Two-thirds of British voters think EU nationals should not have free movement

Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: James Veysey/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: James Veysey/REX/Shutterstock

Two-thirds of voters believe that EU nationals should have to apply to come to Britain rather than enjoy free movement, a new survey has shown.

The latest in annual surveys of British attitudes to politics by the National Centre for Social Research found widespread support for ending freedom of movement once the transition period is over.

However, the figure has been dropping since the 2016 referendum when almost three-quarters supported the ending of freedom of movement. After the 2016 referendum support for requiring EU migrants to apply for the right to live and work in the UK dropped from 74% to 62% in 2020.

Most voters also appear to back the principle of treating migrants the same irrespective of their country of origin. As many as 58% said that it should be neither relatively easy nor relatively difficult for people from France to come to the UK, while much the same was true of people from Poland (58%), Pakistan (55%), and Australia (53%).

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Voters do think that the job someone does should make a difference but draw the distinction between “skilled” and “unskilled” workers that forms the basis of government new points-based immigration policy.

While 80% believe doctors should be a high priority, only 18% say the same of bankers. And while just 19% believe hotel cleaners should have priority, as many as 60% feel that care workers should be a priority on the immigration system.

Related: Brexit: UK's new fast-track immigration system to exclude care workers

As the UK prepares to leave the single market and the customs union at the end of 2020, new research from the British social attitudes survey reveals a nation that is still divided on the impact of Brexit.

It shows a near even split on the impact of Brexit, with 51% believing the economy will be worse off as a result of leaving the EU and the same proportion saying they think the EU has undermined Britain’s ability to make its own laws.

Sir John Curtice, senior research fellow at the NCSR and politics professor at the University of Strathclyde, said: “Our research challenges some of the myths that surround the Brexit debate. Voters did react adversely to the Brexit stalemate – but this reaction was to be found just as much among Remain voters as Leave supporters, while the experience seems to have stimulated rather than depressed voters’ engagement in politics.”

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Trust in government has fallen away significantly since 2016. A similar survey in 2016 showed that 22% of people said they trust the government “most of the time” or ‘“just about always”, the highest level in NSCR surveys since 2007.

By 2019 this had dropped to 15%, the lowest level recorded in over 40 years, with more than twice as many people, 34%, saying they “almost never” trust the government.

While the survey also shows that confidence in the government after the Brexit stalemate has been shaken, the public would like Britain to follow some EU leads.

Some 80% want British airlines to continue to follow EU rules on flight compensation and 69% want to follow EU rules banning roaming charges by mobile phone companies.

Overall, the Brexit process seems to have stimulated the public’s interest in politics with an increased level of engagement in Westminster over the longer term.

Between 1986 and 2013, just 31% said they had a ”great deal” or “quite a lot” of interest in politics. Immediately after the Brexit referendum this increased to 42% and is still as high as 39%.