The UK won't become Europe's biggest economy if we slash immigration

The Tories are hailing the UK's projected growth while promoting policies that would strangle it.

Tory MPs are busy hailing what they regard as a late Christmas present: the news that the UK is forecast to become Europe's largest economy by 2030. According to the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR), Britain will overtake France by 2018 and Germany within the next two decades, leaving it as the second biggest western economy after the US.

The response from the Conservatives could be summarised as "See? We told you George knows what he's doing!" But here's one point they're conveniently avoiding: Britain won't win the growth race unless it maintains a high rate of immigration. As the CEBR states, "positive demographics with continuing immigration" is the main factor (along with non-membership of the euro) behind the UK's projected success. While Germany's population is forecast to decline sharply over the next few decades, the UK's is expected to rise to 75 million by 2043, making it the biggest country in Europe.

That a significant part of this increase is expected to come through immigration helps explain why Britain will grow strongly. An OECD report last month, for instance, found that migrants make a net contribution of 1.02 per cent of GDP or £16.3bn, since they are younger and more economically active than the population in general. Far from being "benefit tourists", migrants contribute far more in taxes than they receive in welfare payments and public services. Of the 5.5 million people claiming working age benefits in February 2011, just 371,000 (6.4 per cent) were foreign nationals when they first arrived in the UK, meaning only 6.6 per cent of those born abroad receive benefits, compared to 16.6 per cent of UK nationals.

Were immigration to be cut to the level most Tories would like to see (little or none), growth would be dramatically reduced. According to NIESR, a halving of net migration over the period to 2060 would shrink GDP by 11 per cent and GDP per person by 2.7 per cent. This leaves the Tories with two options: they can either welcome immigrants as contributors to the economy, or they can turn them away and accept growth will suffer as a result. What they can't do (at least if they wish to retain any credibility), is to boast of our projected growth while promoting policies that would strangle it.

David Cameron talks to UK Border Agency officials in their control room during a visit to Heathrow Terminal 5. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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