Scotland: the incredible shrinking nation
Geography is people, argued William McIlvanney in his book Memoirs of a Modern Scotland. But Scotland’s people are declining in number and have been for a generation. In the last 30 years, a quarter of a million Scots have disappeared. They have moved away, died out and not been replaced.
We have watched this slow ebb of the nation’s lifeblood, meticulously recorded each year in the annual report of the Registrar General, but never really worried about it. Now we are facing a painful reality; ours is a dying nation.
Scotland’s population is not only falling, it is falling at a faster rate than anywhere else in Europe. Demographic change is, according to Jack McConnell, the First Minister, "the greatest threat to Scotland’s future prosperity".
His priority is to prevent the population falling below five million, a scenario predicted to take place in barely a decade if measures are not adopted to stop it. Announcing his Fresh Talent initiative, designed to encourage an additional 8,000 migrants a year to Scotland between now and 2009, Mr McConnell painted a bleak picture of what will happen if his measures fail: "Tax revenues will fall. Falling school rolls mean local schools will close. Other local services will become less sustainable and communities will become weaker. The labour market will contract and there will be fewer consumers to underpin a domestic market. Our economy will be less dynamic and likely to contract."
It’s an apocalyptic vision but according to the country’s leading demographers and population geographers, the measures the Executive has so far put in place to deal with it are doomed to fail.
While most welcome the Fresh Talent initiative, there is a consensus that the numbers involved are too few to make a difference to population decline.
Philip Rees, Professor of Population Geography at the University of Leeds, says: "I’m in favour of attracting new people to our country but according to our projections, 8,000 a year is nowhere near enough to make a difference to Scotland’s population decline. Even if you multiply by five or six, you still have a problem. We’ve run scenarios with very much higher levels of migration and they didn’t turn round the eventual decline. The severity of the consequences of the current demographic trajectory on which Scotland is travelling does not seem to be fully appreciated."
Robert Wright, Professor of Economics at Stirling University, agrees there are fundamental problems with the approach: "Jack McConnell is handcuffed to a situation where immigration policy is determined by Westminster and driven by what is happening in south-east England. An immigration policy [will] only be successful if you have control of it and he doesn’t. The Executive is telling us this is the number one problem but they don’t have the tools to address it in a rigorous way."
Statistics predict Scotland’s population will have fallen to 4.84m by 2027. There is a general acceptance that Scotland will lose ten per cent of its population - 500,000 people - in the next four decades. Beyond that, the crystal ball is cloudy.
One research project which has looked at Scotland’s potential demographic make-up until the year 2100 paints a bleak picture. Prof Rees and Dr Tom Wilson from the Queensland Centre for Population Research in Australia have used a series of assumptions about fertility, mortality and migration rates to establish a series of ‘what if’ scenarios.
They predict by 2101, in the worst-case scenario, the population of Scotland could fall to 3.47m, assuming zero net migration and a decline in fertility rates consistent with the decline experienced over the last 20 years, a scenario which they say is entirely plausible.
They argue the Executive’s migration policy alone is not enough to sustain the population in the long term. Something must be done about Scotland’s low birth-rate. "Scotland’s population will fail to become demographically sustainable unless current low fertility rises," they say. "A large-scale pro-natalist initiative in Scotland should be given very serious consideration."
Duncan Macniven, Registrar General for Scotland, takes a more relaxed view of population decline. "In the 1960s, population explosion was the big worry. In terms of numbers, it’s a slow decline. Call it a crisis and you are my foe for life."
Allan Findlay, Professor of Geography at the University of Dundee, agrees: "There is nothing inherently problematic about a declining population. It all depends on the context. There are lots of countries which have population decline but high economic growth."
Macniven believes there is something psychological about the five million barrier but says it needs to be put into perspective. "We only went through the five million barrier on the way up in 1946/47. That is not long ago and you couldn’t say Scotland was a disaster then because the population was below five million. The suggestion that we’re all doomed is wrong.
"The issue is: can you really have a smart successful Scotland with a declining population? The First Minister has given a clear answer to that. He is the focus of public opinion whether he is following it or leading it. It is very significant that the Executive says we don’t want the population to fall below five million."
Macniven points out that there are benefits to a declining population too. The crime rate will fall and there is the potential to reduce class sizes in schools. Tourism may be boosted by the image of Scotland as one of the least crowded places in Europe.
But for a nation which has witnessed the depopulation of its islands, it is difficult to be sanguine about population decline. Could Scotland become St Kilda on a grander scale? "No," says Macniven. "This idea of a downward spiral where the population becomes unsustainable, is unnecessarily alarmist. That will never happen."
David Bell, Professor of Economics and head of the economics department at Stirling University, says: "You have to ask what Scotland’s optimum size is - and that is a debate which we haven’t really entered into."
Even if the Fresh Talent initiative is successful, it will not reverse the trend towards an ageing population which is already well-advanced throughout Europe. Immigrants age too.
Age Concern Scotland projections suggest that by 2041, more than 65 per cent of the population will be over the age of 60.
"I’m relaxed about the total population but I am a lot less relaxed about the age structure of the population," says Macniven. "The increase in the elderly population is a real matter of concern and we are working closely with the Scottish Executive. Longevity is increasing but does that mean healthy life is increasing? We just don’t know. Our projections are not sophisticated enough and we are about to launch a research programme with the Economic and Social Research Council in London to address some of these demographic issues."
Prof Wright argues that you cannot separate a falling population from an ageing population: "In the 1950s we had a baby boom. Since then, fertility has declined almost every year and is currently well below the replacement level. There is no reason why the fertility rate won’t drop further. If this situation continues, the population will decline by 10 per cent in the next 40 years and the ageing of the population will accelerate.
"There will be increased demand for more pension provision, free care, health and housing. There will be reduction in demand for teachers and university academics. The whole education sector will have to downsize. Unless we see a significant boost to our economy generally, I think a fall in our standard of living is inevitable."
If Scottish population falls and economic productivity falls, the Barnett Formula - which determines how big a budget Scotland receives from central Government - will have to change, says Prof Wright.
"The Barnett Formula is on its way out," he argues. "One of the main things that drives the Barnett Formula is population numbers. If you have fewer people, you’re going to get less money."
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 24 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 5 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: North east