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In response to Amber Rudd’s resignation, Ash Sarkar, a journalist at the Corbynista in-house magazine, Novara Media said: “The Tories have made a grave miscalculation, they assumed that the British public were just as racist and un-empathetic as they are and that we have the deep-down desire to see the Home Office transformed into the Ministry for Institutional Racism.”
That’s simply not true. On every single measure of attitudes and viewpoints, the British public is more authoritarian on immigration than the Tories.
The “hostile environment” approach, a combination of stringent reductions on migration in general and an aggressive attitude towards illegal immigrants in particular, was more or less a direct and coherent response to long-term trends in British views on immigration.
In 2015, a YouGov poll found that 72% of people answered positively to the question: “Do you think governments should or should not try to put a cap on the maximum number of people allowed to come and live in Britain each year?” So much for the British public’s supposed opposition to arbitrary caps on immigration.
There is plenty more evidence. In an “Issues that Matter” poll in 2015, 50% of voters felt that immigration was ‘the most important issue facing the country at this time”, scoring higher than the economy and health.
A survey commissioned by the German Marshall Fund found that about a quarter of UK residents believed that even legal migrants should be denied access to the NHS and the state education system.
According to Migration WatchUK, in 2014, “67% thought that employers should give priority to British people when recruiting. 20% disagreed and 12% didn’t know.” And the most fascinating stat in the same report: “Asked about the most important requirements for living in Britain, 60% said being able to speak English … 15% said tolerance of others.” Again, so much for tolerance making it as a ‘British value’.
A belief in the importance of population control, prioritising Britons over foreigners in the employment market and viewing language over shared values as an entry point to citizenship are all prominent features in the figures.
The ‘hostile environment’ was not created by May or Rudd or Farage – it was created by us, the British people. It was an expression of a fundamental truth in British political life – we are not a generous country most of the time.
And Brexit, the largest democratic mandate for anything in British electoral history and the most important event in post-war British politics, was a clear expression of those attitudes. An Opinium poll for the Observer in 2016 found that 49% of the public said that immigration was the most important factor in how they would vote, far outstripping any other single issue including distrust of the European bureaucracy and concerns about the economy.
There are lies, damned lies, and statistics of course, but to anyone who has followed British politics over the past few years, this is hardly out of step with the whole tenor of the immigration debate. This should have put paid to the notion that the cosmopolitan strand of British and English identity is as important as we like to think.