Britain is one of the least racist countries in Europe despite Brexit, according to a new study.
Prejudice against immigrants in the UK is “rare” and comparable with that in other wealthy EU and largely English-speaking nations, according to analysis of the largest public European and international surveys of human beliefs and values.
Around three in 20 Brits (15 per cent) would object to having migrants as neighbours, around 10 per cent would object to neighbours of a different race, and 10 per cent would rather not have neighbours of a different religion, suggests the study.
The findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Sociology, challenge prevailing attitudes on Brexit, the nature of prejudice, and the social impact of modernisation.
Study co-author Professor Mariah Evans, of the University of Nevada, Reno, in the United States, said: “In the media turmoil surrounding Brexit, many pundits have seized on the prejudice angle, but these data demonstrate that is not actually what makes the UK different from the Continent.
“Prejudice against immigrant workers or minority ethnic and religious groups is rare in the UK, perhaps even slightly rarer than in equivalently developed EU countries.
“Even though only a small minority is prejudiced, in a large population that still makes many people – enough to show up in anti-immigrant demonstrations or to mobilise letter-writing campaigns to MPs.”
With half a million combined respondents, Prof Evans said the World and European Values Surveys provide a large, cross-sectional view of people’s attitudes, beliefs and opinions in 100 countries.
The researchers analysed responses from these and the European Quality of Life surveys, to found out how ethnic and religious prejudices vary between nations at different stages of socio-economic development.
Specifically, they compared the prevalence of prejudice in the UK to that in its global culture group and other EU countries at around the same level of development.
Prof Evans said: “We found a high level of tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity is typical of prosperous European and Anglophone nations, whereas ethnic and religious prejudice is much more common in poor countries.
“In this respect, the UK is ‘stock standard’ given its GDP per capita: just like their wealthy EU peers, around 15 per cent of Britons would object to having immigrants as neighbours, around 10 per cent would object to neighboirs of a different race, and 10 per cent would rather not have neighbours of a different religion.”
The analysis also showed that across all nations, prejudice tends to be either against all minority ethnic and religious groups or against none.
Study co-author Dr Jonathan Kelley, Director of the International Social Science Survey, said: “We show that a single root prejudice – that all the feelings about specific groups spring from a single generalised feeling of tolerance or intolerance towards diversity in ethnicity and religion – holds across the whole globe.
“There is not a specific British or Japanese or Mexican pattern – rather prejudices are linked together in the same way everywhere.
“For example, people who would shun immigrants as neighbours would also shun neighbours of a different religion and neighbours of a different race. People who are good with one group as neighbours tend to be good with all.
“Prior researchers have suspected this, but this is the first time it has been demonstrated.”
The researchers said they recognised the limitations of a survey-based approached.
Dr Kelley said: “Being scientists, we would always love better measurement.
“For example, ratings of prejudice on a five- or seven-point scale, and breakdown by region, would have provided a more accurate picture than yes/no responses at the national level.
“Also, of course, the situation is rapidly evolving, so data even a few years old may be light-years away from rapidly evolving and unstable ethnic and religious group relations.”
But they said the figures provide a much more ‘rational and accurate’ barometer of public opinion than do anti-immigrant demonstrations or political rhetoric.
Dr Kelley said: “There are many ways in which Britain is known to be ‘exceptional’ in the European context, but prejudice against immigrants is clearly not one of them.”
Prof Evans added: “Spillover in attitudes about different groups means that events and examples that lead people to feel more warmly towards one minority will also increase their warmth towards others.
“For example, a well-publicised act of personal heroism by a Buddhist would likely ever so slightly increase the general public’s positive feelings towards Buddhists, but also towards immigrant workers, towards people of African descent, towards Muslims, and, indeed towards all minority ethnic and religious groups.
“Equally promising, the strong gradient of prejudice decreasing with national development – economic growth and institutions that support personal freedom and markets – suggests that contrary to fashionable belief, modernisation is a powerful force for good as far as tolerance for diversity is concerned.”
By Stephen Beech