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Public opinion toward immigration in Scotland as it prepares for the referendum on independence

10 Feb 2014

The first detailed analysis of Scottish public opinion about immigration shows that Scotland has significantly lower levels of concern about immigration than England and Wales, but also that Scots’ views on the subject are strongly associated with their voting intentions in the referendum.

The analysis – published today by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory – was compiled from a representative online survey of 2235 people in Scotland and 2027 in England and Wales, undertaken by YouGov between 16-27 October 2013. It is part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Future of the UK and Scotland programme of research undertaken to inform the referendum debate.

Some of the key findings are outlined below:

There is majority support for reduced immigration among people in Scotland, but at a much lower level than England and Wales:

While a majority (58%) of people in Scotland support reductions to immigration, this level is significantly lower than England and Wales, where support for reductions stands at 75%.

More people think immigration is good for Scotland than bad for it, which is markedly different from England and Wales:

More people in Scotland think immigration is good for Scotland (49%) than say it is bad for Scotland (32%). In England and Wales “bad” for the country outpolled “good” by 49% to 35%.

Comparatively few people support reducing the numbers of students, high skilled migrants or immediate family members coming to Scotland:

There is minority support for reducing the number of student migrants (22%), high skilled migrants (23%) and immediate family members (22%) coming to Scotland, but majority support for reducing the number of low-skilled migrants (57%) and almost half of respondents (48%) support reducing the number of asylum seekers. All of these represent lower support for reductions than was found in England and Wales.

There is a relationship between views on immigration and referendum voting intentions:

The data also show a that people who expressed a desire for reduced immigration are considerably more likely to vote “no” to Scottish independence in this year’s referendum (58% of this group would vote “no” and 28% “yes”) than those who did not favour reductions to immigration (45% of this group would vote “no” and 40% “yes”).

Migration is a less salient policy issue in Scotland than in England or Wales:

People in Scotland rate Immigration as less of a concern than those in England and Wales. From a list of 13 key political issues, immigration rated 2nd in England and Wales, while on a similar list of the same 13 issues, plus independence, immigration rated 4th in Scotland (just behind welfare benefits and ahead of health).

There is majority support for Scottish control of immigration policy…:

The analysis shows that Scottish attitudes to immigration are complex, especially in relationship to policy and constitutional issues, and do not lend themselves to straightforward policy making. A majority of people in Scotland (60%) believe that immigration policy should sit with the Scottish government rather than Westminster (31%) or at a local or EU level.

…but a minority believe that a Scottish government would make immigration policy less open:

Nearly half of respondents (45%) believe that if the Scottish government did control immigration policy it should be made less open than the rest of the UK. However only 22% believe that if the Scottish government were to take charge of immigration policy they will make it less open.

Other key findings

Other interesting findings include:

  • That one in ten people in Scotland (10%) say that they think of English people coming to live in Scotland when thinking about migrants.
  • That the issue of border controls between England and Scotland generates an unusual level of extreme responses. On a scale of concern rated from 0 (not at all bothered) to 10 (greatly bothered), a majority of people in Scotland chose one of the extremes with 29% choosing “not at all bothered” and 29% choosing “greatly bothered”, while fewer than 10% chose any other single point on the scale.
  • However, a majority (64%) in Scotland thought it was unlikely that independence would lead to passport checks being implemented at the border between England in Scotland.
  • There was broad opposition to illegal immigration in both England and Scotland, but respondents in Scotland were marginally less focussed on the legal status of migrants. 20% of the Scottish sample responded that when thinking of migrants they were thinking only, or mostly, of “illegal” immigrants, compared to 29% in England and Wales.

Dr Scott Blinder, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, and the author of the report, said: “Scotland’s attitudes toward migration are noticeably different to those in England and Wales, so this research is critical for both the referendum debate and for wider questions about migration policy in Scotland. In particular there is significantly less support in Scotland for reduced immigration than in England and Wales – it is important not to exaggerate this, though. A majority of Scottish people still want to see immigration levels reduced.

“It is interesting to note that people who intend to vote “yes” in the referendum are much less likely to support reduced immigration than those who intend to vote “no.” There is also clearly strong support for Scotland controlling its own immigration policy, rather than Westminster, and the immigration issue is of less concern in Scotland than in England and Wales.”


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