Attitudes towards freedom of movement

A couple of days ago I spotted a rather surprising result on a YouGov poll: by an enormous margin, respondents said that they would like to maintain reciprocal rights of UK and EU citizens to live and work in each other's countries. Of those polled, 67% said such rights should be maintained, 15% said they shouldn't, and 19% said they did not know. In other words, what is generally believed to be the key motivation for Brexit, ending freedom of movement, is not wanted. These results got rather more attention on Twitter than I anticipated, and a number of people responded that they are merely a reflection of how the question is posed: if the question is framed in terms of 'control' of immigration, or simply in terms of support for "freedom of movement", the results would be quite different. I don't doubt that this is correct, but I wanted to briefly respond to this point, as I think it is an important one.

It is famously true that opinion polls can generate multiple answers to what is essentially the same question dependent on how it is framed. There are two possible responses to this. The first is simply to disregard the idea of popular opinion and see it purely as an ephemeral product of how questions are posed. Sometimes this may well be a reasonable assessment, and I think there is definitely such thing as a healthy skepticism around these issues.

But the second response is to say, OK, so what question is the most useful and informative? This of course depends a lot on what you are using the question for. If you are a political strategist, you might well find it very useful that questions which frame freedom of movement in terms of 'control' yield a negative reaction. But if you genuinely interested in trying to get an honest sense of public opinion as a means of guiding policy, the question has to be: "which way of describing freedom of movement is the most honest reflection of what the policy actually is?" No doubt this is itself contested, and there are occasions where the appropriate way of understanding a policy is genuinely a difficult question. But with freedom of movement, I don't see how framing the policy as a reciprocal right (the right for citizens to live and work in one another's countries) is not just the most simple, accurate, and thorough description. The alternatives either simply omit that reciprocity or present fictitious alternatives (one way rights for UK citizens, or systems of 'control' which imply much more effective and benevolent bureaucracies than actually ever exist).

For what it's worth, I don't think that public opinion on these questions should be the sole guide to policy. Stripping large numbers of people of acquired rights might well be wrong regardless of whether it is popular to do so. But it seems tragic for people to lose these rights on the basis of a popular support that does not even exist.

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