We have had more than two years of relentless discussion about our relationship with Europe – yet the public still get a huge amount wrong about the impact on the UK of EU membership and immigration.
The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recently published an independent report, commissioned by the government, that shows the best available evidence is that European immigration has a positive, or at worst, neutral impact on our public finances, crime rates and health services.
But the perception among large proportions of the UK population is that European immigration has taken money out of the system, increased crime and decreased the quality of health services.
The MAC report concluded that European migrants contribute £4.7bn more in taxes than they use in welfare benefits and services. But only 29 per cent of the public believe that this is the case, dropping to 16 per cent of Leave voters. Instead, four in 10 Leave supporters think European migrants pay £4.7bn less in taxes than they take out.
On crime, the misperception is particularly startling. More than half of the public, and 75 per cent of Leave supporters, think that European immigration has increased crime levels, when the best evidence identified by the MAC report finds no link.
Four in 10 of the public also think that European immigration has decreased the quality of healthcare services in the UK, when evidence from the review shows this isn’t the case. Indeed, surveys of health professionals show doctors’ and nurses’ growing concern about the ability of the NHS to maintain services with decreasing numbers of immigrants as staff.
And old, debunked claims refuse to die. Two thirds of the public have heard of the claim that the UK sends £350m a week to the EU, and 42 per cent of these believe this is true, despite it being labelled a “misuse of statistics” by the UK Statistics Authority. The claim divides the public sharply along political and Brexit lines: two thirds of Conservative-Leave supporters believe it is true, compared with just 20 per cent of Labour-Remain supporters.
We are also oblivious to on the broader economic impact of Europe. The public grossly underestimate how much of our investment comes from EU countries: the average guess is that 36 per cent of inward investment in 2016 was from EU countries, when the actual figure was nearly twice that.
And we are also often wrong on the impact of immigration on unemployment levels among lower-skilled workers. The MAC report concludes there is little or no impact, but half of the public, including 61 per cent of Leave supporters, believe that unemployment among the lower-skilled has increased as a result of immigration.
There are two ways to look at our errors, and both have elements of truth, as I outline in my book, The Perils of Perception.
First, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that political and media discussion has done an incredibly bad job of explaining the reality of our relationship with Europe to the public. Facts have been twisted or ignored for political ends at a scale seldom seen in campaigning. This is undoubtedly bad for engagement in politics: when the reality hits, so will the backlash, as John Major outlined in his recent speech.
But second, these misperceptions are not just about us being misled by politicians or the media – they are more emotional than that. We exaggerate what we worry about, so what we get wrong is as much a reflection of our concerns as a cause of them. Attempting to change people’s views of Brexit solely with a more evidence-based description won’t land, because it misses a large part of the point: our allegiances affect our view of reality as much as the other way round.
Our misperceptions are, in the end, an incredibly direct measure of how divided the country is: that groups of fellow citizens can see the same realities so differently shows the monumental task we face in finding any common ground.
Bobby Duffy is the director of the policy institute at King’s College London and author of ‘The Perils of Perception’ published by Atlantic Books
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