The 2012 British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) has been published. The survey aims to monitor and interpret British “attitudes towards social, economic, political and moral issues.”
This year’s report is the 29th in the series and reveals interesting trends regarding attitudes towards immigration and towards the political establishment and constitutional reform.
Some of the key findings are summarised below:
• There remains a strong overall desire for a reduction in immigration, with 75% of respondents in 2011 advocating a reduction in immigration overall and 51% wanting a large reduction. The report suggests that this demand for reduction is insensitive to present migration levels but “may perhaps instead reflect a ‘default preference’ for reduced migration in all circumstances.”
• There public are significantly more concerned now than in the early 2000s about the economic impact of migration, and are even more negative about the cultural impact of immigration. Those who view the cultural impact of immigration as ‘very bad’ has increased from 9% in 2002 to 21% in 2011.
• Overall opinion of the settlement of migrants is negative, with 60% of respondents rating the impact negatively, and only 24% holding a positive view.
• Questions designed to measure attitudes towards the characteristics and origin of migrants show that net support for migrants coming from Muslim countries such as Pakistan is on average lower than identically-described migrants coming from Eastern Europe, suggesting that concerns about cultural difference significantly reduce support for migrants. However, this effect is smaller for professionals searching for work, and not observed at all for professionals coming in to fill jobs.
• On student migrants and variations on the origin of students, the survey finds the origin of students matters little with the exception that ‘students from Muslim countries’ in the ‘good grades’ category receive overall about 10 points less support than identically-described students from other countries. The study states that there are “clearly some reservations about Muslim students.”
• The region of origin has a larger impact on reactions to family reunion migrants that with students or workers. White Europeans are consistently preferred to non-white Africans and Muslims, and richer West Europeans preferred to poorer East Europeans. Reactions to migrants explicitly labelled as “Muslim” are no more negative than those to “African” migrants. Although many migrants from the latter group are Muslim, respondents did not show extra hostility to a group explicitly labelled as “Muslim” than to a nonwhite migrant group whose religious affiliation is not highlighted.
What comes across in the survey results is a complex picture. An overall negative attitude to immigration is in some cases is heightened when immigration is pinned to people from Muslim countries. Negative attitudes towards Muslim migrants are offset when they are seen as professionals coming to fill jobs. However Muslim students with ‘good grades’ are viewed less favourably than students of other ethnic and religious backgrounds with the same attainment levels. ‘Muslims’ and ‘Africans’ are seen in an almost equally negative capacity in relation to family reunion migration.
The overall negative picture of attitudes to Muslims reflects similar previous findings of the BSA, which two years ago for example found that ‘only one in four people in Britain feel positively about Islam’. Only last week, a poll carried out by YouGov found that more people view political parties with an anti-Muslim tinge favourably than unfavourably. The findings raise important questions about the causes of negative views towards Muslims and people of ethnic minority origin. Is it caused by highly negative press coverage of Muslims? Is it the increasingly hostile attitude towards multiculturalism, as expressed in recent years by British politicians despite research findings illustrating the strong degree to which minority communities identify with national symbols and institutions? Is the economic crisis to blame for an increase in xenophobic attitudes, as suggested in a recent report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance? The disparity in attitudes towards high achieving Muslim students are not all that surprising given the way in which universities have been characterised as ‘hotbeds’ of extremism, despite parliamentary findings that this is not the case.
• Trust- There appears to be significant public scepticism towards politicians and government. Only around one in six people trust either British governments or the Westminster parliament “a great deal” or “quite a lot”, while less than one in ten trust British politicians. By contrast, almost six in ten (59%) indicate “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in the police.
• Legislative terms- More than four times as many people prefer fixed legislative terms (79%) to flexible ones (16%). However, only 28% back the five-year parliamentary terms adopted by the Coalition. 43% feel that elections should occur every four years and 28% every three years. The report states that “There is evidently considerable scepticism about allowing politicians the luxury of long periods in office without having to face the electorate.”
• House of Lords reform- Although attempts at legislative reform of the House of Lords have now been defeated, the questions asked in the BSAS are nevertheless pertinent to gauging the public’s expectations of the make-up of the establishment. The survey finds that as many as 55% support the proposition that “the House of Lords should consist of independent experts, not party politicians”, while only 7% disagree.
• Directly elected mayors- 58% agree that directly elected mayors mean “there is someone who can speak up for the whole area”, while only 15% disagree. However, more people agree (35%) than disagree (27%) with the criticism that having a mayor “gives too much power to one person”.
• Elected Police and Crime Commissioners- 65% agree that elected police commissioners will ensure the police focus on crimes that are of greatest public concern, while just 17% disagree. More people (38%) agree that directly elected commissioners will bring about too much political interference than disagree (29%).
• Primary elections- The idea of giving citizens some say in the selection of party candidates is popular in principle. While 30% think all voters should be able to take part in such primaries, another 28% want participation limited to those who usually vote for the party. Meanwhile, 23% are happy to leave the decision to party members.
• Direct democracy- 88% feel voters should be able to compel an MP who has “broken the rules” to resign and fight a by-election. Six out of ten people (58%) feel that MPs should also be subject to recall in cases where no rules have been broken but where voters think the MP is “not doing a very good job”
The findings confirm what have been known for some time now- that there are disturbingly low levels of public trust in the political system. The most recent political audit conducted by the Hansard Society was particularly damning. Nevertheless, the questions on constitutional reform, as well as highlighting public attitudes to constitutional change also give insight into how levels of trust in governing institutions can be built or increased.
The full BSAS 2012 survey is available to download here.
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