cent of Scots voted to remain in comparison with only 46.6 per cent of those in England. It is plausible to assume that, with the issue so central to our decision to leave,[5] Scotland’s vote communicates a much more positive view of immigration and its impact. However, closer analysis of attitudes towards immigration reveals a picture nowhere near as clear-cut. In a research project undertaken by NatCen,[6] Scottish and English participants were asked to rate both the economic and cultural impact of immigration. In spite of the perceived differences between Scottish and English public opinion on the matter, participants from both nations responded almost identically. Such similarities indicate that attitudes towards immigration in the respective countries are not as contrasting as is often believed. Is it in fact other demographic differences, rather than geographical location, that engender division in this area?

Further analysis suggests that this is the case. When examining the relationship between educational background and attitudes towards immigration, 32 per cent of Scottish respondents with zero qualifications stated that immigration is bad for the economy. This percentage was almost mirrored by the equivalent English respondents, with 33 per cent giving the same answer. In light of these findings, it is apparent that educational background plays more of a role in determining one’s stance than which part of the UK one resides in. Similarly, NatCen’s[7] research found a strong correlation between age and attitudes to immigration, with 51 per cent of Scots aged 18-34 viewing immigration as culturally enriching, a viewpoint held by 52 per cent of those in the same age bracket south of the border. Millennials are repeatedly found to have softer attitudes towards immigration- Opinium’s figures[8] from June 2017 show that 59 per cent of those aged 18-24 agreed that immigration is generally beneficial for society. Only 28 per cent of those aged 55-64 held the same opinion.

A study from Common Vision[9] attributes millennials’ positive attitudes towards immigration to their frequent exposure to ‘rapid exchange of information across borders’. Coming into contact with those from different backgrounds builds both tolerance and openness. With criteria such as age and educational background emerging as far stronger determiners of immigration stance than nationhood, other factors must be at work behind England and Scotland’s contrasting behaviour at the ballot box. The unignorable presence of the SNP is an important factor, with their progressive, multicultural ethos attracting the support of voters who view immigration as positive. Whereas the Conservatives reiterated their pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, the SNP stated that Scotland needed to continue to attract migrants in the wake of Brexit. Taking this into account, it stands to reason that those who voted ‘Yes’ in the Scottish independence referendum would look upon immigration favourably.

This idea is corroborated by the numbers- 56 per cent of Yes voters viewed immigration as culturally beneficial, with only 16 per cent perceiving its impact as negative in this regard. Studying the link between the SNP and pro-immigration views further, 59 per cent of SNP voters[10] in the 2017 General Election viewed immigration as economically beneficial. Interestingly, this viewpoint was shared by exactly the same percentage of Labour voters in England and Wales. Such symmetry provides an explanation for why voting habits in the two countries differ, despite the notable similarity in overall attitudes towards the issue. Rather than Scots in general taking a far more positive view of immigration, the pro-immigration stance of their largest party creates this impression. However, this is counterbalanced by Labour and Liberal Democrats receiving lower levels of support from pro-immigration voters in Scotland than they do in England. 

Honing in on the EU referendum, it is pertinent to examine why Scotland voted decisively to Remain despite overall attitudes towards immigration mirroring those in England. It is apparent that the Remain campaign in Scotland was more effective at securing voters less positive about the issue- 70 per cent of Remainers in England expressed positive views of its cultural impact, compared with 56 per cent in Scotland. NatCen[11] point out that no senior politicians from any party in Scotland endorsed Leave, which may explain why greater numbers of those sceptical about immigration voted to Remain. Brexit has created new political fault lines in this area. In addition to age, educational background and political affiliation, Leave and Remain are now indicators of one’s stance on the matter. A study by IpsosMORI[12] measured the issues most important in deciding the referendum vote. One such issue was ‘the number of immigrants coming to Britain’, a matter which 74 per cent of Leavers said influenced their vote. In contrast, only 14 per cent of Remainers cited this as an important factor.  

Such disparity evidences how Brexit has added an additional layer of difficulty to an issue already hugely divisive. It is important to note that, despite immigration forming the crux of much referendum campaigning, the general public have actually become more positive about the matter since the vote took place. The reasons for this are uncertain, however IpsosMORI[13] postulate that our decision to leave may have reassured those who favour a reduction. Conversely, the copious amounts of anti-immigrant rhetoric may have sparked a countermovement in support of migrants.

Attitudes towards immigration in the UK are complex and divided, although not in the way one might think. It is demographic differences and voting preferences where contrasting opinions are found. Additionally, attitudes towards the issue are softening in spite of its centrality to the Brexit debate.

Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors who offer free legal support to asylum seekers.


[1] BBC, Immigration: Tories to keep ‘tens of thousands’ target, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-39840503

[2] SNP, What is the SNP’s policy on immigration?, https://www.snp.org/policies/pb-what-is-the-snp-s-policy-on-immigration/

[3] Immigration Advice Service, British Citizenship, https://iasservices.org.uk/british-citizenship/

[4] John Curtice and Ian Montagu, Do Scotland and England & Wales Have Different Views About Immigration?, NatCen, December 2018, http://www.natcen.ac.uk/media/1672027/Do-Scotland-and-England-and-Wales-Have-Different-Views-About-Immigration.pdf

[5] Ipsos Mori, Shifting Ground: 8 key findings form a longitudinal study on attitudes towards immigration and Brexit, IPSOS, October 2017, https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2017-10/Shifting%20Ground_Unbound.pdf

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Brexit Watch, A Generation Together? What do millennials want from Brexit?, covi,  July 2018, http://www.covi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Common-Vision-A-Generation-Together-July-2018-FINAL.pdf

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.                                                                              

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ipsos Mori, Shifting Ground: 8 key findings form a longitudinal study on attitudes towards immigration and Brexit, IPSOS, October 2017, https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2017-10/Shifting%20Ground_Unbound.pdf

[13] Ibid.

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