What Impact Will Britain’s Increasingly Relaxed Attitudes to Immigration Have on Radical Right Support?

Running counter to a common narrative holding that Britain has become a more intolerant country since the Brexit vote, data continues to emerge that British attitudes to immigration have relaxed since the Brexit vote – and continue to. As Professor Rob Ford and Dr Maria Sobolewska of Manchester University commented in a British Future report published in April: ‘while a small minority may have regarded Brexit as an endorsement of xenophobia, the majority have moved in the opposite direction’.

Without doubt, immigration as an issue of public concern has fallen. Around 60% argued that it was in the ‘top 3’ priorities facing the country at the time of the referendum in June 2016. This had already fallen to 29% in May 2018, according to YouGov. Furthermore, when the Brexit vote occurred, just over 40% of respondents to an online survey shared positive views of the economic impact of immigration, with even fewer (38%) expressing positive views about its cultural impact. By June 2017, the latter category had risen to around 46% and the former to around 50%. There is also an overwhelming majority of people – even amongst Leave voters – who support protecting the rights of EU migrants in Britain, while 63% argued that guaranteeing EU migrants’ rights should be the first priorityof Brexit negotiations.

The most obvious question is, Why has this dramatic shift occurred? Michael Gove – a cabinet minister and key Brexiteer – argued this week, in a speech at the Policy Exchange think tank, that the Brexit vote had made the British public more tolerant towards immigration. He argued that‘the act of taking back control has allowed British citizens to show they can be more welcoming to new arrivals if allowed to be rather than required to be’. Gove’s rosy view of the post-Brexit environment, which has seen him also claim that Britain was ‘the most immigration friendly country in the EU’, is pure politicking, surely, although there may be some truth to the idea that the Brexit vote and the government’s subsequently ruthless pursual of a Brexit deal, which will lead to an end to the free movement of EU migrants, has allayed some of the public fears over immigration. As Professor Rob Ford, speaking to the Financial Times,put it recently: ‘Voters across the political spectrum seem to have taken [the Brexit vote] as a cue to worry about immigration less, and appreciate it more’.

Yet there could be other factors at play as well. High profile incidents, such as the Mediterranean refugee crisis – which hardened many Europeans’ views on immigration, and was exploited by Leave campaigners during the EU referendum – have been less prominent on British TV screens and newspapers. Other high profile incidents that laid bare the often devastating plight and challenges faced by migrants – such as the Grenfell fire and, more recently, the Windrush scandal – may have also engendered more sympathy for immigrants in the public mind. There might even be a kind of ‘Trump effect’ too, whereby the British public come to associate nativist and anti-immigration politics with the US President; one whom over a third of the publicwish to distance themselves from.

We ultimately cannot be sure, however, and these are but tentative suggestions. Opinion regarding immigration can fluctuate greatly and may well harden again soon. That said, if the trend of liberalisation toward immigration continues it is certainly well worth further investigation by scholars.

How will this impact the radical right in Britain? The public’s level of concern over immigration has normally been a good indicator of support for Britain’s radical right movements in recent years. However, those optimistic that this trend could spell a terminal decline in support for such groups are likely to be disappointed. Instead, I would argue, it is unlikely to impact upon the public’s support in a meaningful sense.

Firstly, British radical right parties have been unable to translate the Brexit vote into greater political support. The radical right British National Party collapsed back in 2010, and no one has taken its place on the extreme fringes since then. The more moderate Ukip enjoyed a period of significant success between 2011 and 2015. However, they have died something of a death since the Brexit vote. The radical right as an alternative to the two mainstream parties is therefore effectively off the table. This is  not due to a lack of public support for their ideas, but owes much to their own organisational failures, as well as a long-held inability to adapt to the British first-past-the-post system.

More importantly, it is clear that there is still ample support for the views once propagated by the BNP and Ukip. Yet these voters can more confidently call themselves Tories now. The Conservative Party – which has actively sought to cultivate so-called ‘left-behind’ voters concerned about immigration among other thing under Theresa May’s premiership – is currently riding high in the polls (42% to Labour’s 38% according to YouGov’s most recent  polling). This sense is redoubled by where Britain is in the election cycle, which normally sees support for the Government drop off mid-term. Accordingly, this is a significant feat given their 2017 election disaster, the Grenfell Tower fire, a series of sleaze scandals (e.g. two senior Cabinet Ministers – Michael Fallon and Damien Green – having to resign during the so-called ‘Pestminster’ outrage), as well as the ongoing Windrush crisis.

Additionally, immigration is not the only issue of concern for potential radical right voters, who often demonstrate hostility to a range of other phenomenon – multiculturalism, Islam, social liberalism, and a vaguely conceived ‘establishment’. This has typically extended to a relatively small pool of voters, who are unlikely to be among those whose views on immigration have relaxed since Brexit. For example, Hope not Hate research– putting British voters into ‘tribes’, based on their support for a tolerant Britain – categorised the group most attracted to radical right ideas as one of ‘active enmity’. In 2017, the ‘active enmity’ group represented only about 5% of the population – a small but nevertheless a significant group in terms of radical right support and its potential impact upon race relations.

All the same, Britain remains polarised over key issues such as race and immigration. Hope not Hate’s 2018 ‘State of Hate’ report noted bitter divides between different ‘tribes’ in British politics, with only 4% of the categories ‘active enmity’ and ‘latent hostiles’ agreeing that immigration has been good for the country (and unsurprisingly, with liberals far more relaxed and positive).

The report also noted a hardening of Islamophobic attitudes following the 2017 terror attacks in London and Manchester: 42% of all polled said they were more suspicious of Muslims after the atrocities, whilst 25% agreed with the view that Islam is ‘a dangerous religion that incites violence’. That makes fully 70% of the ‘active enmity’ tribe: one of the groups most susceptible to radical right recruitment. Thus, many of the underlying sentiments which drive support for the radical right may have actually increased.

Therefore, I would agree with the emerging consensus among analysts of the British radical right that, given the weak electoral performance of organisations, attention should increasingly shift toward the radical right’s influence regarding hate crime (incidents of which have increased since the Brexit vote) and the possibility of radical right terror attacks (the most recent being Darren Osborne’s attack on Finsbury Park Mosque).

Ultimately, whilst a liberalisation of attitudes toward immigration should be welcomed and, as Rob Ford has argued, should encourage liberals to lobby the government for a more relaxed approach to match with softening public opinion, this will not spell an end to the myriad threats posed by the radical right and their ideas.

Dr. Paul Stocker is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a specialist on fascist and far right movements within Britain and beyond. See his profile here.

© Paul Stocker. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).