Building Magazine on why construction needs migrant workers

Gordon Brown’s announcement of a larger quota for desperately needed overseas construction workers is cue for a good piece from Building magazine about migrant workers on UK sites. The article focuses on the experience of workers on the huge Paternoster Square development, next door to St Paul’s Cathedral in The City – from Italy, Hungary, Zimbabwe and Germany. This is the kind of access only a prestige trade title like Building could get but it’s crying out for a longer treatment – five workers from four nations on one well-run site is hardly an in-depth survey.

The magazine’s coverline sums up the UK building trade’s attitude to migrant workers: “The indispensibles: why construction needs migrant workers”.

Migration Watch UK – not much think, mostly tank

Migration Watch UK is a shabby pressure group masquerading as a think tank. The group’s neutral-sounding name masks its real concern with immigration. The group’s founder, Sir Andrew Green – a former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, quoted at BBC News Online – isn’t trying very hard:

“You get on the Tube and you can barely move. London is stuffed with people. Under the present regime the numbers are going to keep going up and up and up.”

Migration Watch UK’s web site is clearer still. I can find no attempt to measure outward movements and no useful attempt to quantify the effects of migration – economic or social – beyond the repeated assertion that immigrants are less economically active and worse educated than natives. There’s no context at all. No data on birth rates or long range population forecasts, no links to external population authorities – only several pages of wickedly spun ‘data’ that would be unusable anywhere outside of a public bar and the much-publicised calculation that two million immigrants will arrive in the UK per decade from now on. To arrive at this number, Migration Watch UK’s crack statisticians took the home office’s annual numbers and multiplied by ten, making no subtraction for the falling birth rate in the UK or allowing for any trend in the data at all.

More depressing, in many ways, are the shallow and defensive counter arguments of the refugee and asylum seeker groups. They’re reduced to detailed arguments on speed of decisions, enforcement policy and dispersion – they’ve surrendered the principle entirely to the Daily Mail et al. It’s politically impossible to defend immigration to the UK right now. No mainstream group feels able to advance a pro-immigration line, or even a pro-asylum line, or a pro-refugee line. Only the free traders can comfortably propose opening the borders. Immigration will presumably remain a dirty word until the UK and European populations start to fall visibly, as they surely will. What we need is an enlightened combination of pragmatism and principle in support of immigration – before it’s too late.

I blogged this issue before in August, September and November.

The Economist on migration

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 film industry is the least of our problems

I watched an interesting feature about the flakey British film industry tonight on BBC 4. As you’d expect, it was mostly whinging and hand-wringing from all sources ? hyper-interventionist culture-boosters and laissez-faire populists alike. The giant lacuna was the glaringly obvious fact that the British film industry is hopelessly held back by an economy about a sixth of the size of the mother of all markets – the USA. Outside the scope of the programme was the equally obvious conclusion that we desperately need to boost the overall size of our economy (both here in the UK and in the wider EU). Governments of all complexions have been trying this without success for decades, naturally, so this represents a great opportunity for a Government ready to try something new. Macro and micro tweaking are not working. For a hundred years, the economies of the West have grown at roughly the rate of inflation – essentially zero growth.

The American example shows us that what we need is a really serious boost to the population itself – more bums on seats, more contributors to the media economy, more warm bodies creating value. Look at Japan: twice the population on about 50% more land. A simple calculation suggests that Britain could easily handle about 100M people. Not enough to challenge the US directly but enough to lift us out of the third division and, possibly, to give us access to the kind of doubling effects that drive the US economy. Remember, recession or not, the US economy is just getting bigger and bigger and this is in large part because the inward movement of people keeps the economy growing ahead of its structural rate. Large economies grow faster than small ones and, the faster they grow, the faster they grow – if you see what I mean. All of this seems academic right now but the evidence is mounting that US population growth is accelerating while the European population is going into reverse (while already vast Asian economies mature and compete better). Old economies – like ours – will shrink faster and faster. Irrelevance beckons.

So how do you grow the population of a small country whose birth rate is already behind the replacement rate? You encourage immigration. Britain happens to be the focus of interest for migrants from a large swathe of Eastern, Central and Southern Europe. Who knows how long this popularity will last? Precedent suggests that it won’t be for long. Only fools would refuse these eager migrants entry. Only lunatics would actually deport them.

A shrinking Europe?

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.