Ashcroft NEW 2013By Lord Ashcroftt KCMG PC. Follow Lord Ashcroft on Twitter.

The debate over immigration encapsulates all the stuff of
politics: who we are as a country, how we see our economic prospects, our sense
of entitlement and obligation, the purpose of public services and the broader
welfare state. And while the subject is no longer taboo – if it ever was – it
regularly proves to be explosive. Many feel that over the last fifteen years
immigration has been allowed to happen on a scale we cannot cope with, and
without public consent being sought or given.

Whatever people’s view of immigration itself, few think
any recent government has had any real grasp of it, or that any of the parties
does today. Most do not feel there is any strategy for dealing with the number
of migrants, for their successful integration into British society, or for
managing the effects on housing, infrastructure, jobs, the NHS, schools, or the
benefits system.

In a poll of more than 20,000 people I found that six in
thought immigration had produced more disadvantages than advantages for the
country as a whole; only 17 per cent thought the pros outweighed the cons. The biggest
concerns were the idea of migrants claiming benefits or using public services
without having contributed in return, and added pressure on schools and

On the positive side, the idea of migrants doing jobs
that British people are not prepared to do, and being prepared to work harder for
lower wages, were seen as the biggest advantages.

Not surprisingly, attitudes to immigration are far from
uniform. My analysis revealed seven segments of opinion on the subject. At one
end of the scale is the ‘Universal Hostility’ group, nine out of ten of whom
name controlling immigration as one of the most important issues facing
Britain, with almost as many saying their area has changed for the worse
because of it. At the other end are the ‘Militantly Multicultural’, dominated
by graduates and professionals, and with a significant public sector
contingent, most of whom believe immigrants have enhanced the life, culture and
economy of Britain – and who are twice as likely as the population as a whole
to have employed immigrants to do cleaning or building jobs at home.

Public opinion on immigration, then, is more varied, and
certainly more nuanced, than is sometimes supposed. Those who take the most
favourable view often regard opponents as backward-looking and fearful of
change. Those who are most concerned think supporters of immigration are
insulated from its more challenging consequences.

In the immigration debate, opinions are a good deal more
abundant than facts – and many refuse to accept any kind of official statistic
on the subject. Participants in my research who had a firm view on, say, the
idea of welfare benefits being paid to migrants, would readily admit that they
did not know what they were allowed to claim, or the numbers doing so, or
whether they paid more in taxes overall than they cost in benefits and public
services. (They would then cheerfully confess that if they were told the answer
they would probably not believe it.)

One thing that unites people with different views about
immigration is their conviction that politicians have handled it badly: whether
because they are incompetent, or fail to listen, or afraid to be accused of
racism, or too weak to set out the advantages of immigration in the face of
public opposition.

The government’s ‘Go Home Or Face Arrest’ ad van provides
an ideal case study. In my poll, 79 per cent said they supported the scheme, including
a majority of all parties’ voters, and less than a fifth thought the posters
were racist. But only 17 per cent thought the scheme would persuade illegal immigrants
to leave the UK, and just 37 per cent thought people who were in the UK illegally were
likely to be arrested and deported. Instructively, UKIP voters were both the
most likely to say they supported the initiative and the least likely to think
it would work.

Only a minority of voters thought Britain would have a
firmer policy on immigration under a Conservative government rather than a
coalition – largely because they do not think the action on immigration
promised by the Conservatives before the election has come to pass – and
that since the Tories seem to them to dominate the agenda, they cannot blame the
Liberal Democrats.

Though the Tories point to a number of measures that have
contributed to a fall in net immigration – which I found to be popular – most
do not think they have been implemented. Three quarters supported an annual
limit on migration from outside the EU, but only a third thought the government
had imposed one. Seven in ten approved of a minimum earning threshold for
anyone wanting to bring in a spouse or partner from outside Europe, but only a
quarter thought this was in place.

People’s concerns about immigration are part of a bigger
set of anxieties. They see the pace of change continuing and even accelerating,
and they know Britain in twenty years will look different from the Britain of
today, let alone that of twenty years ago. Some welcome that, many are
ambivalent and others are scared. In the end, migration is inseparable from
global economic conditions; governments appear as powerless to manage the first
as to deal with the consequences of the second.

Full details of the
research are available at

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