“I don’t have a problem – but I’m sure everyone else does”

A mundane 7.00am observation of mine was my most retweeted ever: that far more people think “the country” has a pressing issue with Immigration than they do personally.

This is unsurprising, to a metropolitan elite like myself.  Concern about immigration bespatters the front pages of the tabloids. That is where people perceive “the country” and its ills. What about them personally – what is it to have a personal problem with immigration? Scarce housing in your area? You have a housing problem. Cramped schools?  You have a schooling problem. You don’t like the sight of them in the street?  You have, er, another problem …

The attitudes to crime, the threat of terrorism, the state of the NHS, the behaviour of our political class and many others are subject to similar fallacies of composition

This is why I don’t understand why someone as bright as Dominic Cummings says this:

Immigration is now such a powerful dynamic in public opinion that a) no existing political force can stop people being so worried about it and, contra many hacks I speak to, it wouldn’t matter if the Tories and Mail shut up about it – people’s actual experience and conversation with friends, family, and colleagues is the most important thing driving opinion, not the media;

No, I think it is very much about the media-bang-on, but since this sort of controversy allows no natural experiments we cannot easily tell.

It goes against human nature to see no larger issue when the press keeps banging on about one. Similar echo bubbles also operate within Westminster. “We have a problem with X” says a Minister, responding to something in CityAm. “X” gets raised in Cabinet by a secretary of state eager to have something to say.  In the next in-depth interview, another mentions “X” as his personal priority to the Thoughtful Opinion Former, who goes off to the think tank  dedicated to banging on about “X” and so on …

There is no easy political conclusion to this, but as in so many other areas I think one lesson is that evidence-obsessed civil servants are obsessed for a reason.  Long after the bubble is popped, they and their organisation has to live with the consequences. A reason I side with PermSecs against Maude – but that is for another post.


Published by freethinkingeconomist

I'm a mid 40s, former special adviser (Downing Street 2017-19, BIS from 2010-14), former FT leader writer and Lex Columnist, former financial dealer (?) at IG, student of economic history, PPE like the rest of them, etc. This blog has large gaps for obvious reasons. The name is dumb - the CentreForum think tank blog was called Freethink, I adapted that, we are stuck now.

2 thoughts on ““I don’t have a problem – but I’m sure everyone else does”

  1. Hi Giles, re my comment. I didn’t explain it very well but…
    a) Obviously media focus has an impact.
    b) In the places I did these focus groups (near Birmingham, Thurrock, Hendon) the discussion of immigration and public services is dominated by what people see around them, not by media stories. E.g. they tell each other stories about ‘my appointment was cancelled last week and they said it’s cos of all the immigrants’, or ‘I was in hospital with my sister and her scan was delayed, the nurse said it’s cos of all the immigrants’ etc. So my point was – this sort of thing is much more powerful than anything they read in the paper. Some parts of the country have experienced a) many new immigrants and b) cuts to local services. In these places, even if they banned the Mail, discussion of the issue would not change much. However, in other parts of the country (e.g. where I come from, Durham) there are effectively zero immigrants, so a change in the media would doubtless change local discussion. Does this make sense? Dom

    1. That makes perfect sense, and clarifies things usefully. It is real or imagined causality for other more real and immediate issues – it’s no longer the sort of examples Powell cited in his “River Tiber” speech.

      You are aware, of course, of how UKIP does less well where people have more actual experience of immigrants (London). BTW thanks for the fascinating other post, about to try to tackle it.


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