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Are attitudes to immigration different across the UK?

Posted on 06 December 2018 by Sir John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow

By Sir John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow, NatCen, & Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde and Ian Montagu, Senior Researcher, ScotCen

Immigration was a central issue in the EU referendum. The UK-wide vote to Leave is widely regarded as having been motivated in part by opposition to the rules on freedom of movement that apply in the EU.

Scotland, however, voted very differently from the rest of Britain – 62% backed Remain. In addition, successive governments in Edinburgh have actively encouraged people from outside the UK to come to Scotland to live and work. Most recently, the SNP-led government has called for the devolution of immigration powers so that it could pursue a more liberal policy on immigration than the government at Westminster.

But does this mean that voters in Scotland are more positive about immigration than their counterparts in England & Wales?

Today, we publish a new analysis paper which addresses this question using data from the latest British (BSA) and Scottish (SSA) Social Attitudes surveys. Our findings suggest that, despite both the differential EU referendum result north of the border and the very different views of the governments in Edinburgh and London, the proportion of people who hold positive attitudes towards the economic and cultural consequences of immigration is much the same on both sides of the border.

True, far more people in Scotland think that immigration is good for Britain’s economy (46%) than think it is bad (17%). However, the picture is little different in England & Wales where the figures are 47% and 16% respectively. Similarly, while voters in Scotland are much more likely to feel that immigration enriches Britain’s culture (43%) rather than undermines it (20%), voters in England & Wales, where the equivalent figures are 43% and 23%, take much the same view.

Further, attitudes towards immigration differ by age and education in Scotland in much the same way as in England & Wales – younger people and those with higher educational qualifications are more likely to feel positive about the consequences of immigration, while older age groups and those with fewer qualifications tend to take a more negative stance. Immigration is no less divisive an issue in Scotland than it is across the rest of Britain.

So how is it that Scotland has a government that takes such a different view of immigration, even though voters’ attitudes on the subject are much the same as elsewhere?

SNP supporters are, in fact, more likely to take a positive view of immigration than voters in Scotland in general. As many as 59% of SNP voters think that it is good for the economy, while, 57% say that it enriches Britain’s culture. But this relative mood is counterbalanced by a tendency for supporters of other parties to be less positive about immigration than their counterparts in England & Wales.  For example, whereas 39% of Conservative voters south of the border think that immigration is good for the economy only 30% of Conservatives in Scotland hold that view. Meanwhile, only 45% of Labour supporters in Scotland say that immigration enriches Britain’s culture, compared with 56% in England & Wales.

But that still leaves the question as to why Scotland voted so differently from England & Wales in the EU referendum. The answer appears to be that the Remain campaign was more successful in Scotland than it was in England & Wales at winning over the support of those with less positive views about immigration. North of the border only 56% of those who voted Remain say that immigration is good for the economy, whereas in England & Wales the equivalent figure is 70%. Conservative and Labour supporters in Scotland, with their somewhat less positive views about immigration, were rather more likely than their counterparts in England & Wales to vote Remain – not least perhaps because in contrast to the position south of the border there were no prominent Conservative or Labour figures campaigning for a Leave vote.

Attitudes towards immigration in Scotland are, then, little different from those in the rest of Britain. What does differ is how these attitudes are reflected in the ballot box. The SNP has succeeded in attracting an electorate that is relatively positive about immigration. But the views of SNP supporters cannot necessarily be taken to reflect the views of everyone in Scotland.

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