Opposition to further immigration into Britain has hardened since Tony Blair came to power, particularly among graduates and Labour supporters with the most liberal attitudes on other social issues.
Research published today by the National Centre for Social Research in the 21st annual British social attitudes survey shows the proportion wanting the number of immigrants to be curbed increased from two-thirds in 1995 to three-quarters last year.
It blamed increasingly hardline statements on asylum from Home Office ministers for fuelling more hostile sentiments about all immigrants.
It said the line became even tougher when David Blunkett took over as home secretary and started telling immigrants how he wanted them to behave, including speaking English in their own homes and abandoning the practice of making arranged marriages in their country of origin.
A report by Lauren McLaren of Nottingham university and Mark Johnson, co-director of the attitudes survey, said: “The traditional acceptance of multicultural practices in Britain seemed to come under sustained direct attack from the Labour government, aided and abetted by the Conservative opposition.
“This, along with the announcement of the creation of new detention centres, sending asylum seekers back to their home countries en masse, and even tipping off television crews as to times and locations of deportations, may have contributed to the overall impression of the citizenry that immigration needed to be stopped.”
The survey was based on interviewing 3,000 people in 1995 and 2003. It found that the proportion agreeing that Britain should “take stronger measures” to exclude illegal immigrants rose from 78% to 82% over this period.
The harder line on immigration contrasted with an increasingly liberal stance on other social and moral issues.
The shift was particularly pronounced among the liberal intelligentsia. In 1995 a third of graduates thought the number of immigrants should be reduced, but by 2003 this was 56%. Among those with no qualifications, the proportion wanting further curbs on immigration fell from 82% to 81%.
In 1995, 58% of Labour supporters wanted the number of immigrants to be reduced, but by 2003 this had risen to 71%. Among Conservative supporters, the rise was 71% to 84%.
The change in attitudes may have been influenced by an increase in immigration, which doubled from about 70,000 in 1998 to 140,000 in 2002. Asylum applications also increased after the enactment of human rights legislation, although numbers fell last year.
The polling evidence did not suggest people wanted immigration policy to return to where it was in 1995. Just over half the electorate now wanted immigration to be “reduced a lot”. The report said: “This would appear to signify a hardening of attitudes.”
There was no indication that anti-immigrant sentiment was fuelled by an increase in racial prejudice. Another report in the survey found most people thought Britishness could be acquired and did not depend on ethnic factors.
But people seemed increasingly concerned about social consequences of immigration. In 1995 a quarter thought immigrants increased crime rates. By 2003 this was 39%.
The researchers said: “The best explanation we could find for this change related to the overall increase in numbers of immigrants, which appears to have stimulated a rise in media coverage of immigration. Perhaps more importantly, (this) produced an increase in government statements and proclamations on the subject, many of which were quite negative in tone and content.”