I suppose the confirmation that 13 per cent of the present population of England and Wales were born overseas will be the cause of some eye-brow raising and much spluttering from the usual suspects. It’s too late to repel the foreign hordes. They are inside the castle already. Some 7.5 million people born overseas now live in England and Wales (but mainly England).
Lucky old England, says I. Immigrants are drawn to and then help create economic prosperity. It is not, I suspect, a coincidence that depressed parts of northern England are also often those parts with the fewest numbers of foreign-born inhabitants. This makes sense: why would you leave Poland to claim benefits in Sunderland? No, you go where the work is. This also makes sense since, as can hardly be stressed too often, emigration is almost by definition an entrepreneurial act.
Actually, the 13 per cent figure is slightly misleading. According to other census questions some 91 per cent of respondents living in England and Wales feel some affinity to Britain, England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland. So the “true” foreign figure is probably closer to 9 per cent of the population than to 13 per cent.
Be that as it may, one wonders where London would be without its foreigners. 37 per cent of Londoners were born outwith the United Kingdom and 24 per cent of the capital’s inhabitants are non-UK nationals. Truly, London is a city apart.
But if London is a law unto itself might that also help account for its abundant prosperity? It is hard not to think that immigrants are attracted by London’s success and that they then make a splendid contribution towards increasing that success. It becomes a kind of win-win situation that, whatever the pressures on local services may be, imposes costs that are dwarfed by the benefits it brings.
London is, these days, the British economy’s greatest engine. It is an engine built in part – and certainly serviced – by immigrant labour. Those workers have to come from somewhere and all the evidence is they won’t come from Merseyside or Tyneside. These are places, mind you, that could do with more immigration too. Not to ‘take’ jobs from the native-born but to help stimulate demand. People are a stimulus too, remember.
Nearly five million folk in England and Wales hold foreign passports. Approximately half of those are owned by citizens from other EU countries. The rest of the world – largely but hardly exclusively from the sub-continent – accounts for the remainder. All this is really quite encouraging. It suggests that, despite the difficulties of recent years, Britain remains an attractive place in which to live, work and thrive. A decline in the number of foreigners coming to the United Kingdom would be very much more troubling than this increase. And this is before one considers the non-negligible gains to these new British residents themselves. Are their lives, their liberties, their prospects of no account at all? I think they are of some account.
It is notable too that London is the part of England in which “Britishness” thrives most. That is, Londoners are more likely to consider themselves “British” than residents of other parts of England and considerably more likely to reject the label “English”. I suspect that has something to do with ethnicity too but it’s also a reminder that Britishness is a big and baggy concept with room enough for almost anyone, no matter what part of this planet they were born to. London is more of an international, global city than an English city but it’s also a very British place that is, if you will, perhaps more British than it is English.
Anyway, these census figures make a good case for immigration not against it. Not, I suppose, that the government will see it in those terms. But then the government’s immigration policy really makes very little sense.
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