A very early official estimate of the UK population suggests it was 67.1 million in mid-2020, up by 300,000 on 2019, and the smallest percentage increase since 2003. There was a net outflow of people when the pandemic struck and, of course, the significant loss of life. It was originally thought that the calendar year 2020 would see the first drop in population since the Second World War. That now looks unlikely but it will be the slowest growth in population for many years.
What is the economic impact of this? An assessment this week from the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) contained some of the strongest arguments for a liberal immigration regime I have seen. The government’s new visa arrangements for migrants from the rest of the EU, described in the report as “bureaucratic and expensive”, will clearly deter people from coming.
“Immigration is a key engine for growth,” it said, and less of it will mean lower growth both in overall and per capita terms. It will also mean higher taxes for the rest of the population because of the loss of the net contribution to the public finances of migrant workers.
This is also the verdict of the Office for Budget Responsibility, the official fiscal watchdog, and other experts.
The CEBR makes the interesting observation that “speculative immigrants” often make the biggest contribution; people who came to the UK with no clear idea of what career path they would follow but ended up being highly successful. You cannot filter these people out with a clunky points-based system. Easing immigration rules for the already successful misses the point.
The CEBR report is no “remainer” lament. Though written by Kay Neufeld, it is strongly endorsed by Doug McWilliams, who backed Brexit but does not believe it should do the UK more harm than good. His big theme is “the flat white economy”, which details the prominent role immigrants play in digital start-ups and the creative sector. As he has described it, migrants raise productivity not only for themselves, but also for their co-workers by increasing creativity, the raw material of the digital economy.
I do not think his position is different, or should be, from many other Brexit supporters. They insisted that it was never about reducing immigration but self-determination, and now it should surely be time to put that to the test.
Brexit supporters wanted to take back control of Britain’s borders, which meant ending free movement of people. But you can take back control and still shift immigration policy in a liberal direction, particularly when you have a prime minister whose own attitude to immigration is a liberal one. A more liberal regime, which would put the UK on the front foot in future negotiations with the EU, does not mean replicating freedom of movement. Rights would be more limited and controls would still exist, just not as onerous as now.
The government, to its credit, is adopting a liberal approach to immigration from Hong Kong by giving the 5.4 million of its residents who hold British National (Overseas) status, 70 per cent of its population, the right to come to the UK and embark on the path to citizenship.
This has been done, as far as I can see, with zero backlash. The Hongkongers who come to the UK, and it is officially estimated that about 300,000 will do so, will benefit the economy and society. Immigration, more generally, has slipped right down the list of concerns among voters, polls show.
It may be, of course, that for some people Brexit was all about stopping foreigners from the rest of Europe coming here, and that the Tories have won support with their “Australian-style” points-based system even though it is damaging the economy. But there is no evidence that immigration was a factor in last week’s Tory election successes, in fact the opposite. And sometimes governments should just do what is best for the country.