Immigration and Brexit: fear and reality

by George Hatjoullis

The Guardian has published an interesting survey that makes clear that immigration is, directly and indirectly, the main impulse behind the Brexit campaign. It is already clear but the survey leaves no doubt. The problem is that immigration is closely linked to xenophobia and outright racism so facts do not much influence attitudes. People believe what they wish to believe. This is most evident in one of the striking features of this survey, the disparity between fear and actual experience.

Immigration emerges as the most important issue affecting the UK. Yet when the same group was asked to rank the most important issue facing them and their family immigration ranked fourth. It seems 55% see it as a big issue for the UK but only 25% see it as a personal issue. There is thus a huge disparity between fear and personal experience. There is much to be gained from closing this gap between the two by bringing fear into line with experience.

One cause of this disparity, in my view, is the negative narrative that permeates this (and other societies) on the question of immigration. Opportunist politicians stir the embers of fear aided and abetted by the gutter press that play up negative immigration stories because it makes good copy and sells papers. The stories enter the collective consciousness as fact, and inspire fear totally unconnected to actual personal experience. It seems the regions and population cohorts that most fear immigration are those that have the least experience of its consequences. The space left by inexperience is filled by fear rather than hope, courtesy of Farage and the Sun.

There are two lessons we might draw from the above. First, if the immigration issue leaves the headlines then the fear factor should diminish and fall into line with experience. This is unfortunately impossible in a free speech society. It may ebb and flow but one cannot keep the issue of the agenda. The second, is that a selective, and firm, challenge of the headlines might blunt their impact. This does not happen as much as it should with politicians and gutter press able to put ideas out with little or no challenge. It is in this area in which more could be done. A group that takes every negative headline and every soundbite and challenges its veracity and places it in context and demands the same exposure as the original headline might do some good. I do not expect one to emerge.

The Brexit issue is thus destined to be settled by the battle of two fears. In the Brexit corner is the fear of immigration from the EU and the fear of uncontrolled borders. In the Remain corner is fear of the unknown. Populations are naturally conservative and have a bias for the status quo. The Brexit campaign makes many brave sounding noises about putting the ‘Great’ back into Britain but deep down everyone probably feels that days of empire are over and the UK has more hope for prosperity and security taking the lead in the EU. This is especially so because the UK has many valuable options (or opt outs). Let battle commence.