Skip to content

UK population statistics – taking the football out of the attic

October 22, 2019

With exquisite timing given this week’s Brexit shenanigans in Parliament, the London Times has chosen to run a scare story about immigration on today’s front page. It quotes the projection by the Office of National Statistics that the UK’s population will grow by 3 million in the next decade.

Underneath the headline it states that “Immigration fuels a ‘staggering’ rise in numbers”.

The report was released yesterday, so the Times can’t be accused of timing its story to coincide with, or reinforce, Boris Johnson’s efforts to get his Brexit legislation through Parliament in time for the current leaving deadline of 31 October.

But it’s worth noting that the inflammatory use of ‘staggering’ comes from Migration Watch UK, an anti-immigration pressure group. Another group, Population Matters, points out that a 3 million increase in population over a decade amounts to an increase in required infrastructure and public services equivalent to three Birminghams.

Now I’ve long argued – as have many others – that one of the causes of the Brexit vote in 2016 was the failure of the government over the past couple of decades to invest in the schools, hospitals and other facilities necessary to support the growing population. People felt they were losing out, and blamed the newcomers, the immigrant population, for deteriorating services. No matter that the vast majority of immigrants paid their way in taxes and national insurance contributions, it was their fault. And, despite the fact that a significant minority of immigrants came from non-EU countries, it was the European Union’s fault for letting them in. Not ours, it seems.

I’m as concerned as anyone at the prospect of what seems like a runaway growth in Britain’s population. But we should bear in mind two things.

First, our rise in population has not come at the expense of the employment prospects of the non-immigrant (or should we say, in Home Office-speak, settled) workforce. Employment levels have remained at a level far higher than in the seventies and eighties, despite the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. It’s true that wages have stagnated, and a higher proportion of the workforce is now employed in the so-called gig economy, many of them on the minimum wage. But workers coming from the EU have simply responded to the economic opportunities. And the consequences of their choosing not to come can already be seen in the orchards of Britain, where millions of apples lie unpicked.

The second point goes back to the original source of the Times article – the ONS population projection. Here’s a quotation from the summary:

The UK population growth rate is slower than in the 2016-based projections; the projected population is 0.4 million less in mid 2028 and 0.9 million less in mid 2043.

But the report continues with a huge proviso:

National population projections do not attempt to predict the impact of political circumstances such as Brexit.

The Times appears to be ignoring the point that population projections have gone down since 2016. Project Fear in reverse, you might think. It also fails to mention that the projection takes no account of the effects of Brexit, no-deal or otherwise. In other words, the projections are less scary than they were in the year of the EU referendum, and in any event, if we leave the European Union, all bets are off. Why? Because Brexit, whichever version we adopt, will slow down the economy and most likely slow down immigration.

So why are we being urged to take note of these ‘staggering’ projections? Could it be because The Times wants to warn us what will happen if Parliament fails to back Boris Johnson’s deal? Until recently the paper adopted a relatively neutral stance over Brexit. It had columnists who have argued from either side of the debate – Iain Martin for Leave, for example, and Matthew Parris for Remain. But I’ve not been able to detect any obvious slant in the news coverage.

By contrast, it’s worth noting that the BBC, so often accused of bias by both sides of the Brexit divide, provides a more thoughtful analysis in this report.

One thing my media training – which I underwent many years ago – taught me was to look at sources and examine the motivations behind stories presented as news. In this case, it’s pretty clear to me that The Times, though far more subtly than, for example, the Daily Mail, is softening us up to accept Johnson’s dog’s dinner of a deal. And should there be a General Election in the coming months, you can be sure that it will come out for the Tories.

Not that I have a problem with that – after all, I don’t own the newspaper – though I’d rather die in a ditch than vote for Boris’s rabble. But just a warning that we should all sharpen our manipulation sensors, especially when it comes to claims that are likely to be trotted out in any future referendum or election.

The posters, Facebook ads and presumably the newspaper editors are primed and ready to go.

From → Media, Politics, UK

  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    “One thing my media training – which I underwent many years ago – taught me was to look at sources and examine the motivations behind stories presented as news.”
    Pretty good short summary of critical thinking skill. Of course, you do recognize that on neither side of the “pond” is that skill allowed in the schools.

    • Sure do, and for aeons I’ve been arguing that critical thinking should be on the curriculum from primary onwards. I guess in some quarters parents might feel a little threatened by their young ones pushing back at the bullshit they feed them, but there you go. S

  2. I can’ resist repeating the old saw “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics”.

    • And then there are toerags who think it’s OK to peddle the lies because they think they can get away with it – and often do….

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: