For the last six years, the Conservative government has been trying and failing to do the following things: lower Britain’s productivity still further, accelerate the burden placed on the public purse by our ageing population, increase the skills deficit, and pull the economy into recession.
But don’t worry: they are going to keep trying to do all those things for the next five years.
That’s the mystifying truth behind Theresa May’s pledge to get net immigration to Britain down to the “tens of thousands”. There are two big problems with it. The first is that the government is incapable of achieving it. Even if you factor out the immigration to Britain from the European Union, which the government cannot control while we remain part of the single market and the free movement of people, close to half of the immigration to Britain comes from outside the European Union – that is, the government already agrees to let in around 160,000 people to the United Kingdom.
Why? For the same reason that similar numbers of people will come to Britain from the EU even after we leave the EU. If the government were to achieve its target, the consequences would have been pretty terrible for everyone living in the United Kingdom.
What is often forgotten when we talk about the need for immigrants to keep the British economy ticking over is that this isn’t because “they work for less”, “they don’t know their rights”, and other clichés about foreign workers that have become increasingly prevalent in public debate. There are many reasons why care workers should be paid more, but no matter how desirable you make social care as a profession, we simply don’t produce enough young people to take care of our elderly people.
Nor can this be solved simply by people “looking after their own parents”. Even if you forget the large number of people who do not have children, many will be unable to do so for financial or physical reasons. The average first-time mother in the United Kingdom is 28.5 years old. The average child born in modern Britain will live to be around 100. Any model of elderly care based around the idea that sixty-somethings will have the ability, let alone the inclination, to care for their eighty-something parents is doomed to fail.
Away from our ageing population, Britain is already at full employment when you factor in people who are out of work due to illness or caregiving responsibilities. You can’t fill Britain’s existing job vacancies without maintaining the current level of immigration.
So the only way to hit the target would be to hammer the economy and condemn the nation’s elderly to age in misery. And yet it’s in the Conservative manifesto to do just that.