Migration from the European Union is a pretty controversial issue in Britain. Particularly in politics: the strength of the anti-EU UK Independence Party and the anxiety it causes for the two major parties is thought to be linked to public antipathy towards the high-levels of migration that followed the accession of eight eastern european countries to the EU in 2004 (EUA8).
Others have pointed out that perhaps something else is going on. The British public tend to overestimate the proportion of the country who are migrants and have been in favour of lower levels of migration for the past 50 years, even when the country was experiencing net emigration. So perhaps migration is just a vehicle for other concerns.
So I thought I would look at the relationship between the number of migrants in an area and public opinion about migration.
Using data from constituencyopinion.org.uk a project run by Nick Vivyan at Durham University and Chris Hanretty at the University of East Anglia that aims to map public opinion at the level of UK parliamentary consituencies and data on the proportion of (EUA8) migrants in each constituency from the census in 2011.
The colour of the dots on the map below shows people’s responses to the question “Do you think that immigration undermines or enriches Britain’s cultural life?” Blue means more pro-migration and red, less. The size of the dots indicate the proportion born in the EUA8.
In a linear regression of attitudes and proportion of migrants you find a statistically significant positive correlation between the two: more migrants tends to lead to more pro-migration attitude.
Although the relationship is not constant. Peterborough, Boston and Skegness, and South Holland and the Deepings are all exceptions with high levels of east european migrants and generally a lower number thinking that migration enriches Britain’s cultural life.
London also clearly stands out from the rest of the country, both in terms of the proportion of migrants and people’s attitudes to them. When excluding London from the data the relationship remains generally positive albeit weaker.
But there’s another theory about public attitudes towards migrants. The idea goes that when you live with migrants all on top of one another as tends to happen in London you make friends and their “otherness” becomes less strange and prejudice diminishes, but if you live close but not with people —seeing people talking in a foreign accent regularly but never getting to know them—it can heighten the sense of difference.
So I tested this idea as well by constructing an average of the level of migration in the closest six constituencies to each of the UK’s parliamentary constituencies and looked at the relationship between this average and attitudes to migration.
When including this in the regression I found, again, a significant positive relationship between the proportion of migrants in nearby constituencies and attitudes to migrants. At least, until London was excluded. Then the relationship turns slightly negative — although no longer statistically significant.
The same story holds true when looking at migrants in general, using being born outside the UK as a proxy for migration, and not just those from the EU accession states. Areas with more migrants tend to be more pro-migration, and areas close to areas with high migration tend to be less — however this time the relationship is statistically stignificant, but still pretty weak.
There are limits to the strength of this analysis. London has an outsize impact on the economic and cultural life of Britain. People are more likely to visit there for work and leisure, to see how multi-cultural the capital has become but not necessarily enough for it to become familiar.
But the facts as they stand are: places with more immigrants tend to be more pro-immigration, except for a number of constituencies in the east of the country, and areas close to areas of high-migration tend to be marginally more anti-immigration, but only outside of London.
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