Migration limits

Large-scale immigration into Britain and some other European countries is a recent phenomenon and, despite the benefits it brings, cannot continue at current rates without disturbing existing national cultures and identities. A prominent left-wing economist argues that numbers do matter
February 20, 2003

Migration is a highly contentious issue. It involves many conflicting interests and raises difficult moral and practical questions, especially for the inhabitants of rich countries such as ours. How many immigrants should Britain admit and according to what criteria should they be selected? What responsibilities do we have to those who are kept out, and to their mostly poor countries of origin? Is it right or necessary to restrict immigration in the first place? These questions are the subject of intense debate in many countries, and the debate promises to become even more intense in the future.

A government minister recently declared that Britain is a nation of immigrants. This is misleading. Until the 1950s, there had been no sustained immigration into Britain, other than from Ireland, since the Norman invasion. About 100,000 Huguenots arrived from France in the 17th century. This is equivalent to about 1.5 per cent of the population of England, Scotland and Wales at the time. A similar number of Jews arrived in the late 19th century and around 70,000 refugees from Nazi Germany were admitted in the 1930s. These inflows are equivalent to 0.4 per cent and 0.2 per cent respectively of the host population. Sustained immigration dates back only to the 1950s, when migrants from the Caribbean and south Asia began to arrive in Britain. Many of that generation of immigrants are still alive today.

By 1971, following a gradual tightening of controls, it was believed that primary immigration had ended. The government accepted that immigrants could bring in other family members, but this was considered to be a transitory phase. It was thought that over time, the ethnic minority population would stabilise at a modest level, and the policy challenge would be how to integrate them into British society.

These expectations turned out to be false. According to official figures, the net inflow of foreigners to Britain was 182,100 in 2001. This number excludes an unknown number of illegal immigrants-so the true figure for net immigration may well be around 200,000. That is seven times the total number of Ugandan Asians who arrived in Britain following their expulsion by Idi Amin in 1972, and is equivalent to over 2m people per decade. Some of these immigrants are labour migrants who enter the country for explicitly economic reasons. Others are asylum seekers and their dependants, or spouses for the descendants of Asian immigrants. Even where immigration is ostensibly for some other purpose, there is often an economic motive. Economic migrants may falsely claim to be asylum seekers, while genuine refugees may fail to go home when the danger is past because they are better off here.

There is also fertility to consider. Most immigrants are relatively young and many come from cultures where large families are the norm. As a result, the birth rate amongst immigrants is, on average, higher than amongst the native population; in some cases much higher. This further boosts the number of immigrants and their descendants. The combined impact of immigration and fertility can be gauged from official statistics on ethnic minorities. Over the five-year period 1992-4 to 1997-99, the ethnic minority population grew by 15 per cent. For Bangladeshis and black Africans the figures were 30 per cent and 37 per cent respectively. The number of people classified as mixed-race rose by 36 per cent, reflecting the high rate of intermarriage between certain ethnic minorities, especially black Caribbeans, and whites. If immigration were strictly curtailed, then within a few generations much of the ethnic minority population would be assimilated through interbreeding with the rest of the population, although some groups, such as Muslim Bangladeshis, might remain fairly separate for a long time.

To decide who belongs to the native population of Britain is not easy. How many generations must we go back, and what proportion of foreign blood disqualifies someone from inclusion as a native? Even though the rate of immigration has been low for most of our history, if we go back a few centuries, most people now alive in Britain have at least one foreign-born ancestor. Since I am concerned with the impact of postwar immigration, I shall define as a native any inhabitant of Britain who is neither a postwar immigrant nor the descendant of such a person. Thus, a couple who entered the country before the second world war are native British, as are their children. (This is not an ideal definition, but no reasonable modification would much affect the argument.)

A striking feature of the native British population is its failure to reproduce. Following the baby boom of the immediate postwar decades, the birth rate of the native British fell considerably and their total fertility rate is now around 1.6. This is above the figure for southern European countries such as Italy, but it is well below the level of 2.1 that is required to maintain a stable population. As a result, the number of native British of childbearing age will soon begin to fall and this trend may accelerate as the echoes of the postwar baby boom fade and the population ages.

Through a combination of immigration and differential fertility, the composition of the British population has already altered considerably over the past 50 years. More than 4 per cent of the total British population are white immigrants. Non-white immigrants and their descendants account for around 6 per cent of the population and people of mixed race a further 1 per cent. What will happen in the future depends on a number of factors, some of which are amenable to government policy and others are not. If immigration were to continue at the rate observed over the past three years then, by the middle of the century, about one in seven of the population would be foreign-born. Many of these would be white immigrants. There are no official statistics on the ethnicity of migrants and this must be inferred from data on their geographical origin. Such data suggest that, over the past three years, the net immigration of people from ethnic minorities has averaged about 100,000 per annum. With immigration on this scale, the ethnic minority population, including people of mixed race, could reach 20 per cent of the population by 2050. Given the uncertainties involved, one should treat this figure with caution, but it indicates the orders of magnitude involved.

An important issue in this context is immigration from the poorer eastern European countries, such as Poland. Some of these countries are due to join the EU in 2004 and others, including Turkey, may be admitted in a few years. At present, migration from such countries is restricted, but Britain (unlike some other EU states) has said that citizens of the countries joining the EU next year will be free to work here at once. This will swell the number of immigrants and make the task of containing immigration even harder. It will also lend an extra racial bias to the control of immigration. Light-skinned immigrants from relatively poor EU countries will be allowed in, whereas darker-skinned immigrants from poor countries in other continents will be kept out.

In both scale and speed, the transformation that is now underway is without precedent. Britain is not alone in this respect. Many countries in western Europe are undergoing a similar change in their ethnic and cultural composition through immigration and differential fertility, and in many of them the subject is forcing itself up the political agenda.

There are various reactions to these developments. At one end of the spectrum are the extreme cosmopolitans, who view nation states and national identities as a dangerous anachronism. At the other end are the ethnic nationalists who wish to defend the purity of their own nation against all comers. My own position lies between these extremes. Immigration on a modest scale brings benefits in the form of diversity and new ideas, but the pace of the present transformation in Europe worries me. I believe it is a recipe for conflict. I also believe that nations are historical communities that have the right to shape their own collective future as they see fit, and to resist developments that undermine their identity and sense of continuity. I do not believe that national identity can, or should, be refashioned at will by a cosmopolitan elite to accord with its own vision of how the world should be. Many nations, especially in Europe, have deep roots and their existence promotes the global diversity that cosmopolitans claim to value. Many cosmopolitans accept the right of "oppressed peoples," such as the Palestinians, to a homeland and identity, but they regard such aspirations as illegitimate when expressed by the historic majorities of western Europe.

European nation states are facing a challenge on many different levels. It is not just an issue of immigration and ethnic transformation. Global economic developments in trade, production and finance have partly undermined the coherence of their national economies, while political developments are challenging their sovereignty and internal democratic structures. It is not surprising that the people most hostile to immigration are also the most hostile to economic globalisation and to supra-national institutions. They are raising, albeit often in xenophobic form, issues of community, identity and self-determination that should concern all democrats.

Benedict Anderson coined the term "imagined community" to describe a nation. Some writers have interpreted this term as synonymous with "imaginary" and, by implication, unreal and easily malleable. But this is false. A nation is no more imaginary than a language. Indeed, they are similar and related entities. Both have an abstract, symbolic dimension that establishes a connection between people who do not personally know each other. Both have historical roots and, once established in the minds of the people, take on a life of their own.

A nation is a community and as such is to some extent exclusive. Its members share a sense of common identity and have special moral obligations to each other. The national community also has moral obligations to outsiders, although these are more limited than towards its own members. Not everyone in the community will share this sense of identity and obligation to the same extent. Some people may hardly feel part of the nation at all because they are too self-absorbed or too cosmopolitan in outlook. Some people may identify strongly with certain features of the nation, but not with others. But these differences do not matter, as long as there is enough common ground to give the nation coherence and preserve a sense of historical continuity.

History is, indeed, a central component of national self-understanding. But for much of the past 30 years, the notion of history as a grand narrative has been out of fashion, and the idea of placing the national history and culture at the centre of teaching in schools has been attacked as ethnocentric and reactionary. As a result, many British children leave school with no sense of the broad sweep of their national history and culture; they feel neither pride in the achievements of their nation, nor shame at its wrongdoings. There are various reasons for this. One is a desire to provide children with a cosmopolitan education to fit them for our post-imperial and, by implication, post-national future. Another is the desire not to exclude ethnic minority children by teaching them about events with which they have no personal connection.

The latter reason supports my argument that numbers do matter. If a country experiences mass immigration, then it will soon contain a very large number of people who have no personal connection with the fairly recent past and feel neither pride nor shame about this past. Their connection with the distant past will be even more tenuous. What was previously the history of the nation may come to be seen as merely the history of a shrinking ethnic majority, of little relevance to the rest.

The second world war is my history, because I lived through it as a child. Through me it is also the history of my children. When we talk of the war, we automatically use the word "we" to denote Britain and the British of that time. "We fought the Nazis"; "We bombed Dresden" and so on. We are proud that our nation spurned the offer of peace that would have saved us in return for abandoning Europe to the Nazis. We are ashamed (or some of us are) that our leaders could order the deliberate bombing of civilians in Dresden and other German cities. To the rational mind, this sounds very emotional, as indeed it is. But then, identity is an emotional thing.

The presence of ethnic minorities has made it more difficult to teach a coherent national history. However, it is not impossible. Take, for instance, the second world war. The battle of Britain was largely a white affair and it is difficult for children from ethnic minorities to identify with it in the way that my children do. But the war effort as a whole relied heavily on troops of all colours from all parts of the British empire. Hundreds of thousands of Indians, Africans and Caribbeans served as volunteers in the imperial armed forces, sometimes with conspicuous bravery. Few British children, white or otherwise, are aware of this fact. Few of them know much about the empire at all. As a result, they know little about the forces that have shaped modern Britain or about the historical ties between Britain and the counties from which many ethnic minorities come. The solution is not to abandon the teaching of a national history, but to set this history in a wider context. Children should learn about the intertwining of our nation and its empire, about the eventual loss of this empire and the nature of the post-imperial age. Such a programme could degenerate into a catalogue of Britain's real and imaginary imperial failings. But taught in a more balanced fashion, which included the positive as well as the negative aspects of empire, it could provide a unifying perspective that would be relevant to all British children, no matter what their ethnic background.

The history of a nation is not transmitted simply through structured narrative. It is also embodied in a host of symbolic forms: the monarchy, flags, ceremonies, public events and so on. These symbols and their significance are always in a state of flux, but if the pace of change is too rapid or in the wrong direction, the result will be confusion and resentment. Let me give an example. The badge of the Metropolitan Police contains the British crown, to indicate that the police are formally accountable to the monarch as head of state. A recruit recently objected to this on the grounds that, as a devout Muslim, he could not wear the crown because it is surmounted by a Christian cross. In response, the Metropolitan Police has agreed to produce an alternative badge without the crown. In itself, this may seem a trivial example, but there are many others. What will happen, for example, if someone decides that our national flag is offensive to Muslims because it is composed of variations on the Christian cross? Will we have to design a new flag? This may seem far-fetched, but it was only a few years ago that the Red Cross proposed changing their symbol because of its Christian connotations. The same organisation recently banned nativity scenes in its shops at Christmas because they might offend Muslims. (According to one estimate, the number of Muslims in Britain has more than doubled over the past 20 years. Given the secular decline in church attendance, it is possible that by the middle of the century there will be fewer practising Christians in Britain than there are active followers of Islam and other non-Christian religions.)

There are several reasons why such issues are coming to the fore. One is the fact that the ethnic minority population is now quite large and is becoming more assertive. When numbers were very small, they had little alternative but to take things as they found them. As they grow in number, make progress in society and become more confident, it is natural for them to demand a greater voice. Another reason has been the failure of our political elite to confront the issue of national identity and to articulate what kind of adaptation is expected on the part of newcomers. For a long time, the very idea that newcomers should be expected to conform in some way was anathema, and the emphasis was mainly on the need for change in the host society. However, official policy in this regard has recently begun to shift. There has been a belated recognition of the threat to national cohesion which immigration may pose, if it is not properly handled. David Blunkett, the home secretary, has introduced tougher requirements for citizenship, including knowledge of the national language and culture, together with a formal induction ceremony. Opinion polls reveal substantial support amongst ethnic minorities for these measures.

There are also signs of a popular backlash on the issue of national identity. There has been an upsurge of interest in history, which is symbolised by the big audience for Simon Schama's television programmes on the history of Britain from the stone age to the end of the second world war. Despite efforts in certain quarters to belittle their significance, the Queen Mother's funeral and the Queen's Jubilee attracted huge crowds. And it has become once again respectable to fly the Union Jack, which has been reclaimed from the parties of the far right.

These developments reflect a reassertion of national identity by the historic majority of the country. However, they should not be equated with racism or hostility to foreigners. Simon Schama, probably the most popular chronicler of our national history, is the son of Jewish immigrants, and a well-known promoter of traditional English poetry is the black Caribbean immigrant and newsreader Trevor MacDonald. The Queen made a serious effort to include ethnic minorities in her Jubilee tour, and one of the great social events of the nation is the Notting Hill Carnival, which attracts a huge multi-racial crowd. Two of the leading critics of European monetary union for its lack of democracy are the trade unionist Bill Morris and the Labour MP Diane Abbott, both of whom are black. The rapid growth of mixed-race couples both in real life and in soap operas also indicates that a reassertion of national identity does not imply hostility to people of immigrant descent. Indeed, most people of immigrant descent consider themselves to be British, and are regarded as British by most of the rest of the population.

There will always be a tension between universalism and particularism, between cosmopolitanism and nationalism. The problem is not to choose one or the other, but to hold the two poles in balance. A policy that devalues the history of a nation and undermines the hegemony of its historic core will not in the long run serve the interests which cosmopolitans hold dear. The alternative to a world of well-defined nations is not a world of engaged global citizens working for the common good, but a world of isolated individuals and small groups, ruled at best by an elite of unaccountable illuminati, and at worst by authoritarians. It is better that the world is divided into cohesive, self-governing nations that respect and support each other, than for it to become a gigantic melting pot that commands the loyalty of no one.

Some immigration is desirable in any society, but this must be kept within limits. What these limits are depends on the nation in question. In the case of Iceland, for example, there is little scope for immigration. The population is almost entirely descended from the original Norsemen who settled the island over 1,000 years ago; this fact imbues the entire national culture and is central to Icelandic identity. Such a culture could not survive large-scale immigration. At the other extreme are the countries of white settlement, such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. These are countries whose original population has been dispossessed by immigrants who have mostly arrived within the past 200 years. Their immigrant intake has become increasingly diverse in recent times and so far they have been able to absorb newcomers on a much larger scale than most European countries. In the case of Australia, the official multicultural policy has facilitated rapid assimilation into the host society, rather than the permanent segregation of immigrant groups, as some feared. However, one should be cautious in evaluating the future of these countries. All of them still have a European majority and it is hard to know what will happen if they become truly multi-ethnic states.

Most European countries lie between the two extremes. They are not as homogeneous as Iceland, but they are also not countries of recent settlement. Although some have significant immigrant groups, they still have long-standing ethnic majorities that form the core of the nation. It is unrealistic to expect that the population of European countries will knowingly accept immigration on a scale that would transform them out of recognition. Yet this is what will happen if their governments continue to be persuaded by the claim that continued economic prosperity requires mass immigration.

The debate about immigrants is often cast in individual terms. Opponents sometimes portray them as criminals or scroungers coming to prey on the local population or exploit the welfare state. In response, their supporters argue that most immigrants are honest and hard working, and just want to earn a decent living in a country that offers opportunities not available at home. On this point, the supporters are correct. I would go further. Many immigrants are resourceful and ambitious and the values of certain immigrant groups on issues such as marriage, care of the old or education are exemplary. It is often said that we should inculcate immigrants with our own values. I am always a bit uneasy when I hear this. What do we have in mind? Do we want to replace Muslim collectivism with western individualism? Do we want Asians to shut away their old people in homes as we do, or to emulate our divorce rates?

When it comes to civic values such as respect for the law or free speech, immigrants are not, on average, worse than the native population. Islamic extremists may have a bad record in these areas, but they are not very numerous. Criminality may be relatively common amongst young Afro-Caribbean males, but this is no longer an immigration issue. There is now little immigration from the Caribbean, and most of the young men concerned were born in Britain, as were many of their parents.

However, immigration is not simply a question of personal qualities. It is also a question of numbers. Rapid changes in the ethnic or cultural composition of a society may cause widespread disorientation and conflict. Even slow changes may lead to the same result if their cumulative effect is to undermine the position of a dominant group or a previously established modus vivendi between groups-consider the recent history of Northern Ireland or Kosovo. Another example, which has been in the news lately, comes from Wales. After a long period of decline, the Welsh language has in recent years been revived as a result of government support and broader cultural trends. However, this revival is now threatened by the large-scale immigration of English-speakers seeking to enjoy the unspoilt countryside. Welsh language activists want government measures to restrict such immigration, although so far their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The situation in Wales is similar to that in Quebec, where separatists finally won the battle to protect Francophone culture by controlling immigration into the province.

These are all extreme examples, but they do illustrate the point that numbers matter. Quite apart from its impact on social composition, mass immigration may also lead to an unsustainable growth in the total population of a country or region. The result may be unacceptable damage to both the environment and quality of life. It is a truism that population growth, even at a slow rate, cannot continue forever. This was the point made by the late Pim Fortuyn when he opposed further immigration because the Netherlands was "full up." Within the space of a century, the population of the Netherlands has risen from 5m to 16m, and the country is now one of the most densely populated in the world. Moreover, the population is still rising because of continued immigration and the high birth rate of existing immigrants. Given these facts, Fortuyn's concern about overcrowding does not seem unreasonable.

It is often said that population growth is a good thing and hence there should be more immigration. This may be correct under particular circumstances but, as a general proposition, it is surely false. In most European countries, many people would agree that their population is already too large. This is certainly true in Britain. For us, population growth is now a cost, not a benefit.

Advocates of large-scale immigration usually propose various economic justifications. Immigration provides a young workforce to support an ageing population, cheap labour to do jobs that local workers are unwilling to perform and valuable skilled labour for the economy. On inspection, each of these justifications turn out to be questionable.

Birth rates in rich countries have been falling and people are living longer. As a result, the number of working-age adults per elderly person is in decline and it is becoming increasingly onerous to support the growing retired population. But the trouble with "replacement migration" as a solution, as Anthony Browne and others have recently pointed out in Prospect, is that immigrants grow old too. If they remain in the country, they have to be supported by the next generation of workers. To rejuvenate the population through immigration requires not just a once-and-for-all influx of foreign workers, but a continuing flow of new immigrants. Once the flow stops, the natural process of ageing will take over, and the rejuvenating effect of past immigration will soon disappear. So replacement migration can, at best, buy a bit more time to seek other ways of mitigating the negative effects of an ageing society. This issue has been highlighted in a recent article by the Oxford demographer, David Coleman. To preserve the present age structure of the 15 EU countries would require annual net immigration of 4.5m by 2007 and 7m by 2024. In the case of Britain, to prevent the population from ageing would require the immigration of almost 60m people over the next 50 years. By 2050, nearly 60 per cent of the population would consist of people who had arrived in the country since 1995 and their descendants. Coleman concludes that replacement migration at any feasible rate can have only a minor impact on the long-run age structure of Britain and other European countries.

Given that immigration on any acceptable scale cannot rejuvenate European countries, the only option for these countries is to accept that the ageing of their populations is inevitable and to manage this process as best they can. One way to do this is to acknowledge that, thanks to longer education and retirement, the proportion of the average life spent in formal employment has been falling sharply-this fall could be stopped or even reversed slightly by raising the retirement age. A second way is to find jobs for the millions of Europeans who are still unemployed. A third way is to encourage people and companies to save and invest more so as to cut the consumption of the young and raise productivity.

Although restrictive in their attitude towards immigration in general, many rich countries are keen to attract skilled workers, business people and investors. The benefits of such a policy are obvious, but there is also an important downside. Too much reliance on immigrants may remove the incentive to educate the domestic population and develop its entrepreneurial capacities. Moreover, even if the immigration of skilled workers and business people is of economic benefit to the host country it does not necessarily make it a good thing. To raise and educate a skilled worker requires a large investment of time and resources by taxpayers and family members in the worker's country of origin. When such a worker emigrates, the benefits of this investment will be mostly lost to the country of origin. Some money may return in the form of remittances to dependants at home, but it will be the host country that receives most of the benefit. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the NHS, which recruits staff all over the world, including poor countries that cannot match British salaries. According to the British Medical Journal, more than 3,000 nurses and midwives have left Nigeria, South Africa and other sub-Saharan countries for Britain in the recent past. Thousands more have gone to other rich states.

A recent study for the home office has calculated the taxes paid by the immigrant population in relation to the government money they receive in the form of welfare payments, health services and so on. It estimates that the total taxes paid by immigrants exceed government expenditure on them by ?2.6 billion. This looks a large sum, but in fact it is small. It is equivalent to 0.3 per cent of GDP, and is less than three months' productivity growth. Moreover, the above figure is probably an overestimate, since it ignores the additional public expenditure required to deal with the educational, environmental and social problems arising from large-scale immigration. Britain has gained a great deal in cultural, intellectual and economic terms from certain types of immigration, but the net fiscal benefit to the rest of the population is small. The picture is probably similar in most other rich countries.

If all countries in the world were economically developed, then employment and business opportunities would be spread fairly evenly across the globe, and there would be no systematic economic pressures for large-scale migration. In the absence of controls, some individuals would migrate across national boundaries for personal or professional reasons, but such flows would be mostly modest and uncontroversial. This is the present situation within the EU. Per capita incomes across EU countries are now similar and the incentive to migrate is small. Despite the abolition of migration controls within the EU, the vast majority of citizens prefer to remain in their native country. (This situation may change after EU enlargement.)

There are also natural disasters, wars and civil disturbances to consider. If all countries in the world were prosperous, much of the migration provoked by such events would be temporary. When refugees arrive in a rich country fleeing a crisis in a poor one, many of them wish to remain when the crisis is over. This is not the case if they flee from a poor country to another poor country, as the Afghan crisis has shown. According to the UNHCR, 1.5m of the refugees who were housed in camps in Pakistan have now voluntarily returned to Afghanistan. Economic conditions are so bad in Pakistan that they have no incentive to stay. In contrast, few of the Afghans who managed to enter rich countries want to go home.

In a prosperous world, mass migration of a permanent nature would be unusual. However, this is not the world we inhabit today. There are huge international differences in per capita income and economic opportunity and there is thus a huge reservoir of people who would migrate to the rich countries if there were no controls-espe