On Wednesday, one day before the Office for National Statistics released immigration figures showing a net decline, I was on the far flung isle of Lewis following Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign. The Labour leader is used to fending off questions about controlling immigration, but here he faced a different one. One local after another brought up the same problem: how do we stop population decline?
The Outer Hebrides is home to stunning vistas, traditional crafts, seabirds – but a falling number of people. In 1951, the isle of Harris had 3,991 residents. By 2011, that figure had halved. Across the islands as whole, between 1991 and 2011, 1,916 people disappeared.
“When it comes to demographics, this has been the biggest concern the islands have had over the decades,” Alasdair Allan, the Scottish National Party MSP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (as the Western Isles are known in Gaelic), told me.
The Hebrides has a long tradition of emigration – the Lewis diaspora includes former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling and infamously, Donald Trump. But economic and cultural change over the past century has also affected the gender and age of the island.
“As a community we would never take the view that young people shouldn’t go away to university,” Allan said. “But these young people would like to be able to come back.”
The story of the disappearing islanders exposes the post-Brexit claim that “we’re full up” as the factual inaccuracy it is. The Western Isles, which voted Remain, is not the only area of the UK to experience population decline. Liverpool’s population today is nearly half its 1930 peak. The population of Sunderland, the city forever associated with the Brexit vote, is dropping at the third fastest rate in the UK. Meanwhile, our population as a whole continues to age, with a quarter expected to be over 65 by 2045.
Busting the “full up” myth is important, because it’s the only way to get to the heart of the problem too easily passed off as immigration. If you’re in a city that is losing people, and it’s still hard to find an affordable flat, then maybe the structure of the housing market needs to be shaken up. If you’re not competing with as many other jobseekers as 20 years ago, and yet there are still no jobs, then maybe the problem is industrial decline. If you feel your culture is under threat, and the communities are segregated, then maybe you’ve lost the open-minded, mobile young people who might have bridged that gap in the past. And if every young person is moving to London, then maybe the problem is the UK’s centralisation of jobs and resources in a single, greenbelt-locked city.
The Western Isles is no immigrant utopia. Incomers to Lewis can expect devout neighbours who are shocked at the idea of putting your washing out on a Sunday. Respect for Gaelic culture is a must. But the island has also resettled Syrian refugees, and exported Harris Tweed to Japan. Its arts centre, Ann Lanntair, just commissioned a new composition mixing Gaelic music traditions with Indian classical music. And despite only getting fibre optic broadband 18 months ago, locals have cottoned onto something the rest of the UK seems to find hard to grasp – if you’re an island of aging inhabitants, you should worry less about immigrant numbers, and more about becoming extinct.