The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Immigration worries drove the Brexit vote. Then attitudes changed.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is vowing to slash immigration numbers. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

LONDON — When the British voted to break away from the European Union — the historically gutsy or spectacularly reckless decision, take your pick — they said they wanted to “take back control” of their money and laws and they expressed a deep anxiety over immigration.

But in the two years since the referendum, something remarkable happened: The British stopped worrying so much about foreigners.

Pollsters have uncovered a mellowing of attitudes about immigration, expressed by both those who voted to leave the European bloc and those who voted to remain.

“I have been studying this for years, and there’s never been a move this big in such a short period of time,” said Rob Ford, a politics professor at the University of Manchester.

The shift highlights how mercurial the topic of immigration can be — a hot-button issue one year, a yawn the next. And it may suggest something about what the public will support, as Prime Minister Theresa May tries to sell the withdrawal agreement she negotiated with E.U. officials and her plans for what comes next.

In exchange for obeying trade rules from Brussels, May is promising the British people that she will slash the country’s post-Brexit immigration levels. The 3 million Europeans already living in Britain will be allowed to stay, but the government will set new guidelines for how many foreigners will be allowed into the country, with what levels of income and from which countries.

During a marathon session in Parliament on Thursday, May emphasized that her Brexit plan would bring an end to days when anyone in the E.U. could simply move to London, rent a flat, take a job and get on the national health-care plan.

British Prime Minister Theresa May responded to members of Parliament's questions and criticism of the proposed Brexit deal in the House of Commons on Nov. 15. (Video: Sarah Parnass/Reuters)

“Free movement will end,” May said. “That is one of the key elements, I believe, of the vote in the referendum that we need to ensure we deliver for the British people.”

May has vowed to reduce overall immigration, from 100,000s annually to 10,000s, and to give preference to the high-skilled, high-earning “best and brightest” over the lower-skilled, low-pay workers who currently harvest the crops, clean the hotel rooms, and care for the sick and elderly in Britain.

But the question looms: Is May looking in the rearview mirror, while the public has largely moved on?

In the days before the Brexit vote — amid a surge of migration to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa, and while the booming British economy was attracting a huge wave of workers from Eastern Europe — the pollster YouGov found that 56 percent of people named “immigration and asylum” as the top issue facing the country. Last month, the figure was 27 percent.

A second major polling firm, Ipsos-MORI, reported a similar drop in respondents citing immigration as “the most important issue facing Britain today” — from 48 percent in June 2016 to 17 percent in October.

That’s an extraordinary plunge, say polling experts — and it’s mirrored by parallel surveys and focus group studies done for academics, advocacy groups and the E.U.

“It’s really quite striking,” said Lindsay Richards, a sociologist at the University of Oxford who has written on the topic for the Migration Observatory, an independent research group.

Manchester University’s Ford said that when people listed immigration as a top concern before the Brexit vote, it tended to reflect anti-immigrant sentiment, not worries about how asylum seekers pouring into Europe were being treated.

“I have data sets where you can see literally verbatim what is said. In all caps, people write, ‘TOO MANY IMMIGRANTS,’ or ‘TOO MANY EUROPEANS,’ or ‘WHY CAN’T THEY STOP THE IMMIGRANTS?’ over and over again,” said Ford. “It’s no mystery what side they are on.”

Britain today still has high rates of immigration. But migration to Europe from North Africa has dropped to pre-surge levels. Net migration from the E.U. to Britain peaked around 189,000 the year before the Brexit vote. The latest figures show that it’s around 87,000, meaning that it has more than halved in two years.

Polls still find broad support for reducing the overall number of newcomers. Surveys also find respondents divided over whether immigration — and multiculturalism — is good or bad for “British culture.” 

But since the Brexit vote, fewer people tell pollsters that there are too many immigrants in the United Kingdom. Britons also have become more positive about the ideas that “immigration is good for the economy” and that the United Kingdom should “allow more E.U. workers.” 

“All polls seem to suggest it’s softened — people are less negative, basically on every measure you ask,” said Anthony Wells, YouGov’s director of political and social opinion polling.

Richards said it is especially significant that the views of both “remainers" and “leavers” have relaxed on immigration — even as the sides remain bitterly divided over Brexit.

While there is widespread agreement that professed attitudes toward immigration have shifted, no one has put their finger on precisely why.

Opinion analysts say current worries over Brexit (now the top concern, along with the National Health Service, in opinion polls) may have replaced — or absorbed — past anxiety over immigration.

Others point to a changing news and social media landscape, with far fewer front pages depicting immigrants as job-stealing scammers.

During their campaign, Brexiteers urged voters to “take back control,” a powerful phrase that, in a single stroke, encapsulated the ideas of regaining lost authority over immigration and sovereignty, one of the other drivers of the Brexit vote.

There were also more-overt appeals to fuel anti-immigrant emotions, with micro-targeted ads on Facebook and mass-media campaigns.

Vote Leave, the official group campaigning for Brexit, falsely claimed that Turkey was about to join the E.U., and that gun-toting Turkish mobsters would be one’s new neighbors.

Nigel Farage, who led the pro-Brexit U.K. Independence Party, unveiled a poster featuring Syrian and other asylum seekers marching through East European fields next to the slogan “Breaking point.”

In the months before the Brexit vote, British tabloid newspapers splashed stories on their front pages with headlines such as “Migrants Rob Young Britons of Jobs,” “Migrant Workers Flooding Britain” and “Workers Are Fired for Being British.”

According to one researcher, over a six-year period starting in 2010, the Daily Express carried front-page migration stories on 179 occasions, and the Daily Mail, 122 times.

George Osborne, the former chancellor of the exchequer who campaigned for Britain to remain in the E.U., recently told the BBC that his Conservative Party’s remain campaign didn’t do enough to promote the benefits of European immigration.

But fast-forward two years, and public space is no longer dominated by fears of Britain being overwhelmed by migrants, but rather by concerns about how Brexit may disrupt life and hurt the economy, especially if Britain “crashes out” of Europe in a no-deal “doomsday scenario.”

The biggest immigration story since the Brexit vote didn’t have anything to do with E.U. workers or migrants from the Middle East and North Africa. It was about the “Windrush generation,” people brought legally from Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean to help rebuild Britain after World War II, only to find their legal status questioned by British authorities decades later.

When Brexit news features E.U. migrants, the stories typically highlight how Britain could lose European nationals who contribute to the economy by working as berry pickers, baristas, and nurses at the National Health Service.

“People are realizing there are trade-offs,” said Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London. “There is a greater realism in the media coverage and the public debate.”

Rosie Carter, a senior policy officer with the group Hope Not Hate, said when her organization offered an online anonymous survey, where self-selected, non-randomized respondents could choose a number from 1 to 10 (very negative to very positive) to describe their feelings about immigration, the majority choose either 1s or 10s — meaning they went to the extremes, which is what many people experience through social media.

But when the group hired professional pollsters to survey a representative sample, they found that most Britons are “balancers,” who see the dueling “pressures and gains” of immigration.

Wells, of YouGov, wonders how much the shift in opinion on immigration has to do with how the tribes of Brexit “leavers” and “remainers” want to think of themselves.

The roughly half of voters who identify as remainers are able to defend their position on Brexit by associating even more strongly with a pro-immigrant stance, Wells said. The leavers, on the other hand, are hostile to the suggestion they voted to exit the European bloc because of migrants, which has been cast as a bigoted or even racist position.

“My assumption is that it’s connected to Brexit and connected to how people see themselves now, how people identify,” Wells said.

Those who oppose Brexit say softer attitudes toward immigration should bolster their call for a second referendum, arguing that if the citizens have changed their thinking about a core issue, why not stage a “people’s vote” before signing off on May’s Brexit deal.

But a second plebiscite is opposed by the prime minister, who says it would be anti-democratic. A do-over is only halfheartedly embraced by the opposition Labour Party, whose leaders worry about losing the working-class supporters who want Brexit.

While people are less negative about immigration than they were two years ago, the majority still want to see numbers come down, said Kully Kaur-Ballagan, research director at Ipsos-MORI polling.

“If that doesn’t happen,” she said, “it could reemerge as an issue.”

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