Research by academics at Royal Holloway has found that anti-immigrant attitudes in the UK softened immediately following the Brexit referendum in 2016, among both Leave and Remain supporters.
The report, ‘A Populist Paradox? How Brexit Softened Anti-Immigrant Attitudes’, published in the British Journal of Political Science, was led by Professor Cassilde Schwartz from the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway and Dr Miranda Simon, from the Department of Government at University of Essex, as well as David Hudson from the University of Birmingham and Professor Jennifer van-Heerde Hudson at University College London.
It concludes that attitudes towards anti-immigration and anti-refugees were significantly softer even several months after the referendum.
This was due to two main reasons. On the one hand, some voters who supported leave reduced their anti-immigrant attitudes because they felt a greater sense of control after the referendum.
On the other hand, many people sought to distance themselves from widespread accusations of xenophobia and racism, and consequently became less anti-immigrant in the process. This mechanism was significant across both Leave and Remain supporters.
The authors call this decline in anti-immigrant sentiment following a populist victory a ‘populist paradox’.
The researchers designed an experiment around the timing of the Brexit referendum, which was embedded into a panel survey of UK public opinion.
In order to measure anti-immigrant attitudes respondents were asked if they agreed with six key statements: refugees overwhelm services, refugees threaten culture, refugees do not improve the UK image, reduce number of migrants, migrants take jobs, and migrants bring terror.
The design randomly allocated half of respondents - the control group - to participate in the survey two weeks before the vote and the other half two weeks after the Brexit referendum.
The key point is that there was no difference between the two groups except that half were interviewed just before the referendum and half were interviewed just after. The attitudes for the full sample were tested again seven months after the referendum.
Respondents were sampled and weighted according to regionally specific demographics by age and gender, social grade, region, party affiliation, and newspaper readership, making the data representative of the adult population of the country as a whole.
The experiment found that anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments among UK citizens softened after the referendum.
Remainers were 9% less inclined to believe that migrants take jobs after the Brexit outcome, relative to the baseline for this group established before the referendum. Leavers’ attitudes softened by 4% - about half of the amount.
Those supporting Remain were 12% and 7% less likely to believe that migrants bring terror and that refugees overwhelm services, respectively, relative to their baseline. While, Leavers’ attitudes softened by 5% and 2% respectively.
Dr Cassilde Schwartz from Royal Holloway, said: “It seems counter-intuitive to a lot people that anti-immigrant attitudes actually decreased after the referendum, while at the same time there was a frightening increase in reported hate crimes.
“However, these two things don’t actually contradict each other. We think the referendum result did encourage a small minority of people to express their anti-immigrant hostility, while they otherwise would have kept it private. But at the same time, the vast majority of people took stock of the referendum result, rejected those who were hostile to migrants, and sought to distance themselves from that sentiment as much as possible.”
It is that anti-immigrant sentiment which decreased that is important in its own right, but the key contribution of this research was to explain why attitudes changed.
In particular, the research shows only partial evidence that the change in anti-immigrant sentiment happened because the EU referendum gave people a greater sense of control. Those effects are limited to Leave supporters.
However, people across the political spectrum experienced a backlash against nationalism and xenophobia. It is a testament to the democratic norms of this country that individuals self-corrected en masse in response to a political climate that they perceived as going in the wrong direction.
Dr Miranda Simon, from the University of Essex, added: “Given recent populist political contests, where rhetoric has been heavily reliant on anti-immigrant messages, we needed to take a closer look at what this was really evoking.
“The surprising finding that Brexit softened anti-immigrant attitudes tells us that this anti-immigrant rhetoric may actually backfire.”
Professor Jennifer Hudson from the Department of Political Science at University College London, said: “Our evidence suggests that populist surges are not unconstrained, but may face a counter-movement from individuals that are opposed to anti-immigration and xenophobic rhetoric.
“Future research in this area could examine sentiment towards immigration at other times of great change, such as the current Covid-19 pandemic.”