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).

 

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The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.