“It’s what the public demands.” That’s always been the government’s alibi for tough immigration rules. Polls, though, have suggested that the public is more nuanced and liberal than given credit for. The latest British Social Attitudes report, on post-Brexit policy, confirms this.
Most headlines about the report have focused on the fact that two-thirds of Britons oppose freedom of movement for EU nationals. What the survey asked, however, was whether EU nationals should be treated the same as everyone else. Most people agreed they should. Two-thirds also thought that EU countries should not favour Britons over other non-EU migrants. This is, in other words, as much a demand for equal treatment as for ending freedom of movement.
When asked how difficult it should be for immigrants to come to Britain, just 13% thought it should be “relatively difficult” for French people to migrate. For Poles and Australians, the figures were 18% and 12%, respectively. Inevitably, people were less welcoming of Pakistani immigrants, yet, just 29% thought it should be “relatively difficult” for Pakistanis to enter Britain.
The government has made much of its desire to welcome “high-skilled” workers and to restrict “low-skilled” ones. While the vast majority of the public want priority given to doctors, they also favour prioritising care workers, deemed “low skilled” by the government. Fewer than one in five want more “high-skilled” bankers. There is much opposition, too, to salary thresholds for prospective immigrants.
Public opinion is not as liberal as I would like. But it’s certainly far more so than you’d imagine from much of the debate about immigration. Or from government policy.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist