Ignore the anti-immigrant hysteria, Britain is not full.

Claims that Britain's population will soon reach 70 million do not stand up to scrutiny.

Is Britain full? In the 1930s the Daily Mail campaigned against letting in German Jews on the basis that it was; since then the UK has accommodated more than 10 million extra people. But what was once a far-right trope is rapidly becoming conventional wisdom on both left and right. Even the supposedly impartial BBC now takes it as fact, if Monday's shockingly one-sided Panorama programme was anything to go by.

The programme's starting point was projections by the Office of National Statistics that, on current trends, Britain's population will reach 70 million by 2029, with two-thirds of the increase coming from new immigrants and their children. Such projections, the programme claimed, are accurate to within plus or minus 2.5 per cent.

Not so. The projection misleadingly extrapolates to the distant future the exceptional rise in immigration in the years before 2008, when the economy was booming unsustainably and the government has just let in workers from Poland and other east European countries. But now boom has turned to bust and the plummeting pound has devalued British wages, new arrivals from eastern Europe halved between 2007 and 2009, and many are going home. In the 12 months to mid-2009, immigration was already well below the ONS projection.

Previous projections have proved wildly wrong. In 1965, official statisticians reckoned Britain's population would reach 75 million by 2000. It turned out 16 million lower. And while short-term projections based on births and deaths may be reasonably accurate, longer-term estimates of future migration should be taken with a fistful of salt.

The programme's other premise was that a rising population -- due to immigration -- was overwhelmingly a bad thing. Except for a 10-second clip of me putting a positive case for immigration, the message was unrelentingly negative. Immigrants were said to contribute little to the economy and strain scarce resources -- seats on trains, hospital beds, social housing, living space, you name it.

This is misanthropic nonsense. Each of us contributes to society in all sorts of ways -- and immigrants are no exception. On the contrary, newcomers tend to chip in more than most. Research by Christian Dustmann and his team at University College London shows that newcomers from eastern Europe paid 37 per cent more in taxes than they received in benefits and from public services in 2008-09, while people born in Britain paid in 20 per cent less than they received. In other words, recent migrants are not a drain on the welfare state, they are helping to pay for it -- while many more migrants help to provide public services, as doctors, nurses or cleaners in the NHS, for instance. So if public services are failing to respond fast enough to a changing population's needs, blame the government, not foreigners. After all, if a Brit moved from Carlisle to Cardiff to take up a new job and there wasn't a place for their child at the local school, who would you blame?

Yes, a House of Lords select committee report chaired by the Conservative politician John Wakeham concluded that the economic benefits of immigration to the existing UK population were probably small -- and how could the great and the good ever be wrong? But it ignored the extra dynamism that a diverse mix of people sparking off each other brings, and all the new ideas, technologies, businesses and economic growth that this generates. Twenty-two of Britain's 114 Nobel laureates were born abroad; Tesco, Marks & Spencer, easyJet and many other successful companies were founded by immigrants and their children; and new arrivals of all cultural backgrounds are twice as likely to start a business as people born in Britain, as I explain at greater length in my new book, Aftershock: Reshaping the World Economy After the Crisis, which is out on 6 May.

Just look at Silicon Valley: Google, Yahoo!, eBay, YouTube, and many others, were all co-founded by immigrants who were not selected by some clever points system but arrived in the US as children. Anyone who doubts the contribution that newcomers make should ask themselves whether a global city such as London would be half as successful without a constant influx of new people from around the country and the world.

Immigrants' contribution to this country is positive and large. But surely they also strain scarce resources? Not necessarily. The main problem is not too many people, it's a lack of investment. Paris is more densely populated than London yet its excellent Metro is less crowded than our Tube. The Netherlands has more people per square mile than Britain, yet there is plenty of space on Dutch trains. Roads are clogged mostly because car ownership has risen as people have got richer; central London's congestion charge has unblocked them.

Social housing is scarce not because newcomers are taking all of it -- in most cases they are not entitled to it -- but because lots of homes have been sold off and very few new ones built. House prices are sky-high because demand has risen as people have got richer and more single people want to buy their own place, while planning restrictions limit the supply of new developments, and Britons are so addicted to property speculation that they are willing to borrow ever larger sums to get on the "property ladder".

Britain is not full up. Three-quarters of it is agricultural land. Contrary to the belief that it is about to be concreted over, building 3 million new homes at the government's target density would take up only 0.3 per cent of the UK's land area -- and much less if houses were built on brownfield sites. Nor is rising population density necessarily a bad thing. Most people in Britain choose to live in cities and suburbs rather than rural areas. The most densely populated place in the country is Kensington and Chelsea, which is hardly a hellhole. After all, that's where David Cameron chooses to live.

Philippe Legrain is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics' European Institute and the author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them (Little, Brown).

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Facebook.

Getty
Show Hide image

"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

0800 7318496