An average of 30 percent of the British public have identified immigration as one of their most important concerns since 2003; in recent months, 50 per cent or more have named this as one of the most important issues facing the UK. In many other countries, such public concern about immigration has prompted the rise of the far-right as a significant challenger to established political parties, though the far right does not appear to be a serious challenger in UK general elections, even in the face of increased levels of migration (and despite government promises to reduce it).
Public concern about immigration presents a potentially more serious challenge to the functioning of liberal democracy than simply prompting the rise of the far-right, however, because it undermines public confidence in democratic political institutions and elites. Two key factors are likely to be causing this.
The first of these goes back to the construction of modern liberal democracy, which from its inception has involved a sense of ‘we-feeling’; the modern social welfare state may particularly necessitate a clear notion of society and belonging since it requires significant financial sacrifice for the benefit of others. Post-war immigration may be seen by many as a challenge to widely held conceptualizations of who ‘we’ are and more specifically, where newcomers fit within these conceptualizations. Many have argued that immigration and multiculturalism may create problems for the ‘we-feeling’ that underpins national social democratic political systems (although it must be noted that the evidence on this is somewhat mixed). This demise of the sense of community is likely to include the institutions and elites that are expected to represent and adjudicate between members of the community (i.e., citizens).
The second reason that public concern about immigration undermines confidence in the political system is that citizens are likely to have come to blame the political system as a whole for failing to control immigration. For several decades, citizens in Britain and other European countries have expressed fairly strong reservations about continued migration to their countries. Politicians periodically respond to these concerns by producing policy changes designed to slow the levels of immigration and/or to improve the integration of migrants who are allowed to stay in the country long-term. Opposition parties often promise to ‘get immigration under control’ when governing parties appear to be failing in this policy area. There are, however, countless examples of opposition parties promising the latter in particular, only to fail to have much apparent impact on immigration numbers once in office. This is because the legal and economic requirements in the area of immigration policy mean that it is extremely difficult to reduce immigration to the sorts of levels often promised by politicians without committing human rights violations, violating European Union law, or damaging the domestic economy and public services.
Thus, the main factor that may be contributing to the rising connection between public concern about immigration and distrust in national political institutions and elites is the politicians themselves promising outcomes that are not realistically deliverable. By making and invariably breaking such promises, political elites not only reduce confidence in their own handling of immigration but contribute to the demise of confidence in the national political system as a whole.