Alex Massie

No-one is Talking About Immigration

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Well, on Day One of the Great Campaign no-one seemed to be talking about immigration. This is understandable given that it's a subject that discomfits most of the parties and, for that matter, many voters. This is to say nowt about the potential it offers for demagoguery and cheap and easy populism. But while one understands why the subject arouses fierce passions it remains the case that we probably ought to talk about it at some point over the next month. Because we're going to need more immigrants.

Yup, we are. Or, at any rate, we're going to need more people over the course of the next few decades. For some reason that I'm not sure I wholly understand the idea that 70 million people may one day live on this soggy island is anathema to many furious people. Perhaps I'm being unfair: change is always tricky and often uncomfortable and one ought not to think ill of those who find it such. Nevertheless, we're going to need more people.

The Restrictionists argue that immigrants increase the burden on already over-stretched public services. And doubtless some do, though the evidence for this is not especially clear. At present, however, there are roughly five workers for every pensioner in Britain; if current trends continue (which they might not!) that ratio will be but 2:1 in forty or so years time. So if we're to maintain current entitlement programmes we're going to need more workers.

Or fewer old people.

Since Bumping Off Grannie is a tough sell, opting for more workers seems the better, more civilised, approach. This gives us some options: breed more, import more workers or a combination of the two. Of these, breeding brings greater costs and, actually, places greater strain on public services since the kids need to be educated and will receive child benefit and so on. That's not a reason for not encouraging a natalist approach, merely a reminder that it has costs too.

Immigrants, however, who arrive in their working prime and pay their taxes are, at least in economic terms, a win-win matter especially since many of them will, some day, choose to return home before they are ancient and withered and a huge drain upon health care resources.

Immigration is one of the reasons why, despite everything, the United States' long-term position is likely to be healthier than, say, Japan's. In the British context this does indeed mean this small island is going to have to become more crowded. And there will be costs associated with that.

However the 70m scare figure seems entirely arbitrary. If, as some suggest, that number is entirely unacceptable then what would you say must be done were that number to be reached by a purely British baby boom? Would we then need a One Child policy of our own? And even if we did insist upon something like that wouldn't we simply be creating trouble, as China has, for future generations?

No, that seems ridiculous. You might not like it and it will certainly cause ructions and pressures even if you do like it, but the fact, I hazard, remains that we're going to need more people if pensions and the NHS isn't to become some great inter-generational Ponzi scheme.

All this, I think, makes for a pragmatic approach to immigration that is a long way distant from the "get tough" rhetoric favoured by both the Conservatives and Labour. It also, I'd add, doesn't even rely upon what one might call a moral or ethical approach to the matter.

Again, one understands why neither of the main parties really wants to talk about immigration not least because the public doesn't want to hear much of this even if the Tories and Labour were minded to tell them the truth which, of course, they are not.

A balanced approach might require a combination of vreeding, bumping off grannie and opening borders. Good luck selling that! Things are going to have to change and for the sake of our parents and ourselves we should probably, whether we like it or not, get used to living on a more crowded island.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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