Immigration in Britain: don’t let facts get in the way of a good story

With the 2015 general elections looming, and a forecast of parliamentary success for Britain’s main Eurosceptic and nationalist party UKIP, immigration has consolidated its place at the frontline of political debate.  In this article, Katie Wand exposes the deeply rooted social constructions that perpetuate the unadulterated nationalism that has once again swept the political stage.

British nationalism is hardly a new phenomenon. The Empire was built upon a belief of national superiority: legitimizing brutalities committed in the colonies, and engraining British racial and national superiority in the Imperial Victorian mindset. The Imperial division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has weakened since the fall of the Empire, yet public opinion polls suggest that jingoistic sentiments from years gone by are far from forgotten.

A recent government survey showed that a staggering 77% of British people supported a reduction in immigration levels.These figures are higher in the UK than in any other part of Western Europe. How can we account for this mounting animosity directed towards Britain’s immigrant population? With the expansion of the EU and European liberties, Britain has experienced higher levels of migration over the past decade than ever before. In 2014 nearly 1 in 3 Londoners were born outside of the UK. Yet this does little to explain why the British public seems to have reached breaking point over the issue. What is it about immigration that makes it so unpopular?

© Duncan Hull/Creative Commons License

© Duncan Hull/Creative Commons License

Despite the Daily Mail ‘statistics’ highlighting the economic loss incurred by the UK to benefit-claiming immigrants, what the tabloids fail to acknowledge is that since the industrial revolution, In the post-WWII era, from Windrush until the modern day,  immigrants have generally had a positive economic and social impact on Britain.

From a purely economic perspective, the average Polish immigrant reportedly contributes £6,000-7,000 per year to the economy in disposable income, making them more attractive to retailers than your average Brit. Compare this to the 125,000 British pensioners that are economically inactive in Spain, and the argument of Britain as a welfare haven loses its strength. Furthermore, recent pleas to Mr. Cameron from big businesses to remain in the EU due to the beneficial, if not essential, role that immigrants play in the British economy is surely indicative of the real economic value of immigration. Despite the evidence, public opinion appears to be growing  increasingly intolerant of non-Brits. Even this definition of ‘immigrant’ and ‘local’ is absurd considering the multicultural make-up of Britain due to swathes of immigration over the past 200 years.

To source the true cause of these prejudices, let us look at the demography of anti-immigration proponents for answers. A survey conducted by YouGov showed that UKIP supporters tended to be white, elderly, working class, poorly educated, and living in areas that are comparatively under-populated by immigrants. These tendencies indicate various things. The low socio-economic status of the pro-UKIP, anti-immigration prototype reflects social marginalization and relative poverty that so often precipitates social tensions.

In failing to cater for everyone, neoliberal Britain creates a social deficit, in which resentment coincides with the working classes, who become increasingly marginalized. As was seen in 1930s Nazi Germany, minority groups have historically fallen victim to persecution and prejudice created from social tension and economic marginalization. These historic patterns that arise between marginalization and prejudice perhaps suggest that the recent surge in nationalism is a product of social and economic discontent within British society, which was exacerbated by the 2008 economic crisis.

© Teacher Dude/Creative Commons License

© Teacher Dude/Creative Commons License

A second observation we can gather is that those who oppose immigration tend to be those least exposed to immigrants. Evolutionary theory cites prejudice as a mechanism of human nature that has evolved to protect us from potential dangers of the unknown. Dr Laurie Santos from Yale University concluded from a study on macaque monkeys that distrust of ‘out-group’ individuals dates back to mankinds evolutionary heritage, and therefore is not only natural, but may prove difficult to eliminate. A deeply ingrained prejudice towards out-groups  therefore extends beyond culture, into the realms of our natural history. The correlation between those with anti-immigration sentiments and a comparative lack of contact with immigrants is evidence that such views are not based on experience, but rather arise from a primordial instinct towards the unknown.

Of course, these sociological constructs are unable to rebuke the argument of the loss of British culture as a point of contention propagating nationalism and immigration restrictions. Yet, what is this British culture that is so at risk of being lost?

With the loss of the Empire, a decline in British international influence and a chicken tikka masala as our national dish, nationalist sentiment in the 21st century seems to be just a hangover from Imperialist beliefs in supremacy.

Growing fragmentation and marginalization in British society breeds resentment and discontent which becomes a malleable tool with which political parties can exploit the electorate. In the absence of economic or even social reasoning, it seems very clear that it is vulnerability, rather than rationality, of sects of the British population that is the driving force behind UKIP’s popularity.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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