Freedom of Movement – Cultural Attitudes and comparison with Ireland


UK politics has been for many years split on a Left/Right – Labour/Tory axis, but over Brexit this is breaking down. Prof. Richard Murphy gives a succinct definition that difference between Left and Right is how widely ‘us’ is defined. Left wing people cast the definition of ‘us’ very widely; ideally incorporating the whole of humanity. Right wing people cast ‘us’ very narrowly; to self, family, friends and perhaps more widely to a local and national area. Does this definition shed a light on why Freedom of Movement (FoM) seems to be the new acid test that fundamentally divides people?

On the 23rd June ’16 the country voted to leave the EU. The referendum result has be interpreted by PM May as a vote against FoM. I had put this down to her frustration as Home Secretary in getting the net number of ‘migrants’ to the 10s of thousands whilst her government pursued policies which would deliver the exact opposite. The Premiership seemed the perfect opportunity to get the ‘job’ done properly.

I had assumed that the PM was unusual in this respect. For me FoM is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, benefit of being in the EU, but depressing, in the HoC, according to the recent UK in a changing Europe survey:

If new foreign nationals from other EU countries had the automatic right to live and work in the UK, then 66% of MPs think that would not be honouring the referendum result while fewer than one in three (31%) reckon it would be. There is a now majority against the idea that freedom of movement in its current form is compatible with the 2016 referendum among both Conservative (88%) and Labour MPs (52%), and among MPs that voted Leave (90%) and Remain (54%).

This is quite scary. The referendum was a simple  binary question as to whether to stay in, or leave the EU. FoM was not on the ballot paper. Why has the EU referendum  been recast as an imperative to end FoM?  One answer is that whereas FoM in the EU shows reciprocity (the quid pro quo is that UK citizens can live in work in c 30 other European countries) it has been painted almost exclusively in the UK as an immigration issue. This is even sadder because the EU rules allow far more powers against benefit tourism and other issues, but have never been implemented by the UK.

It is interesting however to look at the attitudes between EU and extra EU immigration to see both how the UK stands in distinguishing between the two and placing it in the wider European context. The Euro Barometer survey helps to do this.

Some Euro Barometer Results

The EuroBarometer is a multi annual survey taken throughout the EU which started in 1974; the year after the UK (and Denmark and Ireland) joined the EU. It contains a wealth of data and here are presented some of the spring  2018 results (the Nov 18 results – Euro Barometer 90 have not yet been fully analysed). Looking at the ‘immigration’ side alone Fig.1 shows attitudes towards EU immigrants.

Fig. 1 Attitudes towards EU immigration from Euro-Barometer 89 (spring 2008)


The UK results in Fig. 1 show a 64% (69% if don’t knows are excluded) positive attitudes towards EU “immigration”. Whereas this is not particularly high by EU standards it is still a super-majority. It seems strange therefore opinion in the HoC has moved so much against FoM.

The non EU immigration attitudes are shown in Fig. 2.

Fig 2. Attitudes towards external immigration.


The external immigration results while less positive in general shows that the UK is well above average  at 54% (59% if don’t’ knows are excluded)  are still in a majority. The evidence from this survey is that  ‘immigration’ remains popular.

Figure 3 shows the percentage of foreign born nationals in the EU  member states. In general (Cyprus seems to be an exception) there is a good correlation between the number of immigrants and favorabality rating. It seems that it is fear of immigrants rather than immigrants themselves that are the problem. There is a similar pattern of course with the UK itself, in that it is general areas with least migrants that are most anti FoM.

Fig. 3 Foreign born population from Metrocosm


The Euro-Barometer results may overstate the fondness for immigration in the UK and other surveys such as the Oxford based Migration Observatory paint a much less positive attitude as shown in Fig. 4. with the greatest number of those surveyed wanting a decrease in immigration.

Fig. 4. Attitude towards immigrants (July 2017) from the Migration Observatory.


Members of parliament may well be reflecting the views of their electorate.

Could cultural issues explain the difference between Ireland and England?

Sentiment towards immigrants as very positive in Ireland; indeed it regularly tops the EU survey in terms of positivity and the Euro-Barometer 89 survey, as shown in Figs.  1 and 2 is, no exception. Northern Ireland also tends to be very positive about immigration; even the DUP have complained that the migration plans set out in the White Paper are too restrictive.  Scotland also is very positive about immigration. Hostility towards immigration is largely an English concern.

In England readers of the Mail, Sun and Express are bombarded with relentless anti-immigration headlines as illustrated in Fig. 5. Nothing like this exists in Ireland, or if it does, it is to a much lesser extent. Not only are immigrants portrayed as being criminals and terrorists, they are accused of stealing jobs, lowering wages, increasing house prices and putting stress on schools and the NHS.

Very little of this is actually true. Strain on public services are almost exclusively down to the Government’s “austerity agenda.” There is little to no evidence of immigrants stealing jobs or lowering wages. One expects such lies from the Tories, rather than making the positive case for immigration, they have cowardly gone down the populist route. Even more depressing and distressing is to have anti immigration sentiments repeated by Labour.

Fig 5. A selection of Anti-Immigration headlines from the gutter press.


House prices are complex. From the Migration Observatory:

Evidence on the impacts of migration on house prices in the UK remains inconclusive. Some studies have addressed this question by comparing house prices in areas with lower and higher levels of migration. They found, counterintuitively, that migration to a local area led to a decrease in house prices. Using data from 2003 to 2010 for England and Wales, Sá (2014) found that a 1% increase in the stock of the foreign-born relative to the local population led to a decrease of 1.7% in house prices. A similar result emerged from a study by Braakmann (2013), who also found that price decreases took place primarily at the bottom of the distribution (i.e. in less expensive housing).

Housing and Health access are also major issues in Ireland. Rentier Capitalism seems largely blamed on The Housing Shortage and the Health access problems put down to lack of home care support and other non immigration related issues.

Velocity arguments have been used. England has had a long history of taking in migrants, but it was only recently in England that they have arrived in such large numbers. Approximately 1m Poles for example since 2004. The argument is that it is not the total number of migrants, but the speed at which they have arrived which is the main problem. This can not be the only issue as not only does Ireland have more migrants per capita, but they have nearly all arrived in the past 25 years or so. Until the 1990’s Ireland was a country that did not attract working migrants in large numbers, though certain areas such as West Cork have long been popular with British and German retirees and artists.

It seems that both Ireland and England have similar problems, but the fraction of the population that blames immigrants for the underlying problems is much lower in Ireland than England. There is no question that some of the press and many politicians in England have behaved disgracefully. There must, however, be underlying cultural issues otherwise such attitudes could not have taken hold.

Longer Running Cultural Issues

There are obvious difference between Ireland and England. The major one is population size and density: England has more than 10 times the population and a much higher population density. The overcrowded argument is often used in terms of migration in England but almost never in Ireland.

England has historically been far more prosperous than Ireland. It is a country to which one moved to find jobs and prosperity. But there are still parts of England, for example in the NE in former mining towns, which are very insular. Even moving 20 miles away is considered strange. I was discussing with a teacher recently who worked at Ashington. Newcastle upon Tyne (15 miles away) was viewed as a far off place which was rarely, or never, visited. The teacher acted as career advisor and the height of ambition seemed running an ice cream van.

Ireland is very different. There is a feeling of inter-connectiveness in all aspects of society. FoM is not something for the rich. The Auf Wiedersehen, Pet mentality is still extremely strong in Ireland. This has historically been the case ever since the Famine or even before. I was reading In Ireland Long Ago by Kevin Danaher (father) recently. Writing about 1920 two passages stood out.

The first is a slight aside during the Irish War of Independence c 1921, describing his childhood:

Twice or three times we hid in the dykes from a lorry load of Black and Tans – one of whose favourite recreation was the taking of pot-shots at ‘moving targets’, human or animal; poor men – they were monsters to us then, and only later did we realize they were for the most part crazed with looted drink and for the fear of the swift vengeance that might at any moment speak the last word to them.

The Black and Tans of course were notorious and did little to improve Irish/English relations.

Far more relevant to this article is the following:

The road was a link to our world outside, many of our people had travelled far on it, some never to return, some to come back to the quiet places. There was the man who stuck his spade in the potato ridge and climbed over the ditch to give directions to a bewildered foreigner in fluent German that he had learned in his twenty years in Milwaukee and there were the two brothers who used to hold their private conversations in Maori. There was a man who carried his pack over the White Horse Pass on the trail to the Klondyke and another who had marched over the Khyber Pass to Kabul and a very old man who had seen the approach of the relieving columns from his post on a roof top in Lucknow. Another had laid telephone cables in Montevideo and another had dug gold in Kalgoorlie and another had punched cattle in Texas. The road linked us to many a different corner of the world.

My father grew up about a mile outside the small village of Athea on the Limerick Kerry border. There is no reason to believe that it is was in any way unusual. But in total contrast to Ashington, there is inter-linkage to the outside world. In that short passages there are references to the US, NZ, Canada, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, South America and Australia.

Athea even in the 1920 seemed a place of were one could travel the world, it seemed a place from which anything was possible and you could make your mark on the world. Ashington, by contrast, sadly even 100 years later seems far more insular and lacks ambition. These people have been failed – almost thrown on the slag-heap of their former coal mines.


There is no doubt that FoM has been badly misunderstood in the UK. There have been decades of misinformation from the right wing press and shameful short term political opportunism from both major parties. This obviously needs to be turned around.

Whatever happens over the next few weeks regarding Brexit, there is a need to regenerate hope and ambition in many of the left behind communities. A true reboot of the UK is needed.


  1. Ivan Horrocks -

    Another interesting and thought provoking blog, Sean. There are many points that match my own experience, such as meeting people from just north of Nottingham (Kirkby and Sutton in Ashfield for example) who have seldom if ever made the 14 -16 mile journey into Nottingham.

    Your point about the speed of the increase in immigration – particularly from 1997 under the first Blair government (interestingly an issue which features prominently in Tom Bower’s book on Blair as an ongoing point of argument between Blair and other members of his government through his time as PM) – also chimes.

    For example, there’s been a Polish presence in Nottingham for decades as many Poles came to this area to work before or after WW2. Indeed, when I worked at Gedling Colliery a good number of my fellow miners were Poles. Nobody much thought anything of this – certainly I never heard any complaints about them being ‘foreigners’. In fact, the only complaint was that they worked too hard, often for example, limiting their ‘snap’ (food) breaks to exactly that mandated by management, and stayed working a shift until the very last, whereas English and other nationalties (Gedling was known as the ‘pit of nations’ if I recall correctly) would always add five or ten minutes to a break and leave in good time to get back to pit bottom.

    But things changed around here – and I hear from a friend from Boston in Lincolnshire – considerably more there – when the numbers of Poles seemed to soar during the late 1990s and into the 2000s. It became commonplace to hear ‘locals’ – I use that term deliberately because it wasn’t just white Brits, but pretty much anyone – including, incidentally, Poles who’d come here after the war – comment on the number of people heard speaking ‘Polish’ (in reality I suspect not just Polish but other eastern European languages); the fact that quite a number of Polish shops opened over a realively short time; and that there were areas of the city that had (allegedly) been ‘taken over’ by Poles.

    That period has seemed to me for a while now to be when this fear and hatred of ‘foreigners’ first emerged in its current form and from which stems the resistance to FoM. Referring back to Bower’s book on Blair, in which immigration policy features as one of the main themes (as does Iraq, of course), it seems Blair was warned repeatedly that there might be a backlash to the increasing rates of immigration. And of course later in his time as PM New Labour tried various measures to do something about it, or, at the least, diminish the effects. So I think, sadly, Brexit feeds on that legacy, in part of course, as there are other important elements as you rightly point out.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      thanks. I haven’t read Bower’s book, but there is a very good article in the Guardian How immigration came to haunt Labour: the inside story by Watt and Wintour. Blair grossly underestimated underestimated immigration numbers based his predicted figure of 13,000 Eastern Europeans on a work written by Dustmann et al.

      As one of the lead authors of the report, a weary Christian Dustmann has become used to the jibes and jokes. But he believes that his report was not as inaccurate as the critics suggest. “I think the problem is nobody really has read it,” says Dustmann, who is now a professor of economics at University College London. The projection of 13,000 net migrants per year over a decade, he explained, was based on the assumption that all 15 EU countries would open their labour markets to the newcomers, ensuring that the migrants would be reasonably evenly distributed across the EU. In the end, just Britain, Ireland and Sweden opened up. The other 12 member states, most notably Germany, exercised their right to impose “transitional controls”. “The German labour market was basically closed for Polish workers and that kind of changed everything,” Dustmann says.

  2. Peter May -

    My father was Cornish and in the village where he grew up he always used to reckon that half the population had been abroad and may well have worked in South America or Australia (rarely Europe in those days) but the other half hardly ever went as far as Bodmin – then the county town and about ten miles away.
    So half from Ashington and half from Athea – in the same place!
    I think actually you highlight two reasons why England is anti-immigrant – the press, and being the most crowded country in the EU (bar Malta). But also austerity helped a lot. When the gutter press tells you the reason there are no school places is because there are too many immigrants it is easy to believe and seems entirely logical.
    They don’t ever say that the government has chosen to spend less per pupil on schools. So unless you have the time or inclination to investigate further ‘immigration crowds out the rest of us’ is entirely axiomatic.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      thanks. It could well be that 100 years ago there was a feeling in being embedded in the greater world all over these islands. Cornwall of course feels very different to the rest of England- I get a feeling that I am in Ireland or Wales rather than England when I visit. There is a very different feel.

      I can’t speak for Scotland, but the feeling of being connected with the world still exists in Ireland but seems to have been lost in much of England.

      Both the “austerity” agenda and gutter press have a lot to answer for. I fear a slide towards rebranded fascism.

  3. Sam Johnson -

    At a glance the immigration figures for Ireland and the UK looks similar above at 16% for Ireland and 13% for the UK. The omits an important distinction (and I think the accurate figure for Ireland is now 17.5%):

    Ireland’s immigrants are predominantly from the EU — 12.5%. The UK’s population share from the EU27 is c.4%, which is about the EU average.

    So, with 3 times the proportion of EU immigrants why is Ireland welcoming to immigrants and the UK is not? Is it the case that the EU migrants are simply conflated with those from the former colonies who are now resented? The difference in attitude is more pronounced than a 3% difference would explain.

    One enormous difference is, of course, that the Irish have been taking Norman Tebbit’s advice and been getting on their bikes for a very long time (and indeed had no choice). They tend to have considerable respect for people who do the same — who go where the work is.

    There is hardly a family in Ireland that doesn’t have relations abroad. The Irish are still getting over their good fortune at being a place that people want to move to. I recall with some surprise looking out a car window in a traffic jam in the Philippines once at a poster soliciting OFWs (“overseas foreign workers” as they are known) and finding, when I craned my neck, that Ireland was the nr 1 most desirable destination, ahead of Canada, the US, Australia, Singapore, Germany, Dubai etc.

    This morning there was a protest by Irish nurses in Sydney outside the Sydney Opera House to tell the Irish govt “We are not coming home unless conditions for nurses improve” (to coincide with some protest in Ireland). I have a niece working as a nurse in Melbourne who may or may not return to Ireland (she’s vastly better paid in Australia). Originally she wanted to get some experience working in the NHS but Brexit put paid to ANY consideration of the UK as a place worth going to. 14,000+ Irish people work for the NHS, which is (was?) widely admired in Ireland.

    Both Ireland and the UK recruit nurses from the Philippines and other countries who arguably need them even more, but can’t hold on to them. The Irish go abroad not solely for money but because they regard the world as their oyster. The English used to, but not any more it seems.

    1. Sean Danaher -


      thanks. I think the graphic is a few years out of date. There are indeed far more EU citizens per capita in Ireland. There are over twice as many Poles for example An old article:

      You are absolutely correct about the Irish being happy to travel. My own story is that I had never expected to come to the UK, but the opportunity to work at CERN via Sheffield Uni. was too good an opportunity to turn down. I also had never expected to stay more than a few years, but girlfriends, marriage etc. happened.

      I do worry about England. Countries fortunes do change and if Brexit goes ahead, it could become an extremely unattractive place in which to live. I’m sure it will remain attractive to Africans and Asians for many years but a lot of the Europeans could choose to go home and net flows could become negative. FoM works both ways. On the optimistic side it might force HMG to put far more investment in educating training the left behind section of society.

  4. Graham -

    Another good piece on PP. I suspect antipathy towards immigrants has a long history, whether they were migrant workers, slaves or conquerors.

    Growing up, the “other” were Roman Catholics, who went to different schools (this was near Glasgow) and whom we never met except when we played an RC school at football or rugby, and sometimes Jews, who were all rich, or so we believed. (hopefully we grow out of these stereotypes, but do others take their place?) But I don’t recall any significant problems in our middle-class suburbia. It was a bit different in the City where the two football teams were the loci of religious bigotry and there were certain areas which were out of bounds if you wore a particular scarf. And of course there was considerable Irish immigration to Scotland, of both Catholics and Protestants, in the 19/20th C’s which created considerable tensions.

    I don’t think I’d ever seen a non-white person until I went, in the 50’s, as a young child on holiday with my parents to visit my grandmother in London and I remember her warning me to be careful going outside to explore as there were black men about. Meanwhile, my wife’s parents who lived in a middle class area of Bradford found their street slowly being “taken over” by Pakistanis until, in the 90’s, they were the only white people left. They felt it wasn’t “their street” any more.

    One feature of immigrants, alluded to by Ivan, is their willingness to work hard and accept lower levels of pay. This doesn’t always go down well. And sometimes the first generation don’t learn the language, another source of tension. But then the British immigrants I see in Spain (they call themselves ‘expats’) where we holiday each winter, are no different. As a Spaniard said to us, “They’ve lived here for 20 years and all they can say is ‘dos cervezas por favor'”.

    Your final paragraph gets to the nub: since Thatcher communities have been devastated, “thrown on the slag-heap”, as she destroyed industry and turned Britain into a financial haven for casino bankers, rentiers and predatory capitalists, a policy continued under her spiritual successor, Blair. Ordinary working people have seen their wages stagnate, people are having to borrow for necessities not luxuries, while a small group get an ever larger slice of the cake while services such as the NHS and education are attacked and dismantled and certain groups (of “others”) such as the unemployed, the poor, the disabled are deliberately targeted by government in pursuit of what I consider to be a criminal act – austerity.

    If we can somehow reverse these malign policies of the last 40 years then people may begin to stop worrying about immigration.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      thanks. There has never as far as I know been a large influx of economic migrants into Ireland before the past quarter century. Though 18th cent. Dublin expanded rapidly there was a very populous rural hinterland it could draw from.

      When Glasgow expanded rapidly in the 19th cent. it pulled in a lot of Irish dispossessed particularly after the Great Hunger.

      Wales also attracted a lot of immigrants into the Valleys during the steel and coal boom.

      I agree totally that the UK has been run for the benefit of a few for the past 40 years and “austerity” should have been the last straw. My fear however is that it may well get a lot worse; the right wing manipulators are very good at propaganda and shifting blame.

  5. Peter May -

    “right wing manipulators are very good at propaganda and shifting blame.”
    to my regret, sums it up admirably.

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