Voters in advanced democratic countries are increasingly disillusioned with politics and politicians. This crisis of political trust appeared to reach new heights in 2016, which saw electoral breakthroughs for populist movements in a number of European countries and the US. One of the key features of this rejection of mainstream politics appears to be rising anxiety about immigration. Publics in many countries have lost trust in their governments to control immigration – whether in the form of limiting EU immigration, managing the refugee ‘crisis’, or controlling irregular movement across the Mexican-US border. If we accept this account, it would imply the need for mainstream parties to respond to public concerns about immigration, embracing more rigorous policies on migration control.
But is immigration a cause of the crisis of political trust – or is it being used as a vehicle for channelling other types of social and economic malaise? This lecture will disentangle the complex relationship between attitudes to immigration and public trust in politics. Through history, immigrants and minority groups have served as a ‘lightning rod’ for discontent. Yet hostility to outsiders often reflects deeper socio-economic or cultural anxieties, which are not caused by immigration. It therefore makes a big difference how political and media elites represent these wider anxieties. Politicians and the mass media can adopt different narratives to make sense of and articulate the sources of socio-economic and cultural malaise. I suggest that these elites have considerable scope to shape public attitudes to immigration, and craft a more responsible approach to immigration.