Immigration has been one of the dominant issues on the British political agenda over the past decade – the numbers of newcomers coming to Britain has never been higher, nor have the numbers of voters naming the issue as one of the nation’s political priorities. Anxiety about immigration was also a key driver behind the dramatic rise in support for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the most successful new political party in a generation, and was a central issue in the referendum on British membership of the European Union (EU). Much of this reflects recent structural shifts such as the expansion of EU free movement rights to new countries in 2004, the demand for labour generated by the economic boom of the mid-2000s and the decline in the costs of cross-border travel. Yet immigration is not a new issue in British politics. The first wave of sustained mass migration began over 60 years ago, and the changes it sparked continue to reverberate in debates over multiculturalism, discrimination and identity. The new political conflicts generated by the recent surge in immigration have interacted with, and sometimes reinforced, older divisions, the political salience of which has also been rising. The public is fundamentally divided over the impact of immigration; consecutive governments have struggled to meet public demand for immigration limits; and political parties struggle to respond to a polarised electorate whose views are changing rapidly.
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