Social Perspective: Is immigration to UK too much, too

little or just right


Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. A forward thinking man who discerned the signs of the times called Nicholas Winton arranged for nine trains to carry Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia in 1939.  Eight made it out, saving 669 lives. But a ninth train was scheduled to leave on the day that war was declared. Almost none of the 250 children, who were due to be on board, survived the war.

When War was declared, the Nazi policy of expelling Jews came to an end.  In its place came the final solution. 

The more borders are closed, the more our options are narrowed. We cut the access of others to the many privileges that we enjoy.  But we also cut our own access to the benefits of the world beyond our shores.  And sometimes keeping the options open is a matter of life and death. 

The Population

But large levels of inward migration do not automatically mean population growth.  How big a population becomes, or doesn’t become, depends on a variety of factors such as birth rates and life expectancy. Crucially it also depends upon levels of emigration.

The ONS projection that the UK population will hit 70 million by 2029 is based on trends over the last 10 years.  But every indication is that the next ten years, and beyond, will be very different. And those who base their calls for a population cap on this misunderstanding, although sometimes well meaning, are misguided. They fail to grasp how the world is changing.

The ONS figures are based on the pattern of migration before the recession began to bite.  The next few sets of migration figures will likely suggest that inward migration is steadying and emigration is increasing significantly.

The future

There is no doubt that migration raises challenges.  But so does a lack of migration.

How we approach these challenges must be determined by how we believe the world will be, in years to come. The age of credit-fuelled growth appears to be at an end – at least on the scale we have previously seen. 

Children in the UK may be the first generation for years that will not experience an increase in their living standards.  We may soon look back on the last twenty years, and realise that we ‘never had it so good’ – in economic terms at least.  Our children will have to compete as never before in a global market, where other countries seem far more attractive.  We may find ourselves in a period where wages are driven down, not up.  We may experience more recession and even depression.  Despite Monday’s modest move out of a technical recession, a return to business as usual is not on the cards.

Meanwhile the spectre of a pensions crisis looms over our heads, with an ageing population and retirement savings linked to a stock-market which today stands 25% lower than it did ten years ago.  We need more people of working age to generate tax revenues.  And this doesn’t automatically mean taking the doctors and the other skilled professionals from other countries.  Indeed, in years to come, we may find that we have to fight very hard to keep our own skilled professionals.

Whilst we have been experiencing a recession, China has reported a staggering 9% growth. India 6%. What has fuelled the growth? There are a number of factors, but human capital has undoubtedly been one of them.

The contribution

Too often migration is seen in negative terms.  But research by the IPPR (2005) suggests that migrants make a greater per capita contribution to the UK economy, than the UK born.  They also take less from the economy in terms of public expenditure. They account for somewhere in the region of 10% of UK tax receipts. Far from being a drain on the public purse, migrants actually contribute more than their share fiscally. We would be poorer without them.

A migrant amnesty in the UK would, it is estimated, provide a further £3 billion for the economy. That is why even Conservatives such as Boris Johnson are backing it.

The culture

We are still one of the richest nations on earth. We are also one of the most depressed, and with some of the highest rates of mental illness. We work some of the longest hours, and we have one of the most individualised populations.

The increase in demand for housing over the last two decades which has caused an every growing disparity between those who have and those who have not, has been caused less by migration than the increasingly isolated and independent lives that we lead.  Children leave home earlier.  Our families are smaller. Divorce rates have increased.  Extended families have retreated into the nuclear variety, which have then in turn, fragmented too. 

Our culture is in need of help. It is in need of enrichment, and of new perspectives.  And such enrichment can come through migration if it is managed correctly. The strategy of segregated multiculturalism may not have worked.. But nor would a policy of uncompromising assimilation. We need not be afraid of allowing migrants to contribute to, and change our culture for the better. It should not be a matter of forcing people to contribute to society, but rather welcoming their contribution and celebrating it.

Whether it is new ideas about restorative justice, decision-making, family and living arrangements, communal sharing, co-operative economic models, or a new localism, migrant populations can often bring new ideas, which our culture can learn from and develop in new ways in the British context.

The morality

And there is at the heart of the debate about migration a compelling moral case too, and that relates to our obligations and responsibilities to the rest of the world.

When we see the devastation in Haiti on our television screens, it is self-evident that we must do all we can to help.  But the truth is that it has had years of underinvestment, and was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere before the earthquake struck.     

In the UK we have struggled for decades to reach our overseas aid target of just 0.7% of gross national product, which we aspire to spend on the entire rest of the world.  And when thousands of children still die every day because they do not have access to the clean water, sanitation, or medicines which we take for granted, it is clear that this spending is a matter of life and death.  

We can nevertheless find fifty times that amount in a matter of weeks, in order to bail out our banks.  

Of course such an analysis over simplifies matter. But the morality in terms of our values is crystal clear.   As a nation state we keep our borders closed in a desire to protect our resources, exclude others from them, and secure our wealth.  We then share a few the crumbs from our table with the rest of the world.

There is another dimension to the moral case.  Whilst we have consumed vast quantities of the earth’s resources over decades and even centuries, and pumped out CO2 emissions, we have contributed to climate change which right now is affecting many countries around the world who have consumed far less.  We owe a climate debt which may soon be called in, whether we like it or not. 

Christian Aid estimates that the number of refugees around the world could hit one billion by 2050 - fuelled largely by climate change.  If they are correct, sitting idle by will not be an option.  This would dwarf the refugee crisis which followed the Second World War.  Floods, drought and famine may cause movements which have the potential to de-stabilise whole regions of the world where increasingly desperate populations compete for dwindling food and water.

Just as we took refugees after the Second World War, many parts of the developing world may need to take their share of refugees on a scale we have never seen before.  And these migrants may not have homes to return to for decades.

The Conclusion

One rarely quotes a politician in the context of migration, but as Tory MP George Osborne said, “we are all in this together. This must be our starting point”. Not the nation state, but the global economy and the global society.

In the future ‘Fortress Britain’ will simply not be an option.  It will not be desirable. It will not be prudent.  It will not make sense.  Greater migration is what we should expect. It is what we should aspire to. 


Johnathan Bartley

ABC Think Tank

27th January 2010



Johnathan Bartley is a regular writer, public speaker and commentator on television and radio. In particular he was a contributor to BBC Radio 4's 'Thought for the Day' and is a columnist for the Church Times and the Guardian's Comment is Free.. He is co-director of Ecclesia


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