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Brexit was not about warm beer

Brexiters cared more about reducing non-white migrants

Brexit leaders such as Boris Johnson have tried to make voters believe that sovereignty, not immigration, was the key motivation behind the vote to leave the EU. But academic research raises questions over this interpretation as research shows immigration from non-white countries was key.

Published: June 5, 2017, 10:48 am

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    In a survey of 3 636 UK residents through YouGov’s online panel between 26 April and 3 May 2017, respondents were asked separate questions about EU and non-EU immigration, about their preferred level of net immigration of each group on a sliding scale from 0 to 165 000.

    What’s striking – and no one is talking about – is that British voters prefer EU to non-EU migrants, and the desired levels of European immigration are higher among all British voters. This pattern of preferring immigrants from inside the EU to those from outside, holds across all social groups in the data. Even younger people who prefer more net immigration than older people,wanted fewer non-EU than EU immigrants.

    Using survey data, Harold Clarke, Paul Whiteley, and Matthew Goodwin show that immigration is by far the strongest predictor of a Leave vote, and anti-immigration voters were more motivated to show up at the polls than others.

    Geoffrey Evans and Jon Mellon found that UKIP and Vote Leave had linked the immigration issue to the EU even though most voters did not care as much about the EU as they did about immigration.

    Most importantly, British voters felt concern over non-European and non-white immigration. The question of Eastern European immigration was repeatedly dragged into debates during the campaign, but most Brexit voters could care less.

    Research showed that immigration in general – notably non-EU immigration – was the real drive behind the Leave vote.

    Over the past two decades, non-European immigration has usually exceeded European immigration as share of non-European origin in the population of England and Wales doubled between 2001 and 2011.

    But Brexiters could not openly display their anti-Asian or anti-African immigration sentiment due to politically correct racial connotations. As Labour MP Frank Field noted: “The truth is, I wasn’t brave enough to raise it [immigration] as an issue – though I thought it was an issue for yonks – until we were talking about white people coming in. And even then the anger that this was racist was something one had to face.”

    These findings echo those of a recent study showing that the increase in non-European (BAME) respondents in a White British person’s local area in the 2000s was a stronger predictor of UKIP support than the increase in local European population.

    This suggests that in the wake of the 2015 Migrant Crisis, the threat of unchecked non-European immigration, may have motivated many Leave voters. These findings may also have informed the UK government’s recent decision to increase the Immigration Skills Charge and raise earnings thresholds for those seeking to sponsor relatives from outside the EU.

    According to government statistics, about 3 million European Union citizens and 5 million non-EU citizens live in the United Kingdom.

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