The idea that people in the UK want a reduction in immigration is not new – this sentiment can be traced back for decades, even centuries.
What has changed recently, however, is the political salience of migration – a recent poll put immigration second only to the NHS as the issue most important to voters.
In understanding migration there is a problem of definition, with three very different concepts being used, and with each referring to a very different set of people:
- Country of birth: under this definition anyone not born in the UK could be seen as ‘migrants’, which would include many UK citizens.
- State of citizenship: under this definition all foreign nationals would be classified as ‘migrants’, regardless of the length of time they had been in the UK.
- Length of stay: this definition is used by the Office for National Statistics’ ‘long-term international migration statistics’, such as for its estimate of the flows and characteristics of migrants coming to and from the UK, and refers to the number of migrants intending to reside in or leave the UK for a particular length of time.
The problem with the definition (3), however, is that the length of time in question is of crucial importance. The ONS shows that net migration is positive for those intending to come into the UK for 1-4 years, but for those intending to come into the UK for longer, the UK actually has negative net migration. What a ‘migrant’ is defined as is crucial in determining what ‘we’ are worried about.
Public attitudes are also more nuanced than the current media discourse would lead you to believe. Data from the University of Oxford show people differentiate strongly between different types of migrant. People are most negative about low-skilled workers and extended family coming to the UK, with large majorities favouring a reduction in immigration of these groups. People are much more positive about high-skilled workers and university students, however, with only a third of people against immigration of these groups.
The legitimacy of increased migration is often framed in terms of paid work – and particularly skilled paid work. EU legislation requires that EU migrants are not an ‘undue burden’ on their country of residence, and migrants need to be in ‘genuine and effective’ work. The interpretation of these terms has become increasingly strict in the UK, with the Coalition government ruling that employees need to earn a minimum of £153 per week – the National Insurance threshold – to be considered ‘genuine and effective’.
All of this can be put in the context of a media discourse that problematises some groups – the low skilled migrant and the welfare benefit scrounger – on the grounds that government is responsible and accountable not to British citizens, but to the British taxpayer. People can come to the UK if they ‘pay their way’ and contribute. Wealthy residents can ‘buy’ UK citizenship by showing they are able to invest £1 million in the UK. Even people wishing to have a non-EU spouse need to show they can support them by earning at least £18,600 per year.
The shift from government accountability to the Citizen – to accountability to the Taxpayer – is perhaps encapsulated best in the following Home Office statement concerning the ‘right to marry’:
“Families are the bedrock of society … It is obvious that British citizens and those settled here should be able to marry or enter into a civil partnership with whomever they choose … [But] If a British citizen or a person settled here cannot support their foreign spouse or partner, then they cannot expect the taxpayer to do it for them.”