London, United Kingdom – There is a dominant narrative at play in the UK, certainly in liberal media circles and on the losing side of the 2016 European Union withdrawal referendum, that small-minded xenophobia was a major driving force behind Brexit.
Certainly anti-immigration themes were prevalent during the campaign, and parts of the discourse and rhetoric turned shamefully ugly. The win for the Leave movement was widely seen as a victory for right-wing populists.
And the divisions that were entrenched and deepened during the referendum continue to split the United Kingdom, with more people identifying as either a “Leaver” or a “Remainer” than they do with any party political affiliation.
But new research from a group of four universities suggests something that may seem counter-intuitive: Brexit actually changed people’s perspectives of immigrants for the better – in both remain and leave-voting areas.
Those who voted to leave the EU found their anti-immigrant attitudes softening because of feeling a greater sense of having “taken back control”, in the words of the campaign.
But that was not all. Leavers and Remainers alike also felt a need to disavow themselves from the xenophobic views bandied about during the referendum, and in the process became genuinely less anti-immigrant.
“There is a really easy story to be told about people feeling reassured by a government taking back control,” Professor David Hudson of the University of Birmingham, one of the authors of the study, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s easy, but only partly true. That logic can and does explain why Leavers’ attitudes have changed, but our results show that it does not explain why Remainers have also shifted to become more positive about migrants and immigration.
“The only answer that explained all the shift, across Leavers and Remainers, is this sense of people wanting to distance themselves from people and positions that they perceived as extreme and discriminatory and not okay, [Nigel] Farage being the archetypal example. And this is important, because the easy and simple story about ‘take back control’ does not cut it.”
After Brexit, the study found, Remainers were 9 percent less likely to believe that migrants took jobs away from the non-migrant population, while Leavers’ attitudes softened by 4 percent – about half of the amount.
Those supporting Remain were 12 percent less inclined to believe that migrants increased the risk of terrorism, and 7 percent less likely to believe that refugees overwhelm public services after the referendum. Leavers were 5 percent and 2 percent, respectively, less likely to agree with those two points.
The study titled A Populist Paradox? How Brexit Softened Anti-Immigrant Attitudes, and published in the May issue of the British Journal of Political Science, was undertaken by researchers in Birmingham, Royal Holloway, the University of Essex, and University College London.
“That anti-immigrant sentiment decreased is important in its own right, but the key contribution of this research is that we explain why attitudes changed,” the report’s lead author, Dr Cassilde Schwartz of the University of London’s Royal Holloway, told Al Jazeera.
“People across the political spectrum experienced a backlash against nationalism and xenophobia. It is a testament to the democratic norms of this country that individuals self-corrected en masse in response to a political climate that they perceived as hostile or intolerant.”
That may come as little comfort to the victims of hate crimes – which surged in the aftermath of the referendum.
Polish communities were particularly targeted in several attacks, including the distribution of leaflets describing them as “vermin” and racist graffiti outside a cultural centre in London.
In the city of Leeds, a group of 20 youths attacked a Polish man, leaving him hospitalised.
Between July and September 2016, 33 out of the UK’s 44 police forces had seen record numbers of hate crimes, with more than 1,000 recorded in the Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire police areas, and a further 3,000 in London – in just three months.
The violence was, however, a spike and quickly reduced, according to statistics from the UK Home Office.
“While increases in hate crime over the last five years have been mainly driven by improvements in crime recording by the police, there have been spikes in hate crime following certain events such as the EU Referendum and the terrorist attacks in 2017,” read the 2018-2019 Home Office report into hate crimes.
The latest study also holds lessons for politicians dealing with the many non-Brexit challenges currently faced by the UK, said Hudson.
“At a time of deep uncertainty, loss of control, fear – especially of what is felt to be foreign – and closing borders, the results of the paper suggest that there will be a backlash against excessive scapegoating and xenophobic positions,” he said.
“This is true about COVID-19 but also more recently in the Home Secretary’s reticence to waive the NHS migrant surcharge, which produced a reaction especially considering the general mood towards the NHS, given the amazing and brave work front-line workers have been doing.
“There is a limit to populism that seeks to scapegoat foreigners – if and when the public feels that it breaks social norms. The U-turn on the NHS surcharge for migrant health workers could very much be understood in this light. The government realised – correctly – that this would stretch people’s discrimination norms.”
The research was embedded into surveys taken two weeks before and after the referendum, and asked if respondents agreed with six key statements: refugees overwhelm services, refugees threaten culture, refugees do not improve the UK image, reduce number of migrants, migrants take jobs, and migrants bring terror.
Respondents were sampled and weighted according to regionally specific demographics by age and gender, social grade, region, party affiliation, and newspaper readership, making the data representative of the adult population of the country as a whole, said researchers.
Despite the divides that remain in British society, the research findings are good news and should reflect current feelings, said analysts.
“The fact that British people now have far more positive attitudes to migration is no surprise,” Jonathan Lis, deputy director of the British Influence think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
“In the past four years, people have begun to understand just how much migrants have contributed to Britain’s society, economy and culture. It is just a shame that it took the national self-sabotage of Brexit to realise it.”
Follow James Brownsell on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell