Pride and prejudice vs sense and sensibility: is Britain’s fear of immigration really rational?

A prejudice is any preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience, and also the ailment of a British society that ‘has had enough experts’. But is it Britain really ‘immigration-phobic’ and prejudiced against foreigners? Despite the four-fold increase of reported hate crime we have seen after the referendum vote, experts argue that immigration has always been a sensitive topic for Britons. Lets look at stats and numbers to make sense of what the British think and feel and see the arguments that corroborate or rebuff their concerns.

The ’84 finds Britain almost equally divided while Thatcher fights for a British rebate, which she ultimately wins. Attitudes toward staying and withdrawing from EU reach a historic semblance, with a narrow 3% lead for continued membership of the EU. Six year later, the UK joins the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), which is intended to harmonise European countries’ financial systems before creation of a single currency. ERM helps drastically reduce inflation and boost positive attitudes towards EU. In ’92, the British are forced out of the ERM after a failed effort to prop up the devalued pound with increased base rates. Crisis creates arguments over whether Britain should consider future attempt at monetary union, bolstering Euroscepticism among Britons in the following years.

“Excuse me, do I know EU?”

Despite the rising levels of Euroscepticism seen in the last years and in Britain’s decision to leave the Union, a recent Eurobarometer shows that the British are less knowledgeable when in comes to EU, its activity and institutions, when compared to the other countries in the bloc.

Only 57.33% of the British have knowledge on key EU facts and institutions, ranking last in the EU, with a 25% knowledge gap compared to the highest 82.33% rate found in Slovenia.

The British are the least informed when it comes to the European Union. Data provided by the European Union Open Data Portal

This certainly explains Briton’s frantic googling of what the EU is and what it does on the day after the referendum, but it poses questions too. Were the Brits right to find blame with the EU for so many of their grievances? Let’s take a closer look.

EU or not EU?

Data collected by NatCen in the most recent British Social Attitudes report gives an insight into the pre-referendum mood of the British electorate. Here are some key stats:

The Brexit related reported findings highlight a more detailed picture of British social attitudes and beliefs, and it’s not a flattering one. Almost half of those surveyed believe that Britain’s distinctive cultural identity is being alienated by its EU membership status.

The mood was gloomy, even for the British, and the referendum has bolstered it. A large percent of the British voters have expressed their grievances on the ballot paper, most of them bringing it down to the simple rational that immigration needs to be strictly regulated. The political class has been almost unanimous too: immigration is a problem and a genuine concern.

The problem is that genuine concerns need to be based in a strong reasoning that justifies them. Unfortunately, the British public is having none of that and the Overton window has been pushed dangerously close to accepting a pseudo-rational concern for an established truth. Dr. Scott Blinder, in his report on UK Public Opinion toward Immigration: Overall Attitudes and Level of Concern finds that the British were always very sensitive about immigration, prone to greatly overestimating its scale and impact.

Even before close political integration and the expansion of the European Union eastwards, people in Britain largely complained that there are too many immigrants in the UK and raised that as a rational concern. The key assumption of the “rational concern” thesis is that immigrants are actually hurting the British economy. The rational analysis, however, suggests otherwise.

Here is Torston Bell writing for the Resolution Foundation on the day after the referendum: “Areas that voted to leave the EU weren’t those that did badly in recent years, but areas in which people simply earn less. So it’s not the unequal impact of the recent recession driving voting patterns — or indeed as some argue the impact of migration driving down wages in some areas. Instead, in so far as economics drove voters’ behaviour last night, it is areas that are, and have been for some time, poorer. Or to put it another way, it’s the shape of our long lasting and deeply entrenched national geographical inequality that drove differences in voting patterns.”

Centre for Economic Performance report shows new evidence to support the claim that the areas of the UK with large increases in EU immigration did not suffer greater falls in the jobs and pay of UK-born workers. The big falls in wages after 2008 are due to the global financial crisis and a weak economic recovery, not immigration.

According to the report, there is also little effect of EU immigration on inequality through reducing the pay and jobs of less skilled UK workers. Changes in wages and joblessness for less educated UK born workers show little correlation with changes in EU immigration. EU immigrants pay more in taxes than they take out in welfare and the use of public services. EU nationals of working age are more likely to be in work than UK nationals and non-EU citizens. About 78% of working age EU citizens in the UK are in work, compared to around 74% of UK nationals and 62% of people from outside the EU. They, therefore, help reduce the budget deficit. Immigrants do not have a negative effect on local services such as police, education, health, or social housing.

Can the UK cope perfectly fine without its immigrants?

“The Chartered Institute of Building points out that any caps on immigration will harm house-building rates, as not enough British-born nationals are either trained or interested in construction careers, and migrants have been filling the gap,” the Guardian’s Dawn Foster writes. Chris Blythe, chief executive of CIOB tells the Guardian:

Globally, construction has always relied on migration to fill in gaps in the labour market — simply cutting off the supply of migrant workers risks seriously damaging the UK’s economic prospects both at home and abroad.
But of more importance is the need to address the fact that the industry simply does not train its own people in sufficient numbers. There can be no excuses for construction not to provide more training opportunities for young UK nationals.
Ancient Egyptian pyramid builders were migrants (not slaves) from towns throughout Egypt. Thriving today, Boulder City in Nevada, US, was born in the 1930s as migrant workers arrived to build the Hoover Dam. When in the past Britain has struggled to find construction workers, it turned to Ireland. The Irish duly became an integral part of this nation’s industry.
Local labour markets can provide a fairly steady level of underlying construction activity within reasonable travel-to-work distances for many workers. But the workforce needed for major or highly specialised projects is seldom met by the local labour market. This means the industry needs a highly flexible, in part itinerant, workforce to call on.
This local volatility is exacerbated by the boom and bust nature of construction activity, caused in part by what economists would describe as the accelerator effect, whereby fluctuations in the broad economy tend to be amplified in the construction sector … Data shows that construction is highly sensitive to changes in GDP.

Fullfact also gives its verdict immigration repercussions for the NHS staffing. Key points are:

  • 55,000 out of the 1.2 million staff in the English NHS are citizens of other EU countries,according to the English Health Service’s Electronic Staff Record.
  • 10% of doctors and 4% of nurses are from the EU
  • EU migrants are slightly more likely than the population overall to be NHS staff generally.
  • Migration from the EU added £160 million in additional costs for the NHS across the UK. However, the figure is small compared to the additional costs caused by other pressures on the health service.
  • Two studies have been carried out on immigrants living in the UK between 1995 and 2011 — one by academics at UCL, and another by the campaign group Migration Watch. Both studies agree that immigrants from the European Economic Area (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein plus all EU countries) made a more positive contribution than UK natives — and a far more positive contribution than immigrants from outside the EEA.

One interesting thing to take into consideration is that the UK is supposed to get payments from other EU and EEA countries for treating their citizens under the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which covers health care for short-term visitors, and the S1 document which covers the health care costs of expatriate pensioners.

The figures show that the UK paid £674 million to other countries, while receiving just £49 million in return this year. Government studies suggest that the NHS is also simply failing to charge when it is supposed to — recouping only a fraction of what should be around £340m from other countries. This is because NHS trusts find it easier not to record that they are owed money from abroad, thereby getting full payment from the standard system without the extra admin involved in tracking foreign visitors.

In conclusion, the UK would be able to get full payments for the costs of treating EU and EEA immigrants if the NHS was more accurate in keeping a record of its European patients.

Final straw: will immigration change after Brexit?

Putting together the economic impact of immigration, Fullfact suggests that EU immigrants are generally better for the public finances than non-EU immigrants. Predicting what will happen with the levels of migration after Britain voted to leave is impossible. If Britain decided to be an EEA member in order to have access to the single market, it will have to accept the freedom of movement clause too. This means that not many significant changes would happen to immigration levels unless driven by other factors rather that change in policy.

The captivating scenario though is the one where Britain decided to leave both the EU and the EEA. This means we could see a significant fall in overall EU migration, but some expert argue that the loss in EU migration might be counterbalanced by an increase in non-EU migration. This will largely depend on the policies that the UK would implement in that case and the quotas it will use to cap the number of migrants arriving in the UK.

It is clear that the second scenario would come with a severe economic price that Britain will have to pay, one that many agree is too harsh for what we could gain: a decrease in EU migration that, overall, isn’t currently damaging the UK economy or driving wages and employment down among the UK-born. Britain’s attempt to splendid isolation might prove in a few years to have been overall impossible to achieve or coming at very dramatic, not-so-splendid costs.