What Will Georgian England Look Like?

Our future King’s dominion will be unrecognisable but the political class has not yet come to terms with its fast-changing landscape

Features UK Politics

Nothing cheers the nation like the birth of a royal baby who will one day be monarch. At such a moment, the hard-hearted and cynical among us say that a baby is just another baby, no matter how royal he or she is. But when the Duchess of Cambridge produced an heir, millions of Britons ignored the sceptics and took pleasure in the story of the renewal of the Windsor family. This year a great institution, which two decades ago was in deep trouble, has been infused once again with new life.

A few weeks ago, four generations of one family were on display when the Queen was pictured with her son (Charles), her grandson (William) and her great-grandson (Prince George) at the latter’s christening. The gathering was the philosopher Edmund Burke’s idea of intergenerational connection, continuity, obligation and gradual constitutional evolution, made flesh. More simply, after the gloom of the financial crisis, the worst economic downturn in seven decades and the squeeze on living standards, this and the other images from that day were simply nice pictures taken at a moment when the country was in the mood to be cheered up. Newspapers rushed to produce commemorative supplements about the new arrival.

But when the moment comes, what kind of England will young Prince George inherit via his great-grandmother, his grandfather and his father? What kind of country will exist when he leaves school in 18 years’ time, or when he ascends to the throne, perhaps five decades hence?

England is changing, dramatically and rapidly. Thanks to migration, a new England is being created before our eyes. I say England, rather than the United Kingdom or Great Britain, quite deliberately. It is England that is absorbing most of the enormous number of immigrants, as opposed to the rest of the UK. It is England that is experiencing a demographic and social revolution. 

There has been immigration to Scotland, where it has long been fashionable among smug members of the dominant liberal elite to think in terms of moral superiority over the English, on the grounds that the Scots are supposedly somehow more tolerant (which is nonsense). Wander through Edinburgh or Glasgow and you will see more in the way of faces of different colour and hear more Eastern European voices than once would have been the case. But the inflow has been smaller than it has been in England.

This divergence may help explain the interest of some Scots in separation. This is not because the Scots fear an overspill across the border. On the contrary, the Scottish government, which is putting independence to the vote in a referendum in September 2014, wants to attract a larger share of the migrants who come to the UK. But England is becoming harder to recognise as a neighbour. Its politics is fragmenting and moving in curious and unsettling new directions. UKIP is on the rise in England, not in Scotland, on the back of concern about migration and the loss of sovereignty involved in membership of the European Union. In England, the Conservatives — long all but wiped from the map north of the border — are struggling to contain the threat of Nigel Farage. Viewed from Scotland, the new England can look strange, alien, other. Sometimes it can look that way from England too.

An astute observer of the state of the United Kingdom, someone who works in a very senior capacity in business on both sides of the border, put it to me like this recently:

You have to understand that culturally Scotland has stayed largely the same in the last 20 years or so. The Scots like the idea that because they have a new parliament they are experiencing enormous change, when they aren’t. Socially and ethnically Scotland is still more or less homogenous, with small pockets of immigration. In the same period England, or large parts of England particularly in the South, has been transformed in all sorts of confusing ways. There are new populations. Socially it is explosive, exciting and worrying for a lot of people. Scotland is the same while England has changed. 

The figures confirm his story. While Scotland has had immigration, and so has Wales, it is outstripped by the scale of what is going on in England and the sheer weight of numbers of arrivals settling in the already most populated areas. The population of Scotland was 5.3 million in the 2011 census, an increase of 5 per cent on 2001. Not all of that is attributable to migration. Scots are living longer and the number of over 65s has increased sharply. The population of Wales also rose by 5 per cent to 3.1 million. Yet the rise in England was higher: 7 per cent, taking the population to 53 million. In one decade that represents an increase in England’s population of 3.4 million people, equivalent to England swallowing a new Wales, and some more. About half of it was due to immigration.

London had the biggest overall increase, with 850,000 new residents. When combined with a surge in round-the-year tourism, this has had a disorientating effect. Travel on a bus or train in the capital is now all but guaranteed to be undertaken to the accompaniment  of a cacophony of foreign voices babbling into mobile devices in various languages. Young Russians in particular seem to spend their time on the move engaged in perpetual, loud telephone conversation with other Russians.

According to a recent estimate by the Office for National Statistics, the UK’s population will rise by another 10 million by 2037, with around half of that increase attributable to immigration. With London and its environs turning into a super-city, a city state floating off from the rest of the UK, it seems highly likely that the South will continue to attract a greater proportion of those coming here. This can only intensify the strain on infrastructure and the pressure on land as there will be a need for millions of new homes.

The country’s politicians do not much like talking about any of this, beyond making periodic Theresa May-style noises about crackdowns on welfare tourism and controlling borders. There is about to be another wave of immigration when restrictions are lifted on arrivals from Romania and Bulgaria next month, although it is difficult to estimate how many will come. Migration Watch, the think tank run by former diplomat Sir Andrew Green, estimates that it could in the end amount to as many as 250,000.

The government can do nothing about it, there can be no “crackdown”, unless the Prime Minister decides before Christmas to take radical action and unilaterally declare that he will refuse to lift the restrictions. The reaction from the European Union would be off the scale in diplomatic terms. The EU knows that legally the UK and other countries are boxed in by the treaties they have signed. Unrestricted free movement of peoples is the first commandment of the EU, carved in tablets of stone and handed down from on high whether voters in individual countries approve or not.

In anticipation of the next influx, the familiar routines are being acted out in parliament and Whitehall. Those who speak out and warn of potential tensions, as Labour’s former Home Secretary David Blunkett did last month, are rubbished and denounced as xenophobes. There is a certain irony here. This is what the Labour leadership used to do to those who dared to issue warnings a decade ago about the last round of immigration. 

To their credit, some of those involved back then are attempting at last, manfully, to process their guilt. Last month, Jack Straw, the former Home Secretary under the last Labour government, made an admission: “One spectacular mistake in which I participated (not alone) was in lifting the transitional restrictions on the Eastern European states like Poland and Hungary which joined the EU in mid-2004.”

The Home Office statisticians had estimated that only a few thousand Poles or Hungarians would want to come to the UK. In the event they came in their hundreds of thousands.

“Lots of red faces, mine included,” says Straw now.

“Lots of red faces”, is a rather mild way of describing the results of Straw’s miscalculation. More than half a million Poles have come here, and Polish has replaced Welsh as the UK’s second most common language. On one level it is entertaining watching these gyrations by those who at the time would not listen when opponents warned them about the scale of what was coming. On another level it is utterly maddening. In the middle of the last decade, around the time of the 2005 UK general election for example, those who dared to voice worries were smeared as racists and treated with disdain by broadcasters.

But, Bulgaria and Romania apart, complaining about this is beside the point. It is too late. The immigration has already happened, past tense. Peter Hitchens put it well, writing in the Mail on Sunday earlier this year: “The greatest mass migration in our history has taken place. The newcomers are lawfully here. They have the jobs, live in the houses, use the NHS. Their children are in the schools. Come to that, they are paying tax.”

Hitchens is right. An argument about whether or not the bulk of the newcomers should be here is increasingly irrelevant. Those who are not illegal migrants are here lawfully. They are raising families. Roots are being put down. 

That being the case, it is curious that there is so little interest from the political parties in who these people are and what they want for themselves and their families. In any other business, the new arrivals might be seen as potential customers to be studied and wooed. Might the millions of new arrivals be tempted to vote, and if so which way?

On this the parties are incurious. They seem not much interested in the subject. Earlier this year when I raised it with a veteran Tory campaigner who is close to the Prime Minister, he waved away the question about immigrants: “They don’t vote, they won’t vote. They’re not interested.”

Some noises have emerged from Tory headquarters that suggest there will be, in the dreaded modern phrase, “outreach” to immigrants. But the thinking seems to be in its earliest stages. Someone close to Ed Miliband also agreed that it was an interesting area, and that he would think about it. He is still thinking.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that the parties are being slow here. This immigration has happened so rapidly and on such an enormous scale that understandably it is taking people time to catch up and to work out the implications. Equally, that is true in academia. At the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, there is already an impressive body of research and analysis assembled. But Dr Scott Blinder, who leads the team at the Observatory, acknowledges that some areas of study are only just getting under way. “It takes some time for people to recognise that this is an important subject and to work out how to study it. And the data takes time to accumulate.”

Blinder is a political scientist interested in the impact of migration on voting behaviour. The complication is that not all immigrants can vote, and some may not even want to. Those who have arrived from Eastern Europe can vote in local and European elections, although they cannot participate in general elections. It can take up to six years to go through settlement and to get British citizenship. As Blinder says, if they can do everything else bar vote in general elections, many immigrants from within the EU might conclude that they are not missing out on much and decide it is not worth becoming British, but still choose to stay here for work.

Indeed, as yet very few Poles are opting for naturalisation. This is despite the establishment of huge new Polish communities in places such as Colchester, where the Catholic churches have had a new lease of life and services in Polish have been laid on. But in 2011 only 1,863 Poles in the entirety of the UK became British.

However, as Blinder observes, the Poles and other Eastern Europeans who arrived after 2004 are having children who will have full citizenship rights. In Boston, Lincolnshire, more than 10 per cent of the population and 62 per cent of those at school are from Eastern Europe. The first of those children will be eligible to vote in a general election early in the next decade. “These kids won’t be migrants, but they will be the children of migrants,” says Blinder. This raises fascinating questions about assimilation and how different their outlook will be. “There is good reason to think they might be distinctive electorally. Look at ethnic minorities,” says Blinder. Ethnic minorities are more likely to vote Left.

Simultaneously, huge numbers of non-EU immigrants are opting for naturalisation. In 2011 a total of 177,878 became British citizens. India was top with 26,290 and Pakistan was second on 17,641. The other countries in the top ten were Nigeria, the Philippines, China, Iraq, Iran, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and South Africa. The total figure for 2011 was not untypical. Commonwealth nationals resident in Britain can vote in domestic elections without naturalising but nonetheless, over a decade or two, an enormous number of immigrants will have earned the right to vote. 

As Paul Collier makes clear in his new book, Exodus (Oxford, £20), these changes are bound to have a serious cultural impact and it is daft to pretend otherwise.

Yet this need not automatically benefit the Left. If the Conservative party could make a clear appeal based on the themes of hard work, self-reliance and interdependence, it might win over migrants and their children, as well as resonate with indigenous voters who are attracted by similarly aspirational themes.

It would certainly be a mistake to presume that migrants who are ambitious enough to cross continents, or leave behind established communities in their homelands, in search of self-improvement, are here first of all for the welfare and public services, although they do consume those services as well pay tax. The experience so far suggests that the overwhelming majority are extremely determined to work. The Poles are so productive and diligent that they put many of the natives to shame. Enter a branch of any upmarket sandwich outlet, or visit a pub in London, and you are highly unlikely to be served by someone born here. You are dealt with, efficiently and often with a smile, by an immigrant.

There is scope for cultural confusion, of course. Standing with friends at the bar of an old, proper pub in the City recently I suffered a communication failure with an Italian barmaid who may have been new. She explained: “There is lager, and there is bitter. Light and fizzy, or dark.” I attempted to explain that there is something called pale ale, which is proper beer but lighter in colour. She shook her head slowly: “There is lager, and there is bitter.” (She may have had a point as pale ale is not widely available on tap.)

Far more serious downsides are apparent, not least in terms of the impact on the younger part of the existing population. The UK’s economy is recovering strongly, yet the country is carrying youth unemployment of around 20 per cent. Even though official figures suggest that this figure is now falling slightly as the economy revives, it represents a criminal waste of human capacity. Young Britons are losing the competition with migrants for jobs, let down by poor education, welfarism and the tyranny of low expectations. They are unable to keep up. 

Those youth unemployment statistics help explain the rise of UKIP. The party’s leader, Nigel Farage, taps into a rich seam of discontent. He asks: how can it be that a country whose own youngsters cannot find work is allowing foreign labour to stream in and undercut wages?

It is a good question, but again it is too late. Short of the kind of lunatic and inhumane mass repatriation which would never be contemplated, there is no serious prospect of those who are here disappearing, particularly when the UK economy is forging ahead of the rest of Europe and there are employment opportunities. We are going to have to continue to find ways of living alongside each other.

The better question — for leaders who want to win elections and for those of us who want to live in an ordered society — is what might unite rather than divide the residents of the new England.

Some politicians have tried unsuccessfully to come up with an answer, although it is generally considered in a purely British context, partly because of the current focus on whether or not Scotland will leave the United Kingdom. While I hope fervently that the Union survives, even if it does, England needs a new settlement.

The Scots seem set to get new powers for the devolved parliament, even if the country votes against full separation. In Edinburgh, the Scottish leadership class is convinced that with more devolution it will get full control of the tax system north of the border, but keep the generous UK welfare system. This incendiary proposal is likely to be highly unpopular with taxpayers south of the border. In such circumstances, answering the English question becomes ever more urgent. Proper constitutional recognition for England is long overdue, and an end should be put to the outrageous practice in which MPs from Scotland and Wales vote on legislation that affects only England.

As Prime Minister, the Scot Gordon Brown was determined to avoid such matters and he sought to counter the rise of Englishness and Scottish nationalism by trumpeting the idea of intrinsic “British values”. I am not convinced that this concept is much use. There are national characteristics or tendencies, of course. But pretty quickly on Brown’s measure you got down to a wish-list of the most desirable human attributes — tolerance, fairness, kinship, charity, and so on, that most civilised nations would claim they embody at their best. 

Surely, in England’s case, unique institutions, such as parliament, the legal system and the monarchy are far more useful? They are valuable manifestations of the English experience which immigrants could come to cherish. In this way Prince George and his family are much more than mere newspaper fodder. They are the indispensable embodiment of continuity and national common feeling.

It will take an unusual and gifted leader to give the emerging new England practical expression. The population will be more diverse than would have seemed possible or sensible just a few decades ago. England may still have Scotland and Wales attached, in a much altered Union, or it may not. Soon it may even be outside the European Union.

On these pages last year I floated the idea, with some reservations, that Boris Johnson might have it in him to do extraordinary things in the field of national leadership. Might Boris, a man of Turkish, Swiss and German descent and both American and British nationality, be the perfect leader for this new England?