Bloody population. I know it’s a big deal. I know that kneejerk liberal acceptance of uncontrolled growth is hardly better than kneejerk xenophobic rejection of immigration. I know that Britain’s infrastructure isn’t keeping up with population growth and also that ‘reception communities’ at the sharp-end are suffering (as usual) while the urban elite sips espresso and wonders “immigration? What immigration?” (while purchasing another Romanian au pair off the internet). I know that the rejectionist stance (Migration Watch and UKIP and the rest of the unsavoury crop) is a hopeless, isolationist dead-end. I know all this.
What I wonder, though – what I’d really like to see us discuss – is what we could actually achieve with a population of 80 million. What could an ambitious, productive, well-educated nation achieve with a working-age population of over 50 million? We’re so pessimistic, so resigned to catastrophe and so governed by witless (and irresponsible) lobbyists and their extrapolations that we can’t imagine a positive outcome to any major change.
An 80 million population could and should move Britain up the economic league tables, protect the country’s status in a reordered world economy and create possibilities currently unimaginable. Would a population of 80 million justify greater national ambition: a manned space programme, genuine renewal of the Health Service, fusion power, industrial scale hydrogen, desalination, radical reform of education, fibre-to-the-home, a proper mass transit network: really big, planetary-scale goals that would stretch us as a nation and require every one of those 80 million people.
Should we actually seek a larger population? Or should we assume the worst, give in to the defeatists and misanthropes, shut the gates and wait for the tide of irrelevance and pointlessness to overcome us. Just asking.
I’ve just finished reading The Economist’s blockbuster survey on migration. More very good work developing the newspaper’s line on the liberalisation of migration as a benefit to both nations (receiving and sending) and peoples (likewise). As I have said before (in August and in September), this issue is more important than we think and we allow the politicians to hijack it to meet their short-term (very short-term in this context) needs at our peril. Europe’s population is about to enter a very long decline. Even the new entrants from the East cannot slow the long term fall since their birth rates are already too low. Meanwhile, the only Western nation bucking the trend, the USA, could easily have 500 million inhabitants by mid-century. The economic implications are obvious.
While the USA and the emerging economies grow strongly, slow-growth Europe can only fall further and further behind. You don’t need to share The Economist’s free trader stance to recognise the stark stupidity of turning away willing, young workers at the border while our economies stagnate. We can only hope that the penny drops for European Governments before the current flow of eager migrants has lost interest and moved on to more attractive destinations. Reversing a nation’s (or an entire economic bloc’s) stance on immigration is not easy with the emotional stakes so high but the implications of getting it wrong – a shrinking and ever-more-irrelevant European economy – are too grim to contemplate.
The Economist’s cover story this week is a blockbuster (you may need to subscribe to see the story). The message is simple: the population of Europe is – almost everywhere – falling or about to fall, while the population of America is climbing steadily. There’s a strong likelihood that by 2050 there will be half a billion Americans and fewer Europeans than there are now. The US economy could be twice the size of Europe’s, even after the addition of the new member States to the East. In the meantime, the European population will be aging fast while the US population, bolstered by higher birth-rate immigrants, will be younger and more productive. The economic and geo-political implications are obvious.
If European birth rates cannot be raised (and changing reproductive habits from above is notoriously difficult and unpopular) then immigration must be encouraged if a century or more of decline is to be averted. Now would be a good time to start – while Europe basks in its (surely temporary) popularity amongst refugees and migrants from the East. The flow must be organised and encouraged. Infrastructure must be put in place to train and support incomers.
Governments must make honest efforts to challenge public (and media) hysteria about immigration. It has been plain for decades that absolute population decline was likely in Europe but the American statistics suggest a more drastic fall relative to the US, our primary competitor. We have an opportunity right now to avert our own demographic emergency while meeting the needs of millions of needy (and economically productive) people. Fat chance.