British attitudes to welfare and immigration ‘show dramatic softening’

A “dramatic softening” of attitudes towards welfare and more favourable views on immigration has emerged over the past five years, a survey has found.

People are less likely to call themselves English and more likely to identify as British, according to the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).

Its annual British Social Attitudes survey also found that support for increased spending on housing, police and prisons has reached a record high.

Researchers carried out 3,224 interviews with adults in Britain between July and October 2019.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, around the same proportion of people thought benefits were too low and caused hardship (36%) as thought they were too high (35%), NatCen said.

The proportion of people thinking benefits were too high and discourage work had fallen from 59% in 2015.

Concern about “welfare scroungers” was at a record low, with just 15% agreeing that people who receive social security “don’t really deserve any help”.

Almost half (47%) of respondents disagreed with the above statement, up from 33% in 2015.

And 9% said spending on benefits should be increased – up from 3% in 2017 and the highest proportion since 1997.

These findings reversed a trend towards tougher attitudes that had persisted since the 1990s, NatCen said.

The coronavirus pandemic appeared to have come at a time “when there was already more empathy with the circumstances of the low paid and unemployed of working age”, it added.

Attitudes toward immigration also appear to have become “markedly more favourable”, which NatCen said may be “surprising” given the outcome of the EU referendum.

The proportion of people saying immigration enriches cultural life increased from 26% in 2011 to 46%, while the proportion saying it undermines British culture halved from 40% to 19%.

And 47% now say immigration is good for the economy – more than double the 21% figure in 2011.

NatCen said this “perhaps raises questions as to whether the outcome of the referendum might have been different if it had been held a year or two later”.

Gillian Prior, NatCen director of surveys, data and analysis, said: “We cannot be sure how either Covid-19 or Brexit will eventually affect the public mood.

“However, the dramatic softening in attitudes towards welfare in recent years strongly suggests the public may prove sympathetic towards more generous welfare benefits for people who lose their jobs because of the pandemic – especially if there is a substantial increase in the level of unemployment.

“In terms of Brexit, our research reveals a major shift towards viewing immigration as both culturally enriching and good for the economy.

“With the UK about to gain control of immigration between it and the EU, it would seem voters may approve of quite liberal application of that control.”

The survey also found that 18% of respondents felt they had a European identity, up from around 12% over the two decades before the 2016 referendum.

NatCen said the Brexit vote could have kindled a previously unacknowledged sense of European identity.

Some 28% said they were English, the smallest proportion since the late 1990s, with twice as many (53%) identifying as British.

Those who identified as English were much more likely to have voted for Brexit, the results showed.

Since 2016, support for extra spending on police and prisons has quadrupled, with 24% listing these as among their top two priorities, up from 6%.

Overall, two-thirds (65%) of people said health was one of their top two priorities and 47% said education.

A quarter (25%) of respondents said housing was one of their priorities for extra Government spending.