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Are Britons Really Softening on Immigration?

Since the June 2016 Brexit referendum, opinion polls have indicated increasingly positive attitudes toward immigration among the British electorate. And yet, to assume that the average Briton is warming up to the free movement of people is to ignore the complex factors that inform people's stated views on controversial issues.

LONDON – In the United Kingdom, the new conventional wisdom is that attitudes toward immigration are softening. A headline in the Financial Times this July stated that “negativity about immigration falls sharply in Brexit Britain.” Likewise, a recent report by the UK Migration Advisory Committee surmises that “the UK may find itself in the position of ending free movement just as public concern falls about the migration flows that result from it.”

This is notable, considering that it has been only two years since a widespread public backlash against uncontrolled immigration delivered a victory to “Leave” in the Brexit referendum. Moreover, there have been no major changes to immigration policy. Britain is still in the European Union, and EU citizens are still free to move to the UK. And though migration levels have dropped somewhat, they remain extraordinarily high by historic standards, far exceeding the government’s net immigration target of “below tens of thousands.”

Still, opinion polls have undeniably changed. Survey respondents are now more positive about the economic and cultural effects of immigration, and fewer people now name immigration as one of the most important issues facing the UK. Moreover, this trend appears across the political and social spectrum, and equally among Remainers and Leavers. And while it has actually been observable since the turn of the millennium, it has gained momentum since the Brexit vote.