A protester displays a ‘Refugees Not Welcome’ flag during a demonstration in Dover in 2016. The UK has become more pro-immigration since the Brexit vote
A protester displays a ‘Refugees Not Welcome’ flag during a demonstration in Dover in 2016. The UK has become more pro-immigration since the Brexit vote © Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty

After the 2016 Brexit vote, racism and xenophobia seemed to permeate Britain’s air. Overnight, the open and tolerant nation that I thought I’d grown up in had become an inward-looking place, doomed to an insular future. Or that’s what everyone told me — fellow Remainers in particular.

But four years after that referendum, and less than half a year after the UK formally left the EU, Boris Johnson’s pro-Brexit government has thrown open Britain’s doors to up to 3m citizens of Hong Kong, in response to a new Chinese security law in the territory. Last week the Foreign Office estimated this could mean the arrival of some 200,000 Hong Kongers into Britain over the next five years.

Yet there has been no real backlash against this citizenship offer, which will not discriminate on the basis of skills or income as long as an applicant holds, or is eligible for, a British National Overseas passport. It was welcomed by MPs of all parties, without a single objection.

Opinion polls show the public approves, with those who are aware of the offer supporting it by a factor of almost three to one, according to a YouGov survey. A warning from lobby group Migration Watch that this was an “ill-conceived, half-baked idea”, and that the government was betraying its 2019 election pledge to reduce overall immigration numbers, drew little attention.

It is tempting to put this reaction down to the particularities of Hong Kong. Britain feels a historical connection to the territory, and wants to stand up to an oppressive China. Britons also tend to see the territory’s largely ethnic Chinese and Cantonese-speaking population favourably, says Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos MORI, a polling group.

“The public are likely to be more positive about Chinese people for a mixture of cultural and other views they have of the Chinese as being industrious, hard working and passive,” he says. The reaction might have been rather different if the expected influx was of eastern Europeans or Muslims.

But there’s more to it than racial attitudes. In 1990, the government made a far less generous offer to a maximum of 50,000 Hong Kongers and their families. There was an almighty clash in parliament before the bill passed. Meanwhile, only a third of those aware of the proposal approved of it, YouGov data shows.

The fact is that, as a nation, the UK has become much more pro-immigration in recent decades, and since the Brexit vote in particular. Residents now see it both more positively, and as a less pressing issue. In the years leading up to the Brexit referendum, immigration regularly topped Ipsos MORI’s “Issues Index” of Britain’s top 10 biggest concerns. It has since fallen right down the list. During the pandemic, it has dropped out of the top 10 entirely. Support for reducing overall migration has also fallen to just 52 per cent, having long been around the two-thirds mark.

This cannot be explained by net migration numbers. While the number of immigrants from the EU has fallen sharply since the Brexit vote, non-EU immigration hit a record high in 2019. It seems, instead, to be more about the fact that people who voted for Brexit feel their voices have been heard. There has also been a significant reduction in scare stories and an increase in positive news about immigrants, particularly during coronavirus.

Many in the pro-immigration camp seem to be reluctant to acknowledge the shift in attitudes, in part because of lasting anger about the referendum. “There’s a real inability to look at what’s happened calmly, because of that sense of loss and grievance,” says Sunder Katwala, director of think-tank British Future.

The UK is very good at doom and gloom, but not so good at highlighting areas where there is scope for optimism. And perceptions are crucial in shaping policy, as Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, points out.

If Remainers are serious about wanting Britain to be more generous on immigration, they should acknowledge that fears about the meaning of the 2016 vote were misplaced, and that as far as immigration attitudes are concerned, things are going . . . kind of OK.

jemima.kelly@ft.com

Letter in response to this column:

Parliament’s control over immigration is an illusion / From Randhir Singh Bains, London IG2, UK

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