Britons 'dramatically softening' on immigration concerns, survey shows

A "dramatic softening" of attitudes towards welfare and more favourable views on immigration has emerged over the past five years, a survey has found.

A pro EU protester stands near Parliament in London. Picture: AP Photo/Frank Augstein
A pro EU protester stands near Parliament in London. Picture: AP Photo/Frank Augstein

People are less likely to call themselves English and more likely to identify as British, according to the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).

Its annual British Social Attitudes survey also found that support for increased spending on housing, police and prisons had reached a record high.

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The latest research also revealed just 3 per cent of people in Scotland believe the UK government has been successful in reducing the divide between high and low earners.

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Researchers carried out 3,224 interviews with adults in Britain between July and October last year.

The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) found 53 per cent in Scotland agree the government has the greatest responsibility for reducing the pay gap, but only a small minority back its success.

In the same study with people in England, 55 per cent agree on government responsibility while 6 per cent feel ministers have been successful.

NatCen used the same questions about social inequality on both its British Social Attitudes and its Scottish Social Attitudes surveys to better compare views on either side of the border.

The research institute said the results confirm the view that Scotland "may be slightly more 'left wing' than people in England".

Other areas of the research found similarities in attitudes, with 72 per cent of people in Scotland describing income distribution as "unfair" or "very unfair" along with 65 per cent in England.

However, around seven in ten Scots who support independence (73 per cent) or the SNP (70 per cent) say the UK government is "very unsuccessful" or "quite unsuccessful" in reducing the divide between high and low earners.

Only around half of pro-union supporters in Scotland (55 per cent) and half of Conservative voters in England (53 per cent) said the same.

Elsewhere, nearly half of people in Scotland (44 per cent) said they think taxes for high earners are too low or much too low, while in England 36 per cent think they are too low while 33 per cent feel they are about right.

James Yarde, NatCen senior statistician, said: "This new research confirms the long-held view that people in Scotland may be slightly more 'left wing' than people in England.

"Yet where differences in views on inequality do exist, they may reflect political identities more than anything else.

"People in Scotland who support independence are, for example, much more likely to express dissatisfaction with the British Government's record on reducing social inequality.

"Addressing national and regional inequalities within the UK was a core theme of the Scottish independence campaign and we might expect this issue to feature prominently once again now that independence is back at the forefront of Scottish politics."

For the first time in nearly 20 years, around the same proportion of people thought benefits were too low and caused hardship (36 per cent) as thought they were too high (35 per cent), NatCen said.

The proportion of people thinking benefits were too high and discourage work had fallen from 59 per cent in 2015.

Concern about "welfare scroungers" was at a record low, with just 15 per cent agreeing that people who receive social security "don't really deserve any help".

Almost half (47 per cent) of respondents disagreed with the above statement, up from 33 per cent in 2015.

And 9 per cent said spending on benefits should be increased - up from 3 per cent in 2017 and the highest proportion since 1997.

These findings reversed a trend towards tougher attitudes that had persisted since the 1990s, NatCen said.

The coronavirus pandemic appeared to have come at a time "when there was already more empathy with the circumstances of the low paid and unemployed of working age", it added.

Attitudes toward immigration also appear to have become "markedly more favourable", which NatCen said may be "surprising" given the outcome of the EU referendum.

The proportion of people saying immigration enriches cultural life increased from 26 per cent in 2011 to 46 per cent, while the proportion saying it undermines British culture halved from 40 per cent to 19 per cent.

And 47 per cent now say immigration is good for the economy - more than double the 21 per cent figure in 2011.

NatCen said this "perhaps raises questions as to whether the outcome of the referendum might have been different if it had been held a year or two later".

Gillian Prior, NatCen director of surveys, data and analysis, said: "We cannot be sure how either Covid-19 or Brexit will eventually affect the public mood.

"However, the dramatic softening in attitudes towards welfare in recent years strongly suggests the public may prove sympathetic towards more generous welfare benefits for people who lose their jobs because of the pandemic, especially if there is a substantial increase in the level of unemployment.

"In terms of Brexit, our research reveals a major shift towards viewing immigration as both culturally enriching and good for the economy.

"With the UK about to gain control of immigration between it and the EU, it would seem voters may approve of quite liberal application of that control."

The survey also found 18 per cent of respondents felt they had a European identity, up from around 12 per cent over the two decades before the 2016 referendum.

NatCen said the Brexit vote could have kindled a previously unacknowledged sense of European identity.

Some 28 per cent said they were English, the smallest proportion since the late 1990s, with twice as many (53 per cent) identifying as British.

Those who identified as English were much more likely to have voted for Brexit, the results showed.

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