BRITAIN has been named as one of the most xenophobic countries in the world, surpassing France, Germany, Spain and Japan in its hostility to immigration.
A new opinion poll which sampled opinion across ten countries found the majority of people in Britain are supportive of religious tolerance - but still believe that immigration has damaged the country.
The research triggered a mixture of disbelief and concern from mainstream political parties yesterday, amid fears that asylum is becoming a growing issue ahead of the 10 June European Parliament elections.
Ipsos, a Paris-based polling firm, found 60 per cent believing that immigrants were a bad influence on Britain - the highest proportion of all countries surveyed.
France, where the far-right National Front came second in the presidential election two years ago, emerged as one of the more moderate countries in the study with only 53 per cent arguing that migrants made the country worse.
But seven out of ten in France said that religious diversity within a country is to be welcomed, and three-quarters said that immigrants arrive to take the jobs which native Frenchmen refuse to do.
The same split reaction - welcoming religious pluralism but fearing that immigration has been harmful overall - also characterised Spain, Germany and Italy.
Ipsos, which conducted the poll with the Associated Press, admitted that its findings contradict widespread feeling that Britain - with its long history of migration and colonisation - is more relaxed about multiculturalism .
"The UK has historically embraced diversity," said Sam McGuire, with Ipsos-UK. The poll results, he said, "may have to do with Britons’ fears about the recent expansion of the European Union."
The Commission for Racial Equality said the survey was "disappointing" and underplayed the role of migrants in building British public services.
"The NHS is founded on the skills of Caribbean nurses, built by Indian and foreign doctors (today a third of all NHS doctors are foreign), and rescued by an injection of Filipino nurses and refugee cleaners and orderlies. And it remains 100 per cent British."
The poll chimes with the increasing alarm expressed in Westminster by MPs of all parties who say campaigners are being told that immigration is the main point of concern in several key seats.
This has been used to explain the rising success of the UK Independence Party, which recently recruited Robert Kilroy-Silk, the former BBC1 chat-show host, as its frontman.
Although the party is based on a pledge to withdraw Britain from the EU, its leaflet suggests it is now manoeuvring for the anti-migrant vote.
Its main theme is now arguing that Labour, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have agreed plans to "open our borders to 73 million potential immigrants from Eastern Europe".
The UKIP said their rivals have made a gross miscalculation in thinking that Britain is relaxed about the potential influx of migrants from the former Warsaw Pact countries made possible from 1 May.
"Britain absorbs almost half of all migration into the European Union - of course we’re more concerned," a spokesman said.
"We’re better at integrating. Once it happens, people don’t take out their anger on immigrants as they do in some countries. But that doesn’t mean people are not deeply worried about it."
Failure to address asylum fears has led to the toppling of centre-left governments in France, Austria and the Netherlands. One senior Blair adviser told The Scotsman that concern has never been higher.
"Two issues come up time and time again: Iraq and migration. We have an answer for the first, but we need an answer for the second. It will have to be something radical," he said.
Internal polling from Labour and the Tories shows that voters have more faith in Mr Howard to take a firm grip of migration. But the UKIP is shown to make high progress in opinion polls.
The Daily Telegraph last Monday showed the UKIP to be in third place, overtaking the Liberal Democrats. The party has three MEPs at present.
Anti-Scottish sentiment has entered the campaign in London, where an Essex-based party named the "English Democrats" has sent leaflets through letter-boxes highlighting Scottish Executive policies.
"By paying 10 billion extra to Scotland under the Barnett Formula, Scots now have a better education, transport and care with free prescriptions, residential care for the elderly and now top-up fees," it reads.
"All at the expense of the long-suffering English taxpayer! This is the real North/South divide." The party is campaigning against devolution for the English regions and also calls for withdrawal from the EU.
Cross-party MPs say immigration is not playing anywhere near as strongly in Scotland, where ministers are worried at the reverse problem: failing to attract enough migrants to stop depopulation.
This has already pushed Scotland’s school roll into permanent decline, with 14,000 places due to be lost this year alone.
Britain has emerged amongst the most sceptical countries on migration in the regular polls taken by the EU Commission. Britain is regularly ranked beside Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria.
But, in spite of this, Britain still has no mainstream political party which would reverse the migration policy adopted earlier this month which gives the ten EU accession countries the right to work in Britain without a permit.
Successive polls show this political consensus has not filtered through to the doorsteps. Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, has long worried that this will create an anomaly which will push voters towards the BNP or the UKIP.
Both can win seats due to the proportional representation electoral system used for the European Parliament elections, which will coincide with English local government elections on 10 June.
The UKIP was reprimanded for telling Scots and Londoners that they should send in a postal vote because "the government has decreed that there will be no polling stations in your region". The UKIP said this was an honest error, and the leaflet was intended for Yorkshire. But the Electoral Commission suggested disciplinary action may follow. "It’s confusing for voters - we’ve discussed it with them and it was inaccurate," said a spokesman.