Small boats, big issue

Tarik Haiga (source:

Britain is currently paying France to patrol its beaches and prevent migrants setting off across the English Channel. The idea is to prevent a re-occurrence of what happened on October 29th and 30th when, respectively, 990 and 468 people boarded dinghies to make the journey from mainland Europe.

It was called “an invasion” by Home Secretary Suella Braverman who came under fire about conditions and competence at the Manston migrant centre. Just today, statistics showed net migration in Britain has reached 504,000 — the highest level it’s been in the post-war era. The issue of immigration is back in the news and back in public consciousness.

This month, one in five Britons, 21%, spontaneously mentioned immigration as being a big issue facing the country according to Ipsos’ monthly Issues Index. It is the highest score since March 2019 and immigration is now the joint-second most salient issue, alongside the NHS, behind the economy and inflation tied at the top.

Immigration only averaged 10% a month last year, well short of the equivalent 40% in the year of the EU referendum. Concerns about immigration were one of the key drivers of the Leave vote, and disquiet about levels and impacts of immigration helped to drive populism in Britain, as it did elsewhere in the world. But it fell off the radar for a while.

The salience of immigration is often a reflection of wildly inaccurate public perceptions as shown by Professor Bobby Duffy who also demonstrated how wrong the mental image of the typical ‘immigrant’ can be, with public perspectives shaped more by vivid images and emotional stories than realities and statistics. Perhaps the most important misperception is the sense most people have that their fellow citizens have become more negative towards immigration when the opposite is true.

Attitudes are more nuanced and fluid on the topic than is sometimes credited. Ipsos surveys have found a degree of pragmatic permission for a balanced approach to immigration, and there has been a gradual warming of public attitudes to immigration since the run-up to the referendum in 2016. Published last month (fieldwork was undertaken in the summer), the latest wave of an Ipsos tracker survey for British Future found support for reducing immigration to be at its lowest level since 2015.

More people felt that immigration has had a positive effect on Britain than a negative effect, a reversal of the first survey in the series. Opinions vary according to the nature of immigration and the benefits additional skilled workers might bring to the country’s public services and the economy, although a solid 39% take the view that there should be strict limits even if it harms economic growth.

Most people want the right balance struck between compassion and competence. To illustrate this, in 2018, a majority of Britons felt ashamed about how Britain treated the Windrush generation, and this contributed to growing dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of immigration, particularly among Conservative supporters.

Four years on, a majority of the public, and most Conservative supporters, do not think the Rwanda scheme is likely to be effective or provide value for money. Matt Goodwin has shown that a majority of Britons think the government has lost control of the country’s borders, and Ipsos’ data clearly shows that those who voted Conservative in 2019 are far more concerned than Labour party supporters about immigration.

This isn’t a factor driving increased ‘Bregret’, but polls have found the public especially negative on the level of disagreement between the EU and the UK on managing illegal immigration across the Channel. That was earlier this year, but now, people are worrying about immigration even more.



Research Director at Ipsos, interested in understanding society and public opinion. Views my own. Pre-April 2020 blogs available at LinkedIn, tweets @BenIpsosUK

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Ben Marshall

Research Director at Ipsos, interested in understanding society and public opinion. Views my own. Pre-April 2020 blogs available at LinkedIn, tweets @BenIpsosUK