We Need to Talk about Immigration

David Coleman, Professor of Demography at Oxford, and Lionel Shriver, prize-winning novelist, discuss the politics of population with Standpoint editor Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson: Demography is not usually thought of as a very sexy subject, but it is more important in some ways than any other, when it comes to considering the destiny of the human race. I’ve brought you two together because you’re both interested in it from completely different backgrounds and perspectives. I don’t think that everybody sees there is a demographic problem. Even many of the politicians and other public figures who do know there is a problem don’t want to talk about it. So this is one important role a magazine like Standpoint can provide, to drag these things out into the open and talk about them. Is it the case that Europe in particular, and perhaps the Western world in general, is literally dying out?

David Coleman: I would say definitely not. But that’s a view which is popular among some of my American friends, who view with a certain element of regretful schadenfreude the descent into triviality of old Europe, with its old-fashioned attitudes, its creaking economy, its inability to reproduce itself, its huge numbers of Muslim immigrants and all the rest.

There are things to be concerned about, certainly. We are entering a new era and Europe is in the forefront of it. But in a sense, Europe is the hope for the rest of the world, in showing what might happen after the population growth over the past 200 years, in terms of a cessation of growth, and a movement into gradual decline in some
areas and gradual growth in others, which I don’t regard as very alarming. Population growth has got to come to an end eventually. It cannot possibly continue at anything like the present rate. It can’t continue at the present rate in England, never mind in tropical Africa where the rates are very much higher and the environment and the population are so much more fragile.

“Europe” is not really a demographic concept because it is enormously variable. France is now at replacement level fertility, Britain is 1.9 at the moment and is expected to be between 1.96 and 1.98 in 2008; it is in a club with Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Ireland and a few others. This is not the road to extinction. Neither do I believe that the low birth rates typical of the southern European countries are likely to stay that low forever, partly because the way we measure the birth rate tends to deflate it incorrectly. I don’t think that the 1.2 or 1.3 children per woman, which this conventional measure gives for southern Europe, is actually going to be realised in due course. It doesn’t take into account the fact that people are postponing their babies and this deflates the measure artificially. It’s not a terribly good measure but there isn’t a perfect one.

Second, some areas of Europe do not live up to the expectations of my overseas friends in going down the demographic plughole. In a number of European countries, the problem is population growth, not population decline. In Britain, the implications of the recent level of international migration and of fertility are a population the size of 77 million by mid-century and about 85 million by 2081 [the end of projection], compared with the 61 million we have today. Now, of course, mid-century and 2081 are an awful long way into the future and even ten years is quite a long time in demography. Nonetheless, that’s the implication of current levels of migration and if those numbers are not going to be realised then something has to happen to the migration rate. That is the most likely area, given that it’s the one most potentially affected by government policies. The death rate or the birth rate, I think, are much less likely to be an important factor.

Finally, I don’t regard population decline as being axiomatically bad. As long as population decline is gentle, then it is probably beneficial, as long as it does come to an end. It’s also inevitable. If the rest of the world is going to claim the same standard of living as we have in the West, there have to be fewer people because there simply aren’t the resources. There is no plausible demographic factor which can alter Europe’s share of the world population going down from about an historical 20 per cent to about seven per cent by 2050.

DJ: Lionel, you’ve been interested in demography all your life, and as a novelist you’ve written about these issues in various fictional and non-fictional forms. What keeps you awake at night?

Lionel Shriver: What keeps me awake at night is the notion that, biologically, there’s no such thing as “overpopulation”. That is, when a species gets to the point that it’s exploited and devastated the resources that it requires to stay alive, then it doesn’t stay alive. With the population biology of other animals, the runaway growth humanity has been experiencing for the last hundred years is fairly typical of what happens when predators are eliminated – and with other species it all ends in tears with a massive die-off. We’re animals, too. If you take a look at the world population graph, it tilts from around 1950 at about a 45 degree angle, and we’re still on that angle. Since I was born, in 1957, the world population has multiplied by over three times. That’s within my lifetime, and I’m old, but I’m not that old.

So when we talk about, say, the limitations on water…David, I’m sure you’ve read Joel Cohen’s book, How Many People Can the Earth Support? Personally, I find that riveting reading. That’s my idea of a page-turner. Cohen’s whole attitude is that there is no absolute answer to that question; it depends on what kind of a lifestyle you want people to maintain. If they’re all vegetarians and somehow you manage to distribute fresh water equally around the planet, then the number’s much higher. But of course it’s doubtful that we’ll all switch over to being vegetarians and it’s more or less physically impossible to distribute fresh water equally around the planet. Which makes the number of people the Earth can support much lower.

The most interesting chapter in that book, for me, is the one on water. That’s where Cohen is willing to use really hard and fast figures about absolute population limits. Even if you allow for the equal distribution of fresh water, which is impossible, he suggests that the most the planet’s water resources can support is about 9.5 billion people. Now, we’re getting perilously close to that number already. As I understand it, it’s a virtual certainty that we’ll reach 9.5 billion by mid-century. So in short order we’re prospectively looking at water wars. We’re looking at conflicts that may not be specifically about water but that are driven by
water. Obviously, water connects with food. In fact, water connects with everything.

So I’m worried in that big-picture way, about everybody, and I guess that’s a good place to start. I’m worried about that “massive die-off”, which could be so horrific that I selfishly pray I’m dead myself before it happens.

Otherwise, a lesser concern of mine is the inexorable migration from populations that are bursting at the seams without the economic or environmental resources to support that population. That population’s got to go somewhere. It’s going to Europe. It’s going to the United States. I’m more concerned about the United States than you are, David, I think.

DJ: David, you have caused controversy occasionally. For example, when you questioned the wisdom of the present government’s policy of open-door immigration. Do you think, as Lionel does, that these things are connected? Are the pressures on resources in the poorer regions of the world inevitably going to cause even greater mass migration to Europe and America? If so, how worried are you about that? What are your main concerns about migration?

DC: I suppose they are essentially that the populations of countries of limited land and resources have a limited capacity, both physically and culturally, to adapt to large numbers of additional people, especially additional people of a very different sort, in terms of their values and attitudes to religion. That capacity is already being strained by immigration, which has accelerated quickly in the past ten years. Lionel must be right in thinking that likely world trends of growth, of increased pressure on resources of every kind, particularly water – I entirely agree with that – exacerbated in decades to come by global warming, are going to lead to greatly increased levels of migration pressure which will be hard to resist. It will present Western countries with a huge dilemma. At the moment, I think one could say that most migration from outside Europe into European countries is of an orderly and potentially controllable fashion.

A lot of the increase in the UK has been ostensibly for purposes of labour via the great expansion of work permits, via an encouragement to students to come to Britain and to stay if they get the qualifications here, and the relaxation of the rules relating to arranged marriage, especially from the Indian subcontinent, by the removal of the Primary Purpose rule in 1997.

So all of these things have led to a substantial increase in migration from about 75,000 in the 1990s, up to 221,000 net inflow over the last year, 2007, for which we have the data. Incidentally, at the moment about half of those immigrants are of European origin and in the future projections they tend to decline to about one-third. We are not talking about people solely from Africa or from Asia or elsewhere: it’s a great mixture of people, some are familiar, others less so. It has not been an uncontrolled flood, except of course for illegal immigration, which does continue at a high but unknown pace, which is substantial.

LS: I always wonder how they come up with those figures.

DC: They are deeply, deeply uncertain.

LS: They’re put forward with enormous certainty.

DC: Are you sure that they are?

LS: Well, I’m familiar with the way that the number of illegal immigrants in the US is constantly quoted as if it’s just a known fact. Now, that number varies all over the place depending on who is using it.

DC: I thought the US census tended to give a range? With a mid-point, rather than a definite figure?

LS: It tends to be quoted as 12.5 million and certainly journalists have been writing about it, I mean, maybe not demographers, but those are not the people that regular people read.

DC: Journalists write short sentences and striking headlines.

LS: Exactly.

DC: The estimate that was published here, of around 480,000, came with an enormous range and variation attached to it. A more recent update has put that a lot higher and one might make some guess from that as to what the flow is, but most migration is orderly even if, in my view, it is all pitched at far too high a level. It is much easier to increase immigration given the pressures that exist and the attractions of the UK. It is much more difficult to shut it down, for all sorts of reasons which are intrinsic to being in a liberal democracy, especially one which is bound up with international conventions on human rights and has a Human Rights Act effective on all its legislation and judicial decisions upon migration, overstay, removals and all the rest. Nonetheless, it can be done and it’s already being nibbled at by the present government, which has obviously realised rather clearly that its migration policy has generated some serious backlash with important potential political consequences. The Conservative opposition has made promises that it will substantially reduce immigration. Whether those promises will ever be realised is a different matter.

LS: Haven’t you noticed how they keep it pretty low down the list? I don’t hear David Cameron talking about immigration much.

DC: This is perfectly true, because it’s part of his desire to generate an image of a caring, reformed conservatism.

LS: Also, it backfired on them.

DC: It is alleged to have done so.

LS: Or that is certainly what they believe.

DJ: But isn’t there a more general problem, not just with the Tories, about talking about this subject?

LS: Yes, there is. I was interested that you, David, used the expression, “people of a different sort”. Well, I knew what you meant.

DC: Yes.

LS: And I’m not taking offence. There are lots of people who would.

DC: Oh, yes, and have.

LS: Immigration has become impossible to talk about partly because of the fact that so many immigrants are “people of a different sort”. So you’re implicitly talking about religion and race at the same time. I was very interested in the fact that when there was that big surge of Eastern Europeans, mostly Poles, coming in, finally it was possible to talk about immigration in Britain. It was not possible to talk about it before. With the Eastern Europeans, everyone was incredibly grateful to be talking about white Christians. Then we could really talk about immigration. How many of these people do we want in here? Aren’t they swelling our neighbourhoods, increasing the housing shortage? Aren’t they clinging to themselves and not assimilating? I go into a Polish grocery and they won’t serve me. There was that story recently. The point is, these immigrants weren’t Muslims and weren’t dark-skinned. So at last it was possible to talk about it.

DJ: We could have this conversation about it.

LS: And there were other people who were saying: you know, these people work really hard. They’re great. They fixed my sink. Yes, there was a sense of relaxation. There were documentaries, far more documentaries about immigration, which talked exclusively about the Eastern European situation, in spite of the fact that Eastern Europeans, statistically, were still a minority of Britain’s immigrants. These documentaries wouldn’t talk about the non-European influx. It was too scary.

DC: I think there is a perfectly reasonable objection to processes being unleashed by government policies oriented to either liberalism, or oriented to labour market needs, or to rectifying deficiencies in the age structure, or any other reason which, without saying so, have the inevitable consequence of radically changing the composition of the population, in respect of its ancestral origins and languages, its religion, its assumptions, its attitudes towards family and values of every kind. It is not that the immigrants’ values and attitudes are necessarily bad, not at all, but they are different from those of the majority population and may be in conflict with the norms and legal expectations that have been built up in societies over a long period of time.

Those projections, which have been made by the eight or so European countries for which projections are available – most of them from official sources, although some also from private academic sources – suggest that by mid-century between 20 and 30 per cent of the population of those countries will be of immigrant origin, by which they mean persons who were either born abroad of foreign origin, or were born in the country in which they’re residing in Europe with one or two foreign parents. In most of the projections, the third generation is assumed to become part of the national population, become Danish or Dutch, which of course reduces the projection. But 20 or 30 per cent encompasses most of these projections by mid-century, increasing more or less in a straight line as a percentage, more than that in younger age groups, less than that in the older age groups. And the UK belongs in that category.

This is not something that the UK government has ever talked about or recognised. But it must realise that it is an inevitable consequence of its current migration policy, in just the same way that it must realise that an increase of the population to 77 million by mid-century and 85 million by 2080 is also an inevitable consequence of this policy, were it to be continued.

LS: I think one of the problems is that the native, majority population’s wish to remain the majority population is a selfish and, in most countries, an ethnically, culturally-based desire and it doesn’t have anything to do with virtue. It’s not necessarily a good thing. That is, I can step back, and I can say, OK, let’s say sometime late this century the US becomes majority Spanish-speaking. What’s wrong with that? Morally, in terms of the greater good, does it matter? Well, probably not. Do I care? Yeah, I probably do.

And therefore I experience in myself a dissonance right there. That’s one reason I’m so interested in this issue, because as a fiction writer I’m fascinated by that dissonance. I’m fascinated by my discomfort with my own discomfort, if you will. When I go back to New York in the summer every year and statistically one out of four adults there does not speak English – I don’t mean, doesn’t speak fluent English, I mean, doesn’t speak any English – my experience of walking around the city where I’m from is of being inundated by foreigners. What’s wrong with that? Well, nothing really, nothing should be wrong with that. Except that I live in Britain as an immigrant myself – that’s another emotional complication -and I never quite lose this sense here of being a visitor. I know it’s been more than 20 years, but I’m always conscious that this is not my country. So that when I go back to New York, I want to go home, I want to have the feeling of going home. But increasingly – though of course it’s always been a city of immigrants etc, etc – there are parts of New York where nobody speaks my language and I am actively unwelcome. So I hardly feel “at home”. I start feeling resentful.

I have a very hard time reconciling that resentment with my more liberal views – my tolerance, my enjoyment of people from many different cultures. I think this morally conflicted sensation is very common, in both Europe and the United States. One of the reasons that we’re still not comfortable talking about this issue is that we need to address something emotional that’s going on. It’s not just statistical.

That’s why demography is so riveting. It isn’t about numbers. It’s about people and it’s about the way people feel about each other. Whether we like it or not, this species is political. It would be nice if we could think of each other as one big, loving human family, but that’s not how we think about ourselves or each other. We belong to groups and that’s not going to change. We have a sense of who is “us”, and who is “them”. It may be regrettable but factions are part of the way we think, and part of the way we feel. One of the things that’s happening in parts of Europe and in a lot of the US is that we’re crossing what I think is a mathematically identifiable tipping point where we have strained the local population’s natural tolerance, natural welcome, natural enjoyment of the interesting and new. Suddenly, what they’re experiencing instead is akin to invasion. It’s a sense of being colonised, of being taken over. Suddenly, your home is not your home, it’s been taken from you. You don’t have a sense of having interesting visitors anymore. They’ve moved into your house.

DC: I think you’ve put your finger much more eloquently on the crucial point than I could possibly have done. This dissonance and difficulty is one which I share. And one of the biggest problems that I have is working out, to my own satisfaction, a morally and politically satisfactory reason for objecting to the trends that I object to. And it is one which many people regard as being an axiomatically improper attitude to take and really not part of a respectable dialogue. It’s certainly difficult and I think that’s one of the reasons why governments don’t talk about it and when politicians do raise it…

LS: It’s too easy to put your foot in it.

DC: Yes, because they’re human like the rest of us, they will use some turn of phrase or some language…

LS: The wrong sort, or the other sort.

DC: Which will label them as being a morally reprehensible person and all kinds of flak will be directed against them. But there are a number of ways in which one can address this. One of them is to fall back on the concept of democracy. There’s a democratic objection to these things that are happening without the people being consulted, because they do affect so many people in their daily lives and change the concept of local society and community. And they ought to be consulted.

If people agreed that this was OK, then there would be no further discussion of the matter. If it were the case that the general population of America felt that it didn’t matter were the America population to become primarily Spanish-speaking sometime in the next century, then it would certainly not be for anyone like me to say this is undesirable. But as far as I know, they haven’t been asked this question. And I think that people do need to be asked it in just the same way, to choose perhaps a less relevant example, as if governments proposed to hand over important portions of their control over national affairs to a different body, like the European Union for example. Then the people need to be consulted. If they agree, fine.

LS: Actually, that’s a very good parallel, because one of the complications of immigration for democratic countries is that it involves a transfer of power. After all, if these people are naturalised, which ultimately most of them will be, they get the vote. In the US and Britain their children automatically get the vote. Therefore you’re handing over political power, not just space, not just a job. In the US that’s quite evident because there are whole states where you could never get elected to office now and say anything negative about immigration because Hispanics control the state. Certainly they control the swing vote.

DC: This is becoming important in the UK as well, with some ministers with important Muslim populations feeling really quite constrained as to what they can do or say. Jack Straw’s comment about the unsuitability of wearing veils by Muslims was not helpful to him, given that he has a very high proportion of Muslims in his constituency. It was a brave thing to do, but I think it’s rather an exceptional thing to do.

DJ: David, do you think we can give a name to what is happening now? I notice in one of your articles you talk about it as a transition. What does that mean in layman’s language?

DC: I tend to regard a transition in demographic terms as being an important, once-for-all, irreversible change from one pattern of demographic behaviour to a different one. So the first demographic transition is conventionally considered to be the process whereby death rates changed from a traditional expectation of life at birth of not more than 35 for the previous 100,000 years of human existence, and increased up to 80-plus and still rising in all developed countries in the course of the past 150 years. This is followed by a reduction in the birth rate from between six and eight children to one or two. Then there is an intervening period of rapid population growth, eventually reaching stability, except for migration, or even actual decline. The pattern is being followed in Third World countries as well 50 or 100 years later. That’s the first demographic transition.

The second one – ot wholly accepted by all demographers – is a notion that since the 1960s there’s been a radical change in values and attitudes towards a much more individualistic, post-materialist viewpoint, which puts the individual’s self-realisation on a much higher plane than the older concepts of duties to God, Queen and country, parents and all the rest of it. This leads to a radical change of behaviour in many areas and of attitudes in many areas – in demographic terms manifested by a retreat from marriage, a much wider acceptance of homosexuality, of abortion, of immigrants and a further drop in the birth rate. I doubt the further drop in the birth rate, but nonetheless a radical change in behaviour and in norms has occurred. Proponents of the second demographic transition concept insist that this is an intrinsic property of modern, educated, developed, rich societies with functioning welfare states, and will become universal. The universality of the transition seems to me to be one of the criteria for something we call a transition in demographic terms.

And the third transition, which is my own invention, is the notion that, having radically altered the birth and death rates, having radically altered the parameters relating to living arrangements and the circumstances in which children are produced and people live together, the last thing you can change is the actual population composition itself. Formerly relatively homogeneous populations, which were in the vanguard of the first two demographic transitions, are experiencing the third one of a major transition in who actually lives in those societies and what the composition of that society is. I doubt, though, that the third transition can become universal, because the countries further down the line will not be able to experience these changes for all sorts of reasons: partly because their populations are too big, for India and China, and partly because in the long run they will run out of immigrants, so they’ll run out of potential people to do to them what is happening in Europe and in the US at the moment.

DJ: I just wanted to throw out the Canadian writer Mark Steyn…

LS: There are a lot of people who want to throw him out.

DJ: Mark Steyn found himself being prosecuted in Canada, for quoting a Norwegian imam called Mullah Krekar, who said in 2006: “We’re the ones who’ll change you. Just look at the development in Europe, where the number of Muslims is expanding like mosquitoes. Our way of thinking will prove more powerful than yours.” Now this is obviously explosive language and views. Steyn wasn’t endorsing them but simply saying, “That’s how some radical imams see the situation.” Do we think that it makes a difference if a particular group is not keen to adopt the norms and values and language and everything else of the indigenous population but wants to change them?

LS: I don’t think you could persuasively argue that even Muslim immigration is driven primarily by a political ambition to take over the host country.

DJ: No, I’m not suggesting it is. But it is the view of some leaders of some Muslim communities that in the long run they will change the system, once they’re here.

LS: Well, it does change because they’re here, whether or not there’s an organised effort to do so. You change the nature of a country by your very presence and your high proportion of the population. But what I’ve noticed is that when you get a quorum of a foreign community in Britain or the US they do adapt. They do assimilate in terms of learning the language of equal opportunities, and their rights. So even if you’re dealing with large numbers of illegals, gradually you get a situation where to whatever degree it’s still a disadvantage to be an immigrant – after all, being an outsider is generally a disadvantage – it makes them angry. It makes immigrants very angry, the sense that they’re not being given as much as everyone around them. Like, when some Guatemalan is fixing something in my husband’s house in Brooklyn…well, I can just feel a certain amount of resentment. You see, the resentment works both ways.

DC: How do you perceive this?

LS: It’s a look in the eye. It’s a certain set of questions, making assumptions about where our money is from. It’s just a feeling I get off immigrants doing crap jobs for white homeowners: “You’re spoilt, you’re lazy, you didn’t earn this. Big deal you were born here, so you’re lucky, but I work harder than you do, I deserve what you have and I don’t have it, that’s not fair.” It’s a feeling that gets writ large in the US. Remember that huge march of close to a million immigrants in Los Angeles, demanding better pay and citizenship? It was interesting because I thought, politically, it backfired on native-born Americans. The sheer volume, the sheer number of people who came out who were quite happy and willing to say, “Yeah, I’m illegal”, and yet nobody in authority does anything, none of these protesters gets arrested or deported. All these people are here supposedly “illegally”, and yet they feel that they have rights and that’s my point. That our rights, the Western rights culture, is one of the first things that we give to immigrants. One of the first things immigrants learn is what they’re entitled to and how to use the system to get what they need. And since they need a great deal, since they’re generally going to be poor, they figure it out really fast.

DC: Yes, the revolution in attitudes which goes under the heading of this so-called second demographic transition, of much more openness and tolerance – which has many attractive features of course – goes hand-in-hand with a radical erosion of confidence in the values and traditions of one’s own society, certainly in Europe, perhaps less so in America. A large number of important people no longer see their country or their society as being any kind of world leader or even perhaps an ideal for anybody else. They are uncertain about the propriety of the way their country operates and they are radically uncertain about their religious faith. That’s one of the marked differences, in Europe
anyway, between the majority population on the one hand, and immigrants on the other. Religion has ebbed very radically among the ordinary British population, whereas observance in all sorts of ways, of the edicts of the religion and also of attendance at services, particularly among Muslims, is very strong. The rate of lapsing is quite weak in Muslims and quite strong still in most of the Christian denominations, except some of the black churches, which are growing.

The lack of confidence and faith, if you like, on one side, is being matched by people from a more traditional mindset, some of whom are deeply unaffected by the second demographic transition concepts of individualism, tolerance, openness and all that. That is an important factor in the balance between what’s demanded and what’s given, and is partly responsible, of course, for the development of multicultural policies and attitudes.

LS: We’re constantly told that immigrants “do the jobs that natives don’t want”. Fine. But if you look at that a little harder, that means that what you want is to bring in a large group of poorly educated, low-skilled workers to do all your dirty work. Especially in Europe, most of these people are going to be the “other sort”, therefore recognisable, both to others and to each other. You’re talking about establishing an underclass, a recognisable underclass which is distinct in religion and race, and that just sounds absolutely deadly to me. After all, because immigrants do adopt many of the values of the host society, that means they’re conscious of being on the bottom. They’re conscious of the fact that you’ve brought them in to do the work that you think you’re too good for, and they get angry. That’s why immigration is politically radicalising, because who wants to be that underclass? We’re always talking about the importance of bettering yourself, and they’re supposed to better themselves, too. (But I’m not sure who’s going to clean the toilets of the immigrants who do better themselves.) The point is, why seek that structure in your society? Why would you want that? Is it not poisonous?

DC: Totally poisonous and very difficult to understand in terms of the attitudes of those who favour immigration. On the one hand, those who favour migration and open borders tend to take a very liberal egalitarian view of humankind, not unreasonably. On the other hand, one of the reasons they advance to justify the need for migration is precisely what you’ve been describing; what amounts to, although they wouldn’t say so, the perpetuation of an ethnic and visible underclass to do jobs that the natives won’t do. And that’s not, incidentally, a proposition which ought to go without being criticised, because in the past the only people who did those jobs were the natives. In those few countries where immigrants are still relatively few and far between, in parts of northern Europe, the locals still do them, and in some countries even where there are lots of immigrants the locals still do them.

But the answer to a shortage of labour is to improve conditions and improve wages. If that means that people who sweep streets get paid as much as teachers, then that is a proper recognition of the fact that it is not a very attractive job and needs to be compensated for that purpose. In fact, I’ve swept the streets myself, although I’m not doing it any more, or not yet anyway. And one of the reasons why this gets perpetuated, once it’s started, is that once jobs get labelled as immigrant jobs, then for all sorts of obvious reasons, including those of prejudice, the natives don’t want to do them. They regard these jobs as being of a lower status, and it is quite difficult to reverse this shift.

But this was not inevitable, and it is one of a number of consequences of the government taking the path of least effort as far as the recruitment of labour is concerned, finding out what the employers want and letting them do it, because it’s good for the economy. In some respects it is good for the economy, in the short run, but in the long run it is not, because of course one is perpetuating jobs which are paid at a low level, below that which can support independent living. This means that either those people who do these jobs have to live in squalid conditions of overcrowding, which temporary migrants can put up with, sleeping six to a room, because they’re only there for six months, as is the case with some of these European migrants, or when they settle and they still have these low-grade jobs they will require tax relief and social housing and other sorts of subsidy to keep going. And therefore the low wages which the employers are prepared to pay them are topped up to a living wage by taxes, essentially.

LS: I thought that was one of the most important points that your article in the Population and Development Review made. You documented the public subsidy for low-wage labour very well.

DC: It’s straight out of Malthus, because he objected to all sorts of things on the basis that it was subsidising employers, and they wouldn’t have to pay subsistence wages.

DJ: Socialists would perhaps think that’s a good thing, because it means that the state gets more powerful. Inevitably, perhaps, our conversation has revolved around immigration, rather than all the other aspects of demography. We haven’t touched very much on things like fertility and ageing and all these other things. Lionel, do you have any thoughts about the future? Do you think this is a society which you can look forwards to, and in which you think the next generation will feel comfortable, or do you sense a lot of foreboding?

LS: I certainly have foreboding about a greater social, as it’s called, “incohesion” – that’s a very soft word for what we’re really talking about. I think government doesn’t ever take on board the question of what is the goal here, what kind of a country do we want? It’s all short term: we need to fill labour shortages, we need to top up the support ratio. So that’s my political concern: we need to have a policy. I don’t think most Western governments have population policies. They don’t know what kind of countries they’re trying to create. Nothing makes more difference, in terms of what your country is like, than demography, because a country is essentially its people.

On a more social level…you know that expression, “own your feelings”? It’s a creepy expression, but it essentially means other people giving you permission, and you giving yourself permission, to feel what you really feel. It’s granting your emotion its integrity, like an object. It is, it’s a fact, so we have to deal with it. Well, I would like native populations to be allowed to “own their feelings”.

In narrative terms, the immigrant and the immigrant’s story are intrinsically more appealing and more sympathetic than the story of the native. The immigrant is a seeker, on a quest. His story has an arc, and he’s initially at a disadvantage, being an outsider and not knowing how things work. The native just sits there, not wanting the immigrant to move in next door. His emotions are unattractive, shameful. But I would like us to deal with the feelings that native-born people have of having their generosity strained in a way that isn’t totally judgemental. We have to take the condemnation out of the argument, if we’re going to have the argument at all. We can’t immediately knee-jerk and say: “OK, you don’t want a lot of Muslims in your country, so you’re just a xenophobe and a racist, and you’re a bad person, and you probably belong to the BNP.” If you keep telling people they don’t have a right to feel the way they feel, they will end up in the BNP.

DC: That very eloquent expression of my opinion is much better than I could have expressed it myself – it is a great tribute to the value of someone with literary talent taking an interest in my, as you say, Daniel, unsexy statistical subject.

LS: It’s the best subject in the world.

DC: How nice of you to say so. There is, of course, a partly parallel story where the sympathies are reversed. That is to say, when populations move into the traditional areas occupied by people enjoying a traditional way of life, with their own norms and values and religions, and find these, and indeed the physical environment in which they live,
being altered by newcomers.

I’m thinking, for example, of the transplantation of people from Java into West Irian, into the western part of Papua New Guinea, of the movement of Brazilian loggers and ranchers into the territory of the Yanomama, of the Trio and the other populations of simple societies in the Amazon Basin.

There, our sympathies are almost automatically with the locals. Now, of course, the situation there is in reverse, in the sense that the locals are the poor people, and the ones coming in, although also poor, are not as poor as they are and are technically much more advanced. Nonetheless, the notion that their way of life is without question worth preserving, and that they have an entitlement to preserve it, is accepted, I think, without demur. But the notion of conservation of a British way of life, which after all was always changing anyway somewhat, is one which perhaps you might have to think about. I think it may be a valid argument.

But I would like to end by saying that we were steered, or steered ourselves, quite specifically into problems, right from the beginning, and we have stayed with problems all the time.

I don’t regard demography as being exclusively about problems. I don’t even regard immigration as being exclusively about problems – far from it. It is after all, without question, an inevitable and desirable consequence of the free-ish movement of people between populations and societies at peace with each other, trading with each other, in a harmonious world. Immigration causes problems when it becomes very large, irrespective of who the immigrants are; when it takes place without the sanction or even the consultation of those expected to receive those people; when any objections which they may raise are denounced as being morally unacceptable; and particularly where it is of a kind that will make them feel somewhat strangers in their own areas, to such an extent that they in many cases simply move out or possibly move abroad.

LS: There was an article in the New York Times about six years ago about an enclave of Mexico, on the West coast. It’s been inundated by Americans, buying up property, and the Mexicans hate it.

DC: Fascinating. Like Brits in the Dordogne.

LS: Yes, it’s a rare little place where the traditional direction of immigration has been reversed. You’d think that Mexicans, of all people, would be tolerant. But no, the Americans are much resented, and it’s exactly the same emotion, but it’s reversed. I mean, this resentment of being taken over that I’ve been talking about: it’s universal. It’s not a Western thing; it’s a human thing.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"