This week, the UK Government announced a series of measures to support British National Overseas (BNO) passport-holders in Hong Kong in response to the increasing threat from the Chinese Government to the autonomy of Hong Kong. According to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed in 1984, the Chinese Communist Party is supposed to guarantee the “one country, two systems” framework for at least fifty years following the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. Beijing’s attempt to bypass Hong Kong’s parliament and impose a national security law is believed to be in violation of this legal agreement. The UK Government has therefore, in response, announced that BNO passport holders will be allowed to live and work in the UK for renewable 12-month periods, with a pathway towards full British citizenship––something the UK had reportedly agreed not to do per the original joint declaration.
On Wednesday this past week, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies conducted a national poll and found widespread support among the UK public for the Government’s decision to allow BNOs to live and work in the UK, and to provide them with a path to full British citizenship. Our poll found that 56% of respondents approve of this decision, with only 12% of respondents disapproving.
Remarkably, support for the policy is equal among respondents who voted Conservative and Labour in 2019, with 57% of respondents from each group supporting the decision to welcome Hong Kong BNOs to the UK. An even greater number (65%) of those who voted Liberal Democrat in 2019 support the decision.
A key dilemma for the UK Government is whether this policy will apply exclusively to current holders of a BNO passport (approximately 350,000 people), or also includes every Hong Kong resident who is eligible for one (another ~2.5 million). When polled on this question, a plurality of respondents (40%) said the UK should welcome everyone eligible for a BNO passport, even if they do not currently hold one.
Whereas respondents who voted for Labour in 2019 strongly leaned in favour of welcoming all who are eligible (45%) rather than only those who currently hold the BNO passport (23%), Conservative voters were almost evenly divided on the issue, with 37% and 34% supporting each option, respectively. Nonetheless, 57% of 2019 Conservative voters do support the overall policy of welcoming Hong Kong BNOs to the UK, even if they are uncertain as to who exactly should be eligible.
This widespread support for welcoming Hong Kong BNOs to the UK comes at a time when a majority of respondents (52%) want the UK to pursue an immigration policy that allows fewer people to move to the UK than in 2019. When asked to put the latest Hong Kong issue aside and indicate what type of immigration policy they would generally prefer to see in the UK, 52% of respondents said one that allows fewer people to move to the country than in 2019, 37% opted for one that allows the same number of people to move to the UK as in 2019, and only 12% indicated they want more people to move to the UK than in 2019.
Politically, those who voted Conservative in 2019 were significantly more likely (67%) to want less migration to the UK than Labour voters (34%). A plurality of 2019 Labour voters (46%) simply want to maintain the same amount of migration than last year, as opposed to an increased level of migration (20%).
In the past few months, there has been some debate among pollsters and analysts as to whether and to what extent immigration attitudes have changed since the 2019 election in December. Immigration has featured as a major electoral issue in the last decade. Indeed, a significant issue in the referendum over the UK’s membership in European Union in 2016 was the EU’s principle of free movement of people. With the 2019 election’s decisive result, however, some have suggested that the immigration issue may no longer be as salient as before.
This possible decline in electoral importance over the next few years will likely depend on whether people think their preferences on immigration has been appropriately addressed. A plurality of respondents to our poll agreed with a statement saying that the UK is exerting more control over immigration now than in the 2010s.
At the same time, nonetheless, respondents did not seem to reach a common understanding as to whether the current government has made any changes to the UK’s immigration policy in the last year. Only 30% thought the UK is now allowing fewer immigrants into the country, while 40% respectively thought the UK was allowing the same number or more immigrants in. 31% said they did not know.
This confusion likely reflects that while the Conservative Party has forthrightly promised to introduce an Australian-style points system, the Government must wait until the end of the transition period of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement before implementing such a change.
In the meantime, the decision to welcome holders of the BNO Passport in Hong Kong may not be seen through the same lens as immigration typically has been, given the UK’s historical relation to Hong Kong and the increasingly repressive behaviour of the Chinese Government in the territory. After all, a large proportion of the UK public (61%) agrees that Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic is evidence that the Chinese Government presents a danger to the United Kingdom and to the world.
When asked whether they consider China to be an ally or a threat to the United Kingdom and its interests, 57% of respondents view China as a threat to the UK, and only 16% view Beijing as an ally.
Likewise, a plurality (43%) of respondents indicated they want the UK Government to seek more distant relations with China, with only 11% of respondents saying they would prefer closer relations with China. A significant third of respondents would be happy to maintain the current level of relations. Overall, 2019 Conservative voters were the most likely (50%) to support the UK having more distant relations with China in the future.
In light of the widely-held view that China is a threat to the UK and its interests, and that the UK Government should seek more distant relations with China, it may be hardly surprising that the majority of respondents support welcoming Hong Kong BNO Passport holders to the UK despite the fact that a majority of the UK public also wishes the UK to generally have a more restrictive immigration policy. For this group, the situation with Hong Kong BNOs may be less of an immigration issue than a feeling of shared understanding with a people that shares a history with the UK and that is palpably threatened by the Chinese Government.