British people who oppose further immigration to the UK are less happy than those who welcome it, and politicians are part of the reason for this, research shows.
Those who say they would allow “many” immigrants to enter are around eight per cent happier than those who want none to enter, according to a study, prompting researchers to conclude that anti-immigrant discourse in politics is “contributing to undermining the subjective well-being of the natives themselves”.
Dr David Bartram, lecturer at the University of Leicester who carried out the research, drew on an analysis of data from the European Social Survey on 5,995 people in the UK to correlate their opinion on immigration with how happy they described themselves on a scale of 0-10.
People who wanted no more immigrants to enter scored an average of 7.16, and those who would allow “many” scored 7.91, signalling an eight per cent difference, the findings showed.
The survey found that six per cent would allow “many” immigrants to enter the UK, 34 per cent would allow “some”, 35 per cent would allow “a few” and 25 per cent would allow “none”.
The effect was strongest among those who were out of work because of sickness or disability, and those who had been unemployed in the past for three months or more. In these groups, those who would allow many immigrants to enter scored 7.07, and those who wanted none to enter scored 6.19.
When people considered immigration from people of the same ethnic group, these percentages changed, with 10 per cent saying they would allow many immigrants to enter the UK, while 48 per cent would allow some, 30 per cent would allow a few and 12 per cent would allow none.
Speaking at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Manchester, Dr Bartram said: “For the most part, immigration is not a threat to the employment or wages of natives. Economic research on that topic finds that for the economy as a whole, immigration enhances the economic situation of natives – it expands job opportunities and doesn’t undermine wages.
“Instead it’s the beliefs themselves that people have about immigrants, the way people think about immigrants – they’re not ‘part of us’ – that makes them unhappy about immigrants, and indeed perhaps less happy in general.
“The fall of eight per cent in happiness is significant – equivalent to the gap between the average level of happiness of people earning £50,000 and those earning £20,000 a year, for instance.”
Dr Bartram added that political messages play a key role in promoting such discourse among the population, and that it was “damaging” those who were influenced by it.
“Anti-immigrant discourses, political messages that highlight and bemoan how different immigrants are, contribute to undermining the subjective well-being of the natives themselves,” he added.
“We would likely see a significant benefit if politicians stopped talking about immigration and immigrants in the way many of them currently do. The current discourse is damaging to natives, and recognition of this idea could amount to reason for reflection.
“Perhaps this research could persuade politicians to reconsider the way they think and speak about immigrants, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
“It might seem that I’m telling a very pessimistic story about human nature – the notion that there’s a deeply rooted tendency to be suspicious of something that seems unfamiliar and thus a corresponding tendency to distrust and dislike foreigners.
“But in fact we have plenty of evidence indicating that this way of engaging with foreigners can be unlearned – or at least that a new way of thinking about foreigners can be taught to the next generation. People in the youngest age group are twice as likely as those in the oldest group to say they want to allow this sort of immigration.”
Responding to the findings, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron told The Independent: “This research reaffirms what we already know in our heart of hearts – that we all have a responsibility for what we say and how we say it.
“More than others perhaps, politicians and the press have a duty to behave responsibly and choose our words and tone carefully. The recent attack on an asylum seeker in Croydon cannot be seen in a vacuum, the toxic rhetoric about migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers coming from some of our most-read papers and politicians (elected or otherwise) must be seen as a contributing factor.
“I hope that this research acts as a wake-up call and reminds those who deliberately stoke and provoke the sort of impact their words can have not only on our happiness but on our communities’ safety and well-being too.”