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Immigration and Trust in Politics in Britain

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 August 2011


A previously overlooked explanation for varying individual levels of political trust is concern about immigration. This article examines the effect of concern about immigration on political trust in Britain, where levels of opposition to immigration have remained high since the 1960s and yet the implications of such opposition are still unclear. Using the pre-election and post-election panel component of the 2005 British Election Study and the 2002–03 European Social Survey, the author shows, after controlling for other predictors of trust in politics, that concerns about the impact of immigration significantly affect political trust. In addition, in 2005 the perception that government had not handled the issue of immigration effectively also significantly affected political trust, with both linear and interactive effects.

Research Article
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19 It must be noted that, even in the United States, there tend to be perceived limitations regarding who are acceptable migrants, as the modern debates about migration from Mexico have indicated (and previous debates about migrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland and many other countries indicate – see Simon, Rita J., ‘Old Minorities, New Immigrants: Aspirations, Hopes, and Fears’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 530 (1993), 6173CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

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24 In some contexts, it might also be appropriate to try to incorporate indicators of numbers of immigrants; however, in the British case we assume that perceptions about immigration are generally determined more by national-level phenomena such as overall (national) levels of migration to Britain and national media presentation of immigration and immigrants. Thus, while certain areas of Britain have been affected more by immigration (see, for instance, Smith, Julie, ‘Towards Consensus? Centre-Right Parties and Immigration Policy in the UK and Ireland’, in Tim Bale, ed., Immigration and Integration Policy in Europe: Why Politics – and the Centre-Right – Matter (London: Routledge, 2009), pp. 101117Google Scholar, at p. 108), detecting local differences in the relationship between concern about immigration and political trust is likely to be difficult. In addition, we are not able to incorporate information about contact with immigrants, which has a powerful mediating effect on perceptions of immigrants and immigration (see, for instance, Pettigrew, Thomas, ‘Intergroup Contact Theory’, Annual Review of Psychology, 49 (1998), 6585)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Moreover, exploratory analyses of the 2005 BES dataset indicates that local levels of migration, ethnic composition and percentage of the population that is Muslim are very weakly related to perceptions of migration. Analyses of other attitudinal data in Britain also indicate that these often fail to be connected to objective indicators (see, for instance, Taylor-Gooby, Peter and Hastie, Charlotte, ‘Support for State Spending: Has New Labour Got It Right?’ in Alison Park et al., eds, British Social Attitudes 19th Report (London: Sage, 2002), pp. 7697Google Scholar, at p. 88). This phenomenon of misperception is not, of course, limited to Britain, particularly in the case of estimating numbers of immigrants ( Sides, John and Citrin, Jack, ‘European Opinion about Immigration: The Role of Identities, Interests and Information,’ British Journal of Political Science, 37 (2007), 477504)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Butler, David and Stokes, Donald, Political Change in Britain: Forces Shaping Electoral Choice (London: Macmillan, 1969)Google Scholar, p. 303.

26 Eurobarometer 47.1, Images of Switzerland, Education throughout life, Racism, and Patterns of Family Planning and Work Status, March–April 1997.

27 McLaren, Lauren and Johnson, Mark, ‘The Rising Tide of Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in Britain’, in Alison Park et al., eds, British Social Attitudes 21st Report (London: Sage Publications, 2004)Google Scholar, p. 172; Park, Alison et al. , eds, British Social Attitudes 26th Report (London: Sage Publications, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 See Transatlantic Trends: Immigration Key Findings 2009 and Transatlantic Trends: Immigration Topline Data 2008 at, or accessed 4 June 2011.

30 Schulman, ‘Challenging the Civic/Ethnic and West/East Dichotomies in the Study of Nationalism’, pp. 566, 569, 570, 576, 577.

31 McLaren, Lauren and Johnson, Mark, ‘Resources, Group Conflict, and Symbols: Explaining Anti-Immigration Hostility in Britain’, Political Studies, 55 (2007), 709732CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Field, Clive D., ‘Islamophobia in Contemporary Britain: The Evidence of the Opinion Polls, 1988–2006’, Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations, 18 (2007), 447477CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 The analysis conducted in this article is on data from prior to the 2010 election, and so we omit discussion of the Liberal Democrat position on this issue.

33 Hansen, Randall, Citizenship an Immigration in Post-War Britain: The Institutional Origins of a Multicultural Nation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)Google Scholar; Joppke, Christian, Immigration and the Nation-State: The United States, Germany and Great Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Although the Labour Party in the 1997–2005 period appeared to be far more favourable to increased immigration, the fall-out from the unexpectedly large-scale migration from Central and Eastern Europe after the 2004 enlargement of the European Union seems to have propelled the creation of more restrictive immigration legislation, using a point-based system to discourage low-skilled migration to Britain (see,, or, all accessed 4 June 2011). At the time of the fieldwork for the surveys used in this analysis, it was not entirely clear that immigration policies of Conservative governments would be that different from those of the Labour government (see, for instance,, accessed 4 June 2011), although the recent proposal to introduce caps on immigration is clearly more restrictive than Labour's general approach to the issue. In the 2010 election campaign, however, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all stated their desire for strong restrictions on immigration (see Julie Smith ‘Towards Consensus?’ for an overview of party approaches to immigration in Britain prior to 2009).

34 For instance, in 2002, then Home Secretary Blunkett suggested that immigrants speak English in their own homes, advised Asians to stop making arranged marriages in their home countries and make them within the United Kingdom instead and compared Muslim forced marriages with practices of medieaval England (see The Times, 16 September 2002, p. 1g, 1 June 2002, p. 2e, and 15 January 2002, p. 8f).

35 On the cross-time positions of political parties on immigration and race, see Joppke, Immigration and the Nation-State; Hampshire, James, Citizenship and Belonging: Immigration and the Politics of Demographic Governance in Postwar Britain (Houndsmills, Hants.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Paul, Kathleen, Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997)Google Scholar; in the 2005 general election, Conservative leader Michael Howard appeared to attempt to distance himself and his party somewhat from this issue – despite incorporating it as an important part of the party's platform – by arguing that immigration was only one of its five important issues, and some moderates in the Conservative party were ‘annoyed’ at the prominence given to immigration by some of the Conservative candidates (see Kavanagh, Dennis and Butler, David, The British General Election of 2005 (Basingstoke, Hants.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)Google Scholar, p. 76; Smith, ‘Towards Consensus?’). On the cohesion of the parties on this issue, Whiteley et al. ( Whiteley, Paul, Seyd, Patrick and Richardson, Jeremy John, True Blues: The Politics of Conservative Party Membership (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)Google Scholar) found that 91 per cent of the members of the Conservative party believed immigration controls should be tightened, compared to 70 per cent of Labour party members. In addition, although there was ‘tough talk’ on immigration by many of the Labour party's leaders as noted above and several prominent Labour party members, other Labour MPs believed highlighting such problems only gave succour to public racist sentiments and to the BNP. We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.

36 Geddes, Andrew and Tonge, Jonathan, Britain Decides: The UK General Election 2005 (Basingstoke, Hants.: Palgrave, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kavanagh and Butler, The British General Election of 2005; Clarke, Harold, Sanders, David, Stewart, Marianne and Whiteley, Paul, ‘Taking the Bloom off New Labour's Rose: Party Choice and Voter Turnout in Britain, 2005’, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 16 (2006), 336CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 Previous drafts of this article have discussed the nature of national identity in Britain but this material has been removed from this draft due to space limitations. It is important to note that the conclusion from that discussion was that although many scholars had previously argued that British identity was mostly civic in nature, in fact, there are strong civic, ethnic and cultural components, the latter two of which make inclusiveness towards immigrants extremely difficult. The earlier draft also discussed Scotland and Wales in relation to British identity. These discussions of British identity from the earlier version of the article are available from the author upon request.

38 Muller, Edward N., ‘A Test of a Partial Theory of Potential for Political Violence’, American Political Science Review, 66 (1972), 928959CrossRefGoogle Scholar, p. 943; Kaase, Max, ‘Interpersonal Trust, Political Trust and Non-Institutionalised Political Participation in Western Europe’, West European Politics, 22 (1999), 1012CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Klingemann, ‘Mapping Political Support in the 1990s’, p. 37.

39 Clarke, Harold D., Dutt, Nitish and Kornberg, Allan, ‘The Political Economy of Attitudes towards Polity and Society in Western European Democracies’, Journal of Politics, 55 (1993), 9981021Google Scholar; Anderson, Christopher J. and Guillory, Christine A., ‘Political Institutions and Satisfaction with Democracy: A Cross-National Analysis of Consensus and Majoritarian Systems’, American Political Science Review, 91 (1997), 6681CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lockerbie, Brad, ‘Economic Dissatisfaction and Political Alienation in Western Europe’, British European Journal of Political Science, 23 (1993), 281293CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Miller and Listhaug ‘Political Parties and Confidence in Government’; Miller, Arthur H. and Listhaug, Ola, ‘Political Performance and Institutional Trust’, in Pippa Norris, ed., Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 204216CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Newton, Kenneth, ‘Political Support: Social Capital, Civil Society and Political and Economic Performance’, Political Studies, 54 (2006), 846864CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Brehm, John and Rahn, Wendy, ‘Individual-Level Evidence for the Causes and Consequences of Social Capital’, American Journal of Political Science, 41 (1997), 9991023CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Zmerli, Sonja and Newton, Ken, ‘Social Trust and Attitudes Toward Democracy’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 72 (2008), 706724CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 Anderson and Guillory ‘Political Institutions and Satisfaction with Democracy’; Anderson, Christopher J. and LoTempio, Andrew J., ‘Winning, Losing and Political Trust in America’, British Journal of Political Science, 32 (2002), 335351CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 Interviews were conducted face-to-face in England, Wales and Scotland; see Mark Johnson, Katarina Thomson and Shaun Scholes, British Election Study 2005 Technical Report March 2007, available at, accessed 4 June 2011; note that the pre-election British weight has been applied (see pp. 20–2 of the report).

44 We are limited to these two items by question availability in the 2005 BES; however, the two items do capture the main threats thought to be posed by immigration, namely cultural and economic threat (e.g., Sniderman, Hagendoorn and Prior, ‘Predisposing Factors and Situational Triggers’).

45 Anderson and Guillory, ‘Political Institutions and Satisfaction with Democracy’; Anderson and LoTempio, ‘Winning, Losing and Political Trust in America’; Anderson and Paskeviciute. ‘How Ethnic and Linguistic Heterogeneity Influence the Prospects for Civil Society’; Rohrschneider, Robert, ‘Institutional Quality and Perceptions of Representation in Advanced Industrial Democracies’, Comparative Political Studies, 38 (2005), 850874CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Job category had very little effect and has been omitted from the analysis. Also, note that ethnic minorities have been removed from all of the analyses, including those in Table 1.

46 Note that the BES contains an indicator of perceptions of government handling of Iraq in the pre-election questionnaire, but when added to the regression below it is statistically insignificant.

47 Actual values of concern about immigration and perceptions of government handling of immigration have been inserted into the equations in Table 2, while the values of other variables are as follows: lagged political trust has been set to 5, which is the midpoint of the scale; all of the indicators of economic perceptions have been set to 3 (stayed the same); perceptions of government handling of non-immigration policies have been set to their centre point of 3; interpersonal trust has been set to its midpoint of 5; voluntary participation has been set to its midpoint of 2.5; all loser dummies are set to 0 and so the results represent a Labour voter; education dummies are also set to 0, with the results representing those for individuals with qualifications below university level; age is set to 50, which is the mean and median of this variable; gender is set to 0, which is the category for males; household income set to 7, the midpoint on the income scale; left-right self-placement is set to 5; approval of involvement in Iraq has been set to 2.5; the Scotland and Wales country dummies are set to 0, thus the equation represents respondents living in England.

48 This method of displaying interactive effects is discussed in Brambor, Thomas, Roberts Clark, William and Golder, Matt, ‘Understanding Interaction Models: Improving Empirical Analyses’, Political Analysis, 14 (2006), 6382CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see also, last accessed 4 June 2011.

49 The survey questions in the 2001 BES specifically ask about respect for parliament, politicians and the police rather than about trust or confidence.

50 Although it is difficult to determine why this might be the case in any definitive way, it is likely that the 11 September 2001 (9/11) attacks in the United States – which took place after the 2001 British general election – and the 2004 EU enlargement, with the subsequent influx of migrant workers from Central and Eastern Europe and government underestimation of these numbers were fairly important by 2005. In addition, the immigration issue was specifically raised by the Conservative party in the 2005 general election and perhaps more crucially was the focus of considerable media attention, which may have affected the results for this survey. At the same time, however, it is also important to note that concern about the impact of immigration on national culture was having an effect on perceptions of parliament, politicians and the police even in 2001 and even after controlling for all of the above-mentioned predictors. It is also important to note that the 2001 BES took place before the results of the 2001 census were announced in September 2002 – that is, prior to the official report indicating that net migration was increasing under the Labour government. Thus, the 2001 results reported above are unlikely to be short-term responses to sudden new information about levels of migration. We return to this finding after investigating the relationship outside of an electoral context.

51 The maximum effect of perceptions that immigrants undermine national culture on political trust is 1.0, while the maximum impact of perceptions that immigrants take jobs from natives is 0.5, for a combined total of 1.5 (with political trust and perceptions of immigrants both measured on a 0–10 scale).

52 Gabel, Matthew and Scheve, Kenneth, ‘Estimating the Effect of Elite Communications on Public Opinion Using Instrumental Variables’, American Journal of Political Science, 51 (2007), 10131028CrossRefGoogle Scholar, p. 1020.

53 For a review of the findings related to the contact hypothesis, see Kenworthy, Jared B., Turner, Rhiannon N., Hewstone, Miles and Voci, Alberto, ‘Intergroup Contact: When Does it Work, and Why?’, in John F. Dovidio, Peter Samuel Glick and Laurie A. Rudman, eds, On the Nature of Prejudice: Fifty Years after Allport (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), pp. 278292CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54 Gabel, and Scheve, , ‘Estimating the Effect of Elite Communications’, pp. 1021–2Google Scholar. Although significant, the correlation between the instruments and concern about immigration is somewhat weak, which may bias the instrumental variables estimates towards the corresponding OLS estimates. Concern about the strength of the instruments for perceptions of immigration may be mitigated by examining the reduced form regression of political trust on the instruments and the exogenous variables. These estimates are proportional to the coefficient of interest and are unbiased even if the instruments are weak and so indicate the sign of the coefficient of interest. The results of this regression show negative and statistically significant coefficients for the instruments ‘No immigrant friends’; and ‘Qualification for immigration: committed to way of life in country’, and ‘Qualification for immigration: committed to way of life in country’, with the signs in the correct direction. These results indicate that the coefficient for concern about immigration is negative as we report in the instrumental variable results below (see Gabel and Scheve, ‘Estimating the Effect of Elite Communications’, p. 1022, fn. 16 for a similar approach to the problem of weak instruments).

55 Sniderman, Hagendoorn and Prior. ‘Predisposing Factors and Situational Triggers’; Quillian, ‘Prejudice as a Response to Perceived Group Threat’; McLaren and Johnson, ‘Resources, Group Conflict, and Symbols’.

Supplementary material: File

Mclaren Supplementary Appendix

Appendix A: Measurement of Variables in BES 2005 Analysis

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