The population debate must not be defined by immigration

A relentless focus on net migration disguises the real challenges around population growth.

Today’s parliamentary debate on population is really about immigration. This is both because net migration is a significant driver of UK population increases, and because reduced immigration is the key demand of the e-petition which sparked the debate, and of those proposing the motion. It is not clear whether those who are promoting the "no to 70m" proposition are themselves really driven by a concern about population increases and their effects; or whether they are really more concerned about immigration (or about particular kinds of immigration). It certainly seems unlikely that they would be in favour of more immigration if British emigration suddenly increased, or the British birth rate suddenly dropped.

In effect, this is a debate about the government’s net migration target, which itself only really makes sense if the driving concern is population. The most recent estimates suggest that net migration is running at well over 200,000 a year. The government’s target is to reduce that to less than 100,000 a year. Those who support the "no to 70m" proposition are calling for net migration of less than 40,000 a year (and, in many cases, for net migration of zero).

Leaving aside the fact that the existing net migration target is looking impossible to meet, that in the current context, net migration could only be cut to the levels demanded by the "no to 70m" camp at huge economic cost, and that those supporting the motion have no clear account of the policies that would be required to cut net migration so drastically, it is worth considering the population and net migration debate on its own merits.

The argument that any particular population level is a problem per se is clearly incoherent (why 70 million? Why not 80 million, or 40 million (as called for by Population Matters)?). The more sensible debate is about population increase (pace of change) and distribution, and the attendant issues. Those issues are real ones – housing, congestion, the allocation of funds to public services. But none are well served by a policy driven entirely by a net migration (or population) target, for at least two reasons.

The first is that a focus on overall net migration (or total population) can hide all sorts of different trends with different impacts and effects.  For example, if immigration of ten million a year was matched by emigration of ten million a year then net migration would be zero, but the effects of the resulting population "churn" would almost certainly be negative. Similarly, if the emigration of one million high-skilled workers was matched by the immigration of one million low-skilled workers, then the UK might well be worse off as a result.

The second is that most of the impacts of population growth are local or regional, rather than national. A national net migration target does nothing to address local or regional population pressures.  If London received net international migration of one million and Scotland received net international emigration of one million in the same year, then net migration would be zero but the consequences for both London and Scotland would likely be negative.

We should have a political and policy debate about population. It should be a debate about the rate of population growth and the distribution of population in the UK. It should be a debate about housing, and transport, and energy, and water, and public services, and how we manage an ageing population, and any number of other things. It should not be a debate about whether the UK population should be 70 million (or 60 million, or 40 million).

We should also have a political and policy debate about immigration. It should be a debate about the pace and nature of migration flows to and from the UK. It should be about jobs and wages, and economic growth, and public services, and culture, and community, and a whole range of other issues. It should not be a debate about whether net migration to the UK should be 100,000 a year (or 40,000, or zero).

None of this is to deny the connection between migration and population, of course, but when the population debate becomes all about immigration, and the immigration debate becomes all about population, then both are limited and unproductive.

Sarah Mulley is Associate Director for Migration, Trade and Development at IPPR

Parliament will today debate a motion calling for measures to ensure the UK population does not rise above 70 million. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder