Wednesday 10 May 2017

Differing in degree, not in kind

The Prime Minister is determined to stick to her unachievable pledge to reduce net immigration to an arbitrary level of ‘under 100,000’ per annum.  In the meantime, the provisional wing of her party, aka UKIP, has plumped for an equally arbitrary level of zero.  Both figures have merely been plucked from thin air in an attempt to appease voters who don’t like foreigners, and both are justified by the use of the magic word ‘sustainable’, a word whose use is, apparently, enough to justify anything with no further explanation required.  The difference between these two policies is not one of kind, merely one of degree – an arbitrary target for net migration levels regardless of economic impact is exactly that, at whatever level it is set. 
Both parties rehearse the usual arguments; no matter how many times they’ve been rationally and logically dissected, analysed, and debunked, they appeal to a sector of the electorate and are therefore wheeled out time and again.  I haven’t, in the past, paid too much attention to the detail of UKIP policy statements, but based on what has happened over recent years, UKIP’s policy today is probably just a foretaste of Tory Party policy and arguments for the next election. 
One of the arguments that UKIP make is that England is the "sixth most overcrowded country in the world".  I assume that they’re talking about relative population density, but I can’t make any sense of this claim.  This data from the Office of National Statistics says that the average population of England is 413 per square km, and this table shows the countries of the world, which can be ranked in order of population density.  The UK is obviously there as a single entity in 51st position, but if we use the England-only figure, it would be in 31st position, between Burundi and the Netherlands.  Even if we exclude those overseas territories which are not sovereign countries from the list, I still can’t get England to a higher position than around 17 or 18.
But let’s put aside the mere detail of the claim about England’s position in the table of overcrowding, and turn to the essence of the claim itself – which is that England is ‘overcrowded’.  What exactly does that mean?  Clearly, anyone who believes that country A is ‘overcrowded’ must have at least some idea of what the ‘right’ population level for that country is, but I’ve never heard them answering that one, and I don’t know how they could or would.  It’s an utterly meaningless statement which still manages to appeal to many of those hearing it, usually as a rationalisation of a much baser instinct.
We should also come back to the fact that they are quite deliberately talking only about ‘England’ here.  In Wales (149 per square km), Northern Ireland (135) and Scotland (68), the situation is very different.  Do they think we’re overcrowded as well?  If they do, then merely controlling net migration isn’t going to help them get the English population down to their imaginary ideal level – and if they don’t, then why apply a policy based on the situation in England?  I doubt that they’ve given a moment’s thought to that question.
Part of the problem in all of the discussion about immigration is that the Tories and UKIP do have one valid underlying point, albeit one that they’re failing to grasp other than in a highly distorted fashion.  It is this: if the population in a country is growing and the provision of services is not, then there will be additional pressures on health and other services.  (It’s also true that a country with an aging population will face greater pressures on services such as health and social care.)
That statement is surely indisputable, and the resulting pressures are regularly used as arguments by those opposing immigration.  But that is ignoring the key caveat about matching the growth in provision of services to the growth in population.  If services do not keep pace with the requirements of a growing population, it’s because the government presiding over the situation is neither planning nor providing adequate services.  When people blame immigrants, they’re diverting attention from the failure of successive governments to make adequate provision.  Whose interests does that serve, I wonder?

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