Recent polls show growing numbers of Britons think immigration has had a positive impact on the UK. When the British voted to break away from the European Union — the historically gutsy or spectacularly reckless decision, take your pick — they said they wanted to “take back control” of their money and laws and they expressed deep anxiety over immigration. But in the two years since the referendum, something remarkable happened: The British stopped worrying so much about foreigners. Pollsters have uncovered a mellowing of attitudes about immigration, expressed by both those who voted to leave the European bloc and those who voted to remain.
The shift highlights how mercurial the topic of immigration can be — a hot-button issue one year, a yawn in the next. And it may suggest something about what the public will support, as Prime Minister Theresa May tries to sell the withdrawal agreement, she negotiated with E.U. officials and her plans for what comes next. In exchange for obeying trade rules from Brussels, May is promising the Britons that she will slash the country’s post-Brexit immigration levels. The 3 million Europeans already living in Britain will be allowed to stay, but the government will set new guidelines for how many foreigners will be allowed into the country, with what levels of income and from which countries.
In the days before the Brexit vote — amid a surge of migration to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa, and while the booming British economy was attracting a huge wave of workers from Eastern Europe — the pollster YouGov found that 56 percent of people named “immigration and asylum” as the top issue facing the country. Last month, the figure was 27 percent. That’s an extraordinary plunge, say polling experts — and it’s mirrored by parallel surveys and focus group studies undertaken for academics, advocacy groups, and the E.U.
While people are less negative about immigration than they were two years ago, the majority still wants to see numbers come down, said Kully Kaur-Ballagan, research director at Ipsos-MORI polling. “If that doesn’t happen, it could reemerge as an issue,” she said.