Miriam Cates identified the issue, but she is wrong about the cause
Yesterday we were faced with the slightly strange vision of a British home secretary lamenting the failures of British immigration policy. Yet we should have some sympathy for Suella Braverman. She is in the unenviable position of carrying responsibility for immigration policy, vainly and impotently trying to rein in the seeming unstoppable flow of arrivals. David Cameron’s rhetoric about “tens, not hundreds of thousands” did not solve the problem. Nor did Brexit, although it did mean our arrivals increasingly came from further afield, rather than from Europe.
Whatever the exigencies of the day — legal frustrations over the Rwanda plan, Britain’s ever-expanding industry for manufacturing Masters degrees for people from overseas, or the arrival of Ukrainian refugees — the underlying problem is too often overlooked. Without understanding demography, the vast and relentless pressures for more immigration can never be grasped, never mind overcome.
Conservative MP Miriam Cates came close to it, speaking on the same day and at the same National Conservatism conference as Braverman. Decrying our lack of babies, Cates was wrong to put emphasis on Western democracies. Ask officials in Tehran or Beijing whether the rather different reigning ideologies of their polities are much better at producing home-grown citizens of the future, and you will find them wringing their hands.
In both cases, promotion of family planning (shamefully coercive in China) from the 1980s did not help, but a change of course in recent years has yielded little in terms of new births in either China or Iran. The self-styled Illiberal Democrats in Budapest have got the country’s fertility rate up, albeit still below the level of the more liberal democracies of Northwest Europe.
The fact is that in Britain we have had sub-replacement fertility — too few children ultimately to replace ourselves — since the days of Edward Heath. Whatever the reasons, political, economic or (as I believe most important) cultural, the situation is only getting worse. All of this means that as younger boomers start to retire, there are simply too few youngsters coming in to replace them.
You can rearrange the deckchairs by getting more people to start their working lives a bit earlier, but curtailing their education will frequently curtail their productivity. Government could also try to shift the retirement age by a few years, although that is not working out so well for Emmanuel Macron. Then there’s getting more of the apparently work-shy back into the labour-force. But without boosting fertility rates, the fact cannot be ignored that back in the 1970s and early 1980s there were nearly four people aged 21-65 for everyone older than that and now there are barely three. In another thirty years there will be barely two.
This is why, despite sluggish growth, sector after sector is crying out for labour. And it’s true well beyond Britain’s shores. From US brain surgeons to German factory hands, decades of too few babies is translating into too few workers. And so the captains of industry are constantly petitioning the Government to lower the barriers to immigration and issue more permits. The public may say it wants lower immigration but the first time someone cannot get a plumber to fix their dripping tap or their mother’s operation gets cancelled again for lack of theatre staff or the petrol pumps have dried up for lack of tanker drivers, that tune will change.
Immigration is at best a short-term fix. Waning economic prowess means our earning pull is weakening for workers in hitherto poorer countries. Traditional providers of labour to the US, UK and Germany such as Mexico, India, Poland and Turkey are experiencing their own falling or low fertility. We shall soon enough find out that the only way to fix Braverman’s problem is to address Cates’s.