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Review of "How to talk about immigration" by


29 December 2014

British Future is a think tank whose director is Sunder Katwala. I first came across them both in October 2012 at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, and have stayed in touch since then. British Future’s website sets out what they do. "As we think about the future of Britain, we believe there are four main areas where we want to open up more public debate – identity and integration, migration and opportunity."

I recently received a paperback copy of this book without any advance message. When I read page four I understood why, as it states “Particular thanks for their engagement with our work through advice and expertise, conversation, debate and critical challenge to: Sughra Ahmed, Mohammed Amin…” followed by a long list of other names, many of them quite illustrious. It helps to have a surname at the beginning of the alphabet! I was struck by how many of the people listed I had met due to my increasing engagement with public affairs over the last decade.

Given the importance of the subject, and the shortness of the book, I read it over the following week or so. While the hard copy has a cover price of £9.95, it can be downloaded free as a PDF from the British Future website by clicking the image below.

Overview of the book

Click image to download free PDF copy.

British Future website page about the book.

It is a very easy to read 135 pages including endnotes. The table of contents reproduced below gives a good overall impression of what the book covers:

Introduction – How to talk about immigration

  1. How to understand the public if you want to talk to them
  2. How not to talk about immigration: lessons for liberals
  3. When talking isn’t enough: why migration sceptics struggle with public opinion too
  4. How to talk about immigration without being racist
  5. Why integration matters: how to make the ‘new us’ work
  6. How to get the politics right: unlocking the moderate majority for managed migration
  7. So what about Europe? The EU free movement conundrum
  8. Making migration work for Britain – Ten key policy challenges for managing migration fairly

Epilogue – So, let’s talk about immigration
Notes and tables
The moderate majority: further poll findings
About British Future

It is not feasible to summarise the book in this short review, but I have included some extracts which give a good impression of the style, coverage and insights.


The book is well grounded in polling and focus group findings.

“Thanks to Lord Ashcroft, both for his own research and for giving us the opportunity to pitch an earlier version of these arguments to a 100-strong audience that he had assembled, alongside Sir Andrew Green of Migration Watch. The audience’s feedback and his analysis of this, in Small Island, [“Small island – Public opinion and the politics of immigration” is a 48 page booklet by Lord Ashcroft which can be downloaded free as a PDF.] was highly valuable.

Thanks too to ICM, Ipsos-Mori and YouGov for their advice in commissioning attitudes research and polling over this period.”

How to understand the public if you want to talk to them

This chapter introduces the three categories into which members of the public fall when it comes to their attitudes towards immigration.

“Academic studies, examining in detail public attitudes to issues around identity, race and immigration, have identified distinct sociological ‘tribes’ into which the British public can be broadly segmented.

At one end are the ‘Rejectionists’, the 25 per cent of people who would like significant reductions in immigration, or no immigration at all. This group feels ‘left behind’ by the rapid changes to modern Britain over the last forty years. They are predominantly older, mainly white and predominantly male. They are more likely to live outside a big city. A larger proportion of this group left school at sixteen and they may now be on a lower wage, retired or seeking work. At the extreme ends of this group, some might support repatriation; a small, significant and worrying minority may hold quite toxic, racist views.

At the other end of the scale are the ‘Migration Liberals’. This group is younger, more likely to have gone to university and to live in London or another big city. They feel more positive and more confident about the changes that have taken place in Britain and feel that immigration has been good for the country.

That leaves roughly half of the British public somewhere in between. We call them the ‘Anxious Middle’. This is most of Britain – yet they are not the people who are most often heard in the immigration debate.

The Anxious Middle are worried about the pressures brought by large-scale immigration but they understand the benefits too. In our research, they are the 61 per cent of the public who agree that “Immigration brings both pressures and economic benefits, so we should control it and choose the immigration that’s in Britain’s best economic interests”.

The book points out that the discourse on immigration is different in Scotland.

“Scotland has a more liberal and welcoming public immigration debate. There is a broad political consensus on the benefits of immigration, including to meet future demographic needs. Strongly anti-migration rhetoric lacks legitimacy in Scottish public discourse.

Scottish public attitudes are mildly more pro-immigration, or a little less migration-sceptic, than in England (though not quite so distinctively liberal as the attitudes of Londoners). The differences in public attitudes, however, are less marked than the differences in discourse.”

How not to talk about immigration: lessons for liberals

The section on the perils of “myth-busting” is particularly illuminating.

"One traditional approach to trying to shift attitudes goes like this: people don’t like immigration but many of the things that they believe aren’t accurate; if we can just give people the real facts then they will be better informed – and so they will stop worrying and realise that migration is a good thing, not a bad thing.

This approach fails – and there is now an extensive research literature that demonstrates this, and helps explain why.

What we could call ‘the myth of myth-busting’ is not unique to migration. One influential research experiment on health information – testing a typical myth-busting approach listing untrue ‘myths’ alongside the accurate ‘facts’ – returned to participants three days later, and found they were more likely to remember and believe the pithy myths, rather than the information explaining they were untrue. The research study concluded that ‘The common “facts & myths” format, used in many public information campaigns, runs the risk of spreading misinformation in an attempt to discredit it’.

Myth-busting can be ineffective on many topics, but on immigration even more so – because immigration has a good claim to be the area of public policy where public trust is in shortest supply. When no-one trusts the facts and figures available, an approach that is predicated on facts is unlikely to prove convincing.

The problem is that the undecided are unlikely to have any particular reason to trust one set of factual claims over another.”

The authors also point out that business representatives, who are generally pro-immigration, also need to learn a new way of communicating:

“The majority of the British population believes that overall migration damages, rather than helps, economic growth – despite credible economic data showing that overall migration benefits the UK economy.

Many economic arguments made by those favouring a liberal approach and open, flexible labour markets, simply do not connect with the people they are trying to persuade. They may work when discussing the economics of migration with civil servants and expert audiences; but their influence on the broader public opinion that drives much of politics and policy is less effective.

Our own research finds that talk of increased GDP, and other macroeconomic data about the positive effect of large-scale migration on economic growth, is often utterly intangible and even alienating to the wider public. In fact, after hearing some of these dry economic arguments we have found that mainstream audiences are sometimes more, not less concerned about immigration! Aggregate statistics aren’t helpful and can actually be harmful, because they do not reflect people’s real lives – which are not lived in the aggregate.”

When talking isn’t enough: why migration sceptics struggle with public opinion too

The authors point out that migration sceptics also face problems communicating their messages.

“The first headache for migration sceptics is numbers. This may seem counter-intuitive: migration sceptics like to talk about numbers, emphasising the scale of migration and the need to reduce it, while their opponents talk about wanting to move beyond a ‘numbers game’.

Migration sceptics take a range of different views on what numbers to focus on – whether to target immigration, or net migration, or whether the real issue is the overall size of the population and what the desired level should be. All agree, however, that whatever it is, it should be much lower than at present. Most would regard even reducing net migration to 100,000 as just a down payment on a more ambitious agenda.”

For me, one of the key insights from this book was its identification that migration sceptics say little or nothing about integration.

“Another big policy gap for migration sceptics is on integration. Lord Ashcroft reported that the ‘Anxious Middle’ public audience “were frustrated at what they saw as the lack of positive solutions to the problem” from sceptical advocates. Immigration sceptics have talked predominantly about letting fewer people in and said much less about how they would seek to improve the integration of those migrants who are already here. UKIP proposed an immigration moratorium, in effect a ban on settlement and citizenship for five years. Such a policy would be more likely to impede integration than to encourage it.

This unwillingness to address the question of integration puts migration sceptics on the wrong side of public opinion. As our research has found, a majority of the public prefer it when migrants stay and integrate, rather than staying for a short time without integrating, then return home. This is just one aspect of a bigger problem for migration sceptics, however, as we examine below.”

The authors also point out that some migration sceptics (obviously not including the UK Independence Party “UKIP”) avoid taking a clear position on the UK’s membership of the European Union:

“Any public voice advocating net migration in the range of zero to 50,000 has to propose withdrawal from the EU. It is surprising that groups like Migration Watch and the Balanced Migration Group have resisted this conclusion so far.”

Furthermore public opinion constrains the detailed policies that migration sceptics can put forward:

“This may seem an unlikely claim, given how confident sceptics are that they speak for the public. Yet public opinion places constraints on the options for sceptics too. While most people support a reduction in immigration numbers, it is less clear that they would continue to support policies that would achieve this when offered a trade-off.

The largest flow of non-EU migrants included in the immigration statistics, for example, is international students. Research by Universities UK and British Future found that six in ten people say the government should not reduce international student numbers, even if it limits their ability to cut immigration numbers overall. Only 22 per cent support a reduction in student numbers.

Asked which types of immigration we should place tougher restrictions on, most say unskilled migration from outside the EU – a category that is already restricted to close to zero – as well as unskilled EU migration, part of a bigger issue about Britain’s place in Europe. They also mention illegal immigration, reflecting a widely held view that we need to fix the system to get more control over Britain’s borders.

It would appear to be very difficult to propose a plan to cut net migration to zero without cutting significant amounts of relatively popular immigration. This may explain why migration sceptics have been reluctant to put one forward.

In the real world, reducing the numbers involves a paradox. The only clear way to address public anxiety about immigration levels is by cutting the forms of immigration about which people are not anxious.”

How to talk about immigration without being racist

This chapter discusses an important subject. I have myself written a piece “Immigration is not a racial issue today.”

The authors start with a simple but fundamental point: “It isn’t racist to talk about immigration – as long as you talk about it without being racist.”

They go on to explain the requirements of a debate on immigration without being racist:

“While it is important to acknowledge that racism certainly still exists in our society, in the Britain of 2014 it should, nevertheless, be increasingly possible to achieve what most people want: an open and honest debate about immigration which does keep racism and prejudice out. Doing so depends on securing a broad consensus on the following common sense points:

  • Firstly, that most public concern about immigration isn’t racist – but that some of it is, and that it is important to isolate and marginalise those whose motive is to bring toxic and prejudiced views into the debate.
  • Secondly, that engaging constructively with legitimate concerns about immigration is an essential foundation for protecting our majority social norms against racism.
  • Thirdly, that the way we talk about and manage immigration in the Britain of 2014 should now make sense to Britons of every colour and creed.

If we can do that, we can secure a valuable prize. Being able to effectively separate immigration and race is important not only in order to debate immigration more confidently, but also to ensure that we continue to talk about racism and prejudice, discrimination and opportunity in our diverse society.”

The authors go on to discuss the historical shadow of race over the immigration debate.

Why integration matters: how to make the ‘new us’ work

The key question with integration is the extent to which people believe that the “club” (of Britishness) is open to new members. The authors’ view, which I share, is that the United Kingdom is much more open to new citizens than many foreign countries.

“Can people become ‘us’? How open is our national community to newcomers who might seek to join it? Different countries answer that question in different ways and this has a big impact on how they think about both immigration and integration.

Many people in Japan struggle with the idea that somebody could become Japanese. So the idea of being more open to immigration remains a largely taboo subject, no matter how stark the demographic projections have become. At the other end of the spectrum, countries like Canada and the United States have made an idea of themselves, as ‘nations of immigrants’, part of their national story. For a long time, continental European societies hoped to insulate the economics of migration from questions of identity and belonging, by giving ‘guest workers’ the right to work while keeping them outside the national community. But Germany has sought to move decisively away from this gastarbeiter model, offering citizenship and valuing integration instead. ‘We wanted workers, we got people instead’, as the playwright Max Frisch famously put it.

Britain did enable migrants to become British. Indeed, the first post-war migrants who arrived on the Windrush were confident that they were British before they arrived, only to find that some of their fellow citizens weren’t quite so sure about that. Over the following decades, the argument – for a civic, rather than ethnic, definition of Britishness – was contested but decisively won.

Yet integration remained historically undervalued on both sides of the migration debate. Pro-migration liberals celebrated cultural diversity, and worried that integration might be code for excessive pressure to assimilate, despite a significant liberal shift in British society. Meanwhile, migration sceptics paid little attention to integration either. Perhaps this reflected their dominant concern to keep the numbers down. Encouraging migrants to stay, settle and contribute may have seemed at odds with that. It was also an unfortunate legacy of Powellism that some of those anxious about migration, who might well have set out why integration mattered, too often put forward a highly pessimistic argument that it was simply impossible.”

There is an excellent discussion of the extent to which immigrants should adopt the symbols of belonging to the UK. (See my piece “Why I wear a Union Jack lapel pin”.)

“The third level of integration is about emotional attachment to British identity, citizenship and symbols of identity. Though this is the most powerful proof of integration, it has also had a lower immediate priority – partly because of an understanding that this will take time to be authentic.

There was also a clear sense of the limits of what could be demanded. British citizens differ over issues like the monarchy or celebrating national saints’ days and the same choice must be open to new Britons too. A million British Muslims will wear a Remembrance poppy each November – a powerful symbol of integration – while some British citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim, will choose not to. What is important to citizenship is to know what the symbol means and to make an informed choice as a critical citizen.

In discussion groups on this theme, the idea of personal “choice” was quickly voiced to challenge the idea that people should be judged by whether they watch the same TV programmes and films, or which sporting teams they support. [As in Norman Tebbit’s infamous “Cricket Test”.]

To some extent, the research suggests that the public would like to ask new Britons to be idealised versions of the selves that they would like to be: patriotic and aware of our history; committed to their families; and hard-working while finding the time to volunteer too.

This links the question of integration of new Britons with the values and norms of citizenship for us all. Holding migrants to a different standard than the rest of us would clearly be unfair. But there is clearly some instrumental value in collective displays of belonging, such as those we saw around the 2012 Olympics and the Jubilee.”

Is Muslim integration different?

There is an excellent discussion of this question.

‘Do British Muslims even want to integrate on similar terms that all of those other faiths thought were a pretty fair deal?’ wonders the viewer of the six o’clock news, as it crosses from a row over faith in the Birmingham schools to British-born teenagers heading off to fight in Syria. ‘Will Britain ever just accept me for who I am, on equal terms with everyone else?’ asks the young British Muslim undergraduate, scanning the tabloid headlines as the latest controversy about halal meat in pizzas hits the front pages.”

The authors point out how widespread these concerns are:

“The Anxious Middle is certainly very anxious about Muslim integration. And there is an anxious middle among British Muslim citizens too – with similar concerns about jobs and opportunities in Britain today, and worries about the impact on their children’s life chances if British Muslims face more prejudice than any other minority.”

They go on to discuss how this subject should be tackled:

“Helping British Muslims to feel as much a part of British society as other ethnic and faith minorities, while getting the worried-but not- prejudiced members of the mainstream non-Muslim public to a similar place, should be the top priority for those committed to inclusive citizenship and tackling prejudice in British society today.

But that might mean shifting the approach to Muslim integration that we now have.”

The authors set out three key principles, each of which is elaborated on in the text:

  • We need to be tough on anti-Muslim prejudice without shutting down legitimate debate.
  • More efforts need to reach the anxious mainstream majority, not just those who are already onside.
  • Muslim integration cannot be addressed in isolation; it is fundamentally a question of shared citizenship.

Making migration work for Britain – Ten key policy challenges for managing migration fairly

In this final chapter, the authors summarise the policy challenges listed below and discuss them in more detail.

  1. Fix the system: invest in an immigration system that is effective, fair and humane
  2. Set sensible limits to migration and make promises you can keep
  3. Increase democratic accountability and engage the public in the choices and trade-offs that have to be made
  4. Giving the public the responsibility to decide about Europe
  5. Enforce employment rights and the minimum wage so British workers aren’t undercut and migrant workers aren’t exploited
  6. Spread the pressures and the benefits of immigration more evenly around Britain
  7. Welfare benefits: make contribution matter and welcome contributors as club members
  8. Stop immigration rules keeping British families apart
  9. Make English language the keystone to integration
  10. Encourage migrants to become British – and celebrate it when they do

Concluding comments

Immigration is consistently raised by voters as one of their most important issues. This free book is very easy to read, well written, and based on good polling and focus group data. I recommend it to everyone who wants to broaden their perspective on the issues discussed.


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