Immigration looks like it may be the decisive factor on the 23rd of June. As Jonathan Portes notes, "Negative attitudes to immigration are by far the strongest predictor of opposition to UK membership". Ipsos-MORI has been tracking "The Most Important Issues Facing Britain Today" since 1974. Two points need to be made about the way it does this: it grouped race relations and immigration together until 2014, and it is measuring relative rather than absolute importance, so there's a "flavour of the month" element to the scoring. That said, the data tells an interesting story. After a spike in 1977-8, coincident with the high water mark of the National Front, race relations and immigration dropped back to being the primary concern for less than 5% of the population by the early 80s and stayed that way for almost two decades. The number starts to grow in 1999 and reaches a plateau of 30% in 2002. There is a further step-up to 40% in 2006. The figure then drops to 25% by 2011, as concerns over the economy take centre stage, and then grows again to over 40% by 2015.
What we can conclude from this is that the hardcore racist population is probably no more than 5% (the separate score for race relations from 2015 onwards is at or below this figure). Also, while the influx of Eastern Europeans may have played a part in raising the profile of the issue in the mid-00s, the major step-up in concern over immigration predates EU expansion in Eastern Europe. In other words, this is about non-EU immigration as well, which increased in the 90s as the economy grew during the recovery after Black Wednesday. Though Sterling's exit from the ERM may have helped trigger this growth, the EU had no direct influence over it. Likewise, the level of non-EU immigration won't necessarily be affected by the referendum outcome and, to judge by the claims of Brexiteers like Priti Patel, immigration from Commonwealth countries may even increase. Despite this, the 2015 British Social Attitudes survey found that 57% believed Brexit would reduce immigration.
The Leave campaign's immigration plans are contradictory and implicitly racist. The claim that we could secure access to the single market but without the quid pro quo of free movement of labour is specious (EEA membership is predicated on free movement). We all know that the attraction of the "Australian points system" is that it makes us think of white, English-speaking back-packers. A genuine points system, geared to facilitating the immigration of the skilled workers our economy lacks, wouldn’t guarantee a reduction in immigration because the rate is determined by employer demand, not by labour supply. Over the longer-term, an ageing society means that a rational points system would actually increase immigration, not reduce it. When Nigel Farage insists that post-Brexit we'd have fewer Polish plumbers and more Bangladeshi curry chefs, you can be sure his core supporters don't believe a word of it and are secretly chuffed that he is turning the tables on the "liberal media".
The economic evidence is that immigration depresses wages at the lower end of the pay scale (though it's worth noting that the groups who suffer most from this are existing immigrants), while it increases wages at the upper end of the scale (due to population growth feeding GDP), with the net effect on average wages being neutral. Immigration will be "naturally" constrained only if wages are depressed to a point where they are relatively unattractive to global labour. Those who think that constraining immigration by fiat will boost wages are wrong: it will simply incentivise automation to avoid wage rises (i.e. capital investment and inequality will both rise: a mixed blessing). Incidentally, this is one reason why support for a citizens' basic income is growing. A generous CBI plus low marginal pay would "fix" immigration at a stroke as a non-citizen's pay at the lower end of the labour market would be worse than in the economies we recruit from (higher wage immigrants, like professional footballers, would obviously be unaffected).
The dip measured by Ipsos-MORI between 2008 and 2013 suggests that immigration is actually quite a soft concern. It can be quickly pushed up the charts, but it can just as easily be pushed down when other issues come to the fore, particularly issues to do with the economy and personal income. A recent YouGov survey found that being £100 a year worse off "changed a neck-and-neck result to a 12 point victory for Remain". Among undecided voters, the result shifted 18 points in favour of Remain. What should be noted here is that for the purpose of the poll the respondents will have accepted the truth of the economic impact. The chief problem the Remain campaign has faced is scepticism about its arguments, like George Osborne's £4,300 estimate of household damage, which has arisen as much from Cameron and co's poor credibility in the eyes of non-Tories as from Leave's deliberate commitment to "post-truth politics" (such as their laughable £350m a week claim).
It's hard not to conclude that the vote on the 23rd will have little to do with the EU for many voters, despite their protestations to the contrary, which goes some way to explain the widespread, casual derision of "experts" and the amused tolerance of "big lies". It looks like many are motivated by simple xenophobia, something the Leave campaign even made explicit with its now-notorious "Syria and Iraq" leaflet, even if it is made semi-respectable by the language of concerns over public services and security. The Economist chart above suggests a correlation between migrant flows and popular concern, but the implication, that this concern would evaporate if we severely curtailed immigration, strikes me as unlikely. This is about more than numbers. The antipathy towards immigration was not triggered by EU expansion in 2004, but nor does it appear to reflect a growth in racial intolerance or discrimination.
We know that self-reported racial prejudice increased slightly after 2000, following a gentle decline in the 1990s, though it has turned down again in recent years. What's interesting about the numbers (from the National Centre for Social Research) is that "mild" racial prejudice has been fairly steady over the last 30 years at around a third of the population, though tangible evidence of discriminatory attitudes, for example with regard to inter-marriage, has shown a steady decline. In other words, there isn't a correlation with the fluctuating concern over immigration, suggesting that the latter isn't a simple proxy for racial prejudice. Between 1995 and 2013, the percentage of respondents in the British Social Attitudes survey who wanted immigration reduced "a lot" went from 39 to 56%, which is significantly higher than the level of self-reported prejudice. There are a lot of people who consider themselves unprejudiced who are very opposed to immigration.
One piece of evidence for this shift is that outriders, like Nigel Farage, who necessarily operate on the edge of acceptable discourse, are now obliged to employ ever more lurid claims in argument. Whereas xenophobes previously spoke euphemistically of a "failure to integrate", they now talk of the risk of sex crimes in language not heard since the 1950s, or accuse HIV sufferers of being benefit tourists depriving native patients of treatment. This points to one important mechanism: the concerns of identity politics have been recuperated by xenophobes. This is most obvious in the way that immigrant populations, particularly Muslim, are accused of being sexist, homophobic and enemies of free-speech through excessive religiosity, a manner of attack that echoes tropes previously deployed against "culturally conservative" communities like working class Catholics. The point is that while these behaviours may be present in Muslim communities, and even dominant, they do not define every member of the community, any more than every Irish person can be considered anti-abortion.
We know that xenophobia is a matter of sentiment rather than facts, and we also know that there was a shift between 1999 and 2005 when outright hostility to immigration went mainstream in public discourse. This turn appears to have been fuelled by two major developments: the cross-party focus on "bogus asylum seekers" in the 1999 to 2003 period, and the political salience of Muslims after 2001. It also appears to have been encouraged by concerns over welfare funding, notably of health and education. While New Labour increased funding, it did so in a manner that emphasised the difficulty of finding the money and the growing demand on public services, often by those of questionable merit. "Prudence" was the rhetorical precursor of "austerity", just as "rights and responsibilities" prefigured "strivers and skivers". While most Blairite ministers may not have consciously intended to link asylum seekers with an NHS beds crisis (I'll make an exception for Jack Straw), the coincidence of the two meant that the media stories almost wrote themselves.
While it is fashionable among the liberal commentariat to claim that the influence of newspapers is not as great as is claimed on the left (reflecting their own sad foreboding about marginalisation by new media), it remains true that they do influence the public agenda, if only through the relative prominence they accord certain issues. We know that press coverage of immigration has become increasingly toxic in recent years, but the roots of this lie in the mid-90s when the Conservative Party attempted to arrest their post-1992 decline in popularity with a turn from economic to cultural issues (the "nasty party" years), notably with the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act, which was followed by the first Blair government's 1999 Act that rearranged the same words. In 40 years between 1950 and 1989 there were 3 immigration acts. In 20 years between 1990 and 2009 there were 7. Again, one could ironically point to the ERM debacle as the trigger for this development, and it's also true that the governmental focus on asylum has been a compensatory gesture for an inability to restrict EU free movement in the face of an increasingly hostile press, but it's difficult to pin the blame on Eastern Europeans.
What is indisputable is that the attitude of mainstream UK political parties has moved away from challenging xenophobia to "understanding" it, which suggests, in the words of John Grayson, that "the electorate is racist, not the politicians, or the political and media discourses they create". Inevitably, "The electorate is also seen as 'entitled' to be racist, politicians are simply giving them a voice, and the myth of the lack of debate on immigration and asylum is wheeled out. When Gordon Brown in 2010 called a Labour Party worker a 'bigot' for her prejudiced views on Polish immigrants he broke the new golden rule of electoral politics that xenophobia, prejudice and racism should be harnessed, not confronted, for the political cause". One could see this tolerance as a cynical quid pro quo for the social strains caused by neoliberalism, but the despair among liberals, who assume the working class is incorrigibly bigoted, is all too genuine. This is, of course, nothing more than a traditional conservative lament with the addition of the word "empathy".
This "understanding" has been with us since the late-70s (Margaret Thatcher's "swamped" remark came in 1978), though it took till the mid-90s to be normalised, and is clearly a feature of the neoliberal order. Despite its prominence in political debate for almost 40 years, efforts at understanding appear to have achieved nothing other than to sanction xenophobia. The neoliberal evacuation of politics from economics, and the general demotion of class as an explanatory model in social affairs that this has given rise to, has made immigration (like identity politics) more politically salient. This has been exacerbated by the shift towards social parasitism as an explanation for the fraying of the welfare state - i.e. the language of skivers and something-for-nothing has provided a vocabulary that has made bigotry acceptable: "I'm not a racist but ... they get all the best council houses, they get more in benefits, they clutter up the GP surgery" etc.
The apparently even split in the population between xenophobes and the rest has prompted some commentators to talk of "culture wars" between university-educated liberals and a left-behind working class, or between "that there London" and the provinces, but this strikes me as ridiculously reductive. The idea that Brexit is being driven by working class voters in the North is just a continuation of the current anti-Labour strategy of the liberal media (the aim being to blame a defeat, or even a narrow win, on Labour "shirkers"). A desire to leave the EU and severely curtail immigration is a combination predominantly found among cultural conservatives, small capitalists and working-class Tories. Far from being iffy, Labour voters have been consistenly pro-Remain and more enthusiastic than LibDems in some polls. If the Leave camp wins, the finger of blame should point at David Cameron for his miscalculation, not at Jeremy Corbyn for his supposed lack of enthusiasm.
The threat of Brexit is increasingly seen as socially destructive: "The UK’s EU referendum has eroded social trust more than immigration per se ever did". There is a sense of "them and us" that hasn't been around since the early-80s. Come the 24th of June, and regardless of the result, not only will the UK be facing possible fragmentation but England itself will be in a state of rhetorical civil war (with the real possibility of actual violence, not just in France but in our Muslim communities at home). I think it's little appreciated that the rise of English identity over the last 20 years has come to be seen in existentially threatening terms by those whose identity is either British or British/European. I've noticed a few people recently who have said, in all seriousness, that they'll leave the country in the event of Brexit. In other words, Remainers are beginning to feel like strangers in their own land, an ironic echo of xenophobic sentiment. I've yet to spot a Blairite who sees the tragedy (in the original Greek sense of the word) in all this.
The punitive attitude displayed towards the working class since the 1980s has been justified and normalised by the demonisation of immigrants as "problematic labour" and by asylum seekers as emblematic "claimants". Whatever the outcome on the 23rd, the toxic role played by immigration in the debate will leave England divided. We can also say with confidence that whoever wins will be disappointed with the eventual outcome. If Remain clinch it, the Leavers will not be reconciled because they view immigration as an existential threat (even if many are merely grumpy in practice), while those who voted Remain will find future UK governments committed to a policy of masterly inactivity towards the EU. If Brexit occurs, immigration will only decline steeply if the economy craters, which is quite possible but not what most Leavers anticipate. Remainers will know that a rapid re-entry to the EU will depend on a Labour government, which will make liberals even more frantic for regime change in case Corbyn starts taking the pursuit of EU democracy seriously. And on that amusing thought, the next part of the referendum preview will address the vexed issue of sovereignty.