Immigration is regarded by the public as the biggest issue facing British society, a major new survey taking stock of the state of the country reveals.
One in three people believes tension between immigrants and people born in the UK is the major cause of division, while well over half regard it as one of the top three causes.
Over the past two decades, both immigration and emigration have increased to historically high levels, with those entering the country exceeding those leaving by more than 100,000 in every year since 1998.
Yet the survey in a report by the thinktank British Future, entitled “State of the Nation: Where is Bittersweet Britain Heading?”, also suggests the country is, at heart, tolerant of those who come to its shores.
Respect for the law, for the freedom of speech of others, and an ability to speak English were seen as the three most essential traits of a Briton, according to the survey of 2,515 people aged between 16 and 75. These were the top criteria across all ages and social classes.
While one in four thinks being born here is important to being British, two-thirds of people believe the welfare state should be open to those born abroad who have contributed to society and play by the rules.
The poll results are being released as communities secretary Eric Pickles prepares to give a major speech this week in which he will announce further efforts to aid integration. Pickles will say that a mastery of English is the key to social mobility and essential if people of different generations want to get on. He will stress that a shared language is vital for our economy. And he will highlight it is as the key to uniting people and increasing their understanding of one another.
Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, said the survey highlighted a national anxiety about immigration to which national politicians needed to respond. However, he also noted that the results suggested that when people thought about their local areas, there was less concern. While 30% placed immigration first when thinking about tensions facing British society as a whole, only 19% chose it as the most divisive issue in their own area.
There was also very little correlation between the geographical distribution of immigrants and the levels of concern. Immigration was regarded as the most divisive issue for 19% of people in north-east England and 20% in Wales—where the 2011 census shows one in 20 people were born abroad—and for 20% of Londoners, where immigrants make up one in three of the population.
Katwala said: “People are obviously very anxious about immigration. But I was struck by how much higher it was as a national rather than a local tension. That to me suggests that managing local tensions is obviously very important, but it is probably not the answer entirely because people have this national-level concern.
“I think it would be wrong to say that local concerns are real and national concerns are just driven by the media, but I think what is going on there is people asking: does the system work? And I don’t think anyone has any confidence as how it is managed as a system. Also there is a concern around national cohesion, identity and ability to cope with the scale of change.”
The survey, by Ipsos MORI, also discovered a high proportion of people who were pessimistic about the British economy (50%). Nearly half (46%) said Britain was heading in the wrong direction, but there was an improvement on last year’s figures when 74% were pessimistic.Three in four also believe Britain is in a housing crisis.
Yet, in a vindication of the position of planning minister Nick Boles, who is championing the building on greenfield sites to meet demand, all age groups still describe buying rather than renting as their ideal.
In further findings, the NHS emerged as the institution that made nearly half (45%) of people feel most proud to be British, ahead of the armed forces, Great Britain’s Olympic team and the royal family.
Nearly three in four (72%) said the NHS was a symbol of “what is great about Britain and we must do everything we can to maintain it”.
British Future’s report notes: “The NHS played a key part in the Olympics opening ceremony that—to many people’s surprise—left them feeling here was a Britain that could confidently combine the best aspects of its traditional and modern culture.”