Amid birth rate crisis, UK needs a more rational discussion about immigration – Joyce McMillan

With the number of births per woman well below the level needed to maintain our population, xenophobia and disinformation about migrants is getting in the way of sensible government policies

Wednesday evening, and the news bulletins are full of reactions to the announcement, earlier in the day, that the number of migrants who arrive in Britain in “small boats” has just hit a new record level for the first three months of the year. The figure in question is 4,644, just above the past seasonal high in 2022; and it triggers the usual round of worried comments from local residents who associate migration with crime or with unacceptable pressure on public services, and grandstanding from politicians who – for all their opportunistic rhetoric – seem remarkably short of credible or workable ideas for stopping these crossings.

Yet oddly, within the same 24 hours, I also find myself staring at a map which shows fertility rates across all the nations of the EU, in the form of the average number of births per woman. The EU average is now just below 1.5 births per woman – nowhere near the historic replacement rate of around 2.1; and I already know that the UK fertility rate is slightly above that average, whereas in Scotland it is a little below it, at only 1.3 per woman.

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The population of Europe, in other words, is set to age and decline sharply over the coming decades; and those kinds of statistics are beginning to worry politicians as varied as Emmanuel Macron of France and Viktor Orban of Hungary, who can see how power is shifting towards the world’s big 21st century population centres in China and India. There is even some concern in the United States, where one economist has written a book cheerfully suggesting that the USA should stop framing immigration as a problem, and start aiming for a population of “one billion Americans”, about three times the present level.

All of which may sound a little strange and environmentally ruinous, to a generation used to thinking of humanity as a runaway species whose excessive growth – our numbers have more than tripled in 70 years – increasingly threatens our very survival. What is increasingly clear, though, is that amid this mounting debate about how to maintain some kind of demographic balance in ageing societies, the entirely negative immigration panics whipped up by some sections of the media, and amplified by third-rate politicians who see the issue as a career opportunity, are not only ugly in themselves, but completely unhelpful in trying to formulate sensible policies.

A million visas

As the excellent Ros Atkins brilliantly highlighted this week in a short BBC Panorama report, for example, today’s UK – after 15 years of austerity in areas such as skills training, higher education, and investment in vital public services – has developed an economy which, in many key areas, simply depends on high levels of inward migration to keep going. Last year, for all their high-profile talk about being tough on immigration, the UK Government issued more than a million visas to those coming to the UK to work or study, and to their dependents who were until recently entitled to join them. The net inward migration figure was calculated at almost 700,000, twice the level of 2019; and because immigrant populations are generally younger on average, their presence has a massive, often positive impact in various areas, including birth rates.

About this huge surge of post-Brexit immigration there are two things worth saying. The first is that according to those most closely involved, without this immigration boom many key areas of British life – such as the provision of social care, the development of new tech and engineering start-ups, and the success of our “world-beating” universities – would now simply be unsustainable. Britain’s universities, for example, are now in many cases receiving up to 80 per cent of their fees income from foreign students.

And the second point worth making is that the gap between Conservative rhetoric on this issue, and what they have actually been doing in the post-Covid years, is so vast that it has created serious new political opportunities for some of the worst actors in politics – those who exploited anti-foreigner sentiment in campaigning for Brexit, and are now arguing that “Brexit has been failed” by the current generation of Tory politicians, while seeking to terrify ordinary British voters with talk of a country that is no longer theirs, and which they need, somehow, to “take back”.

Morass of disinformation

This kind of posturing around the issue, in other words, makes rational discussion of how much immigration a country can sensibly accommodate over time all but impossible. Among the symptoms of this hopelessly overheated and often actively misleading debate is the political and media obsession with those who reach the UK on small boats; who of course represent only a tiny fraction of new arrivals, or less than 5 per cent of the total net immigration figure.

And all of this, finally, is doubly difficult for us in Scotland, where we lack the economic power and capacity either to vary immigration policy in ways that night help develop our economy, or – in the style attempted in countries like Sweden, France and the Netherlands – to support families to the point where they are more easily able to have the number of children they ideally want.

And unless, with thanks to journalists like Atkins, we can find a permanent way out of the morass of disinformation and distortion that characterises the public debate on this issue, it seems unlikely that anything much will change. The truth is that this country has in recent years used cheap overseas labour and wealthy overseas students as a substitute for proper funding of its own public realm. And now, it seems unable to move away from that policy without resorting to the kind of racist and xenophobic discourse that not only risks inflicting serious damage on community relations at home, but also does nothing to help resolve the real human crisis of disruption, displacement and forced migration, across the wider world.



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