Emigration is in the air for Britons
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Adverts forward TalkSport, a radio station that does what it says on the tin, reflects the state of the country. McDonald’s is advertising for workers in the tight British labor market. Santander, a bank, warns not to fall victim to fraud, which is rare. Amidst it all, the government is sternly reminding listeners that they have already knocked £400 ($480) off their energy bills.
But every 15 minutes the listener is treated to another option. “Build a life in Western Australia,” blames a man with a suspicious Aussie accent. “Find the job and lifestyle you want in Western Australia.” White Van Man is set to ditch Britain and head 9,000 miles (14,500km) south-east for a new life in Perth, which has sunshine and lots of construction and manufacturing jobs. It is, says the working actor, “the lifestyle you deserve”.
Migration policy in Britain is almost entirely shaped by people who come. More attention should be given to those on the way out. In the year to June 2022, more than 1m people entered Britain. But people come and go. About 560,000 left the country in the same period, as immigrants returned home to the them and further away, and the British took a punt on starting a new life in another place. If things don’t improve, more will follow.
Historically, Britain is a country of emigration rather than immigration. In the 19th century only Ireland, Italy and Norway exported people at a higher rate. The history of those who came from the Caribbean hmt The Windrush Empire in 1948 he is famous. The stories of the millions of Britons who boarded the ss Canberra and other seagoing vessels are being looked over for a new life in Australia and beyond, argues David Edgerton, a historian. Britain became a largely net immigration country in 1983.
When emigration finally bothered politicians, Britain was in dire straits. In 1974 Jim Callaghan, then foreign secretary and future prime minister, joked: “Sometimes when I go to bed at night, I think if I were a young man I would emigration.” After all, Britain was a country of stagnant growth, high inflation, high taxes, an energy crisis and a state in dire need of an overhaul.
The conditions in which Callaghan dreamed of life in other places then are similar to today. It is more difficult for young workers, who may be mobile. Graduate salaries have fallen by 22% in real terms since 2010, according to High Fliers, a graduate recruitment research group. An uneven tax system worries young people. Overall the British state has a lower tax rate than its European neighbours. But those on a typical professional salary with a student loan against marginal rates (41%) are similar to those in continental Europe and higher than in Australia and Canada.
People leave when there is opportunity elsewhere. Realizing that Britain, by Northern European standards, is not a rich country gets into the country’s bloodstream. British gdp everyone is now below the countries they used to compete with, whether Germany, Australia or Canada. The British comparison country is growing in Italy, a country where it is normal for young people to leave, rather than the exception. In a few years the point of comparison may be Poland, which due to the growth of tears, is always looking for workers. In the 1980s “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet”, a TV the comedy about a group of Geordie builders working in Germany became a hit. The 2030 remake might be titled “Do Widzenia, Pet”.
For now, the last in is the first out. Net income of them citizens have turned into an exodus. Fanny, a 25-year-old French who graduated from the London School of Economics in 2020, is one. Out of the approximately 20 French students on her course, she was one of the two who stuck around. Now she is also leaving, after taking a job in Marseille. Her net salary will be the same, but instead of paying for a room in a dingy flatshare in East London, it will stretch to a one-bed flat. If a job in London, where Britain’s wages are higher, requires you to stay in a flat rate until your 30s it is not surprising that people will consider going elsewhere.
Those with the easiest exit route are the most likely to be taken. Doctors have a golden ticket: few countries turn them away. With salaries having fallen by 10% in real terms since 2010 and working conditions worsening, it is little wonder that many doctors are leaving. Half of the 10,000 doctors who stopped working in 2021 planned to go abroad (there are around 120,000 doctors working in the SNS in England). One in three doctors trained in Britain is leaving the country, according to research by the General Medical Council. Britain has become a temperate Philippines, churning out health care workers who go elsewhere.
Song of the emigrants
At this point in the political and economic cycle, both sides are exhausted. Laborites despair; Europhiles see their life’s work broken up; Brexiteers complain that the country is closer to London-sur-Seine than Singapore-on-Thames. At the same time, there is a decline in decline. It is natural for people to think away. But talking about a new life abroad is often just that. Of course it’s hard to do. Visas must be obtained, job offers secured, flights booked, bureaucracies navigated, homes found and friends made. The history of migration is the history of most people who live.
But emigration from Britain only slowed when destination countries such as Australia tightened their immigration policies. Now, after years of lockdowns, gaps in labor markets have become canyons and the likes of Australia and Canada are trying to reach people, as TalkSport listeners can attest. When immigration to Britain hits 1am, the government panics. When Canada reached the same comparable level this year, its government was boasting.
Things in Britain can improve. But if not, leaving again is an option. In 1978, a year before she defeated Callaghan in an election, Margaret Thatcher told a dinner companion of her plans if she did not win: “We will stay forever…but we will work very hard with the children to arrange them. careers in Canada.” Emigration has long been the British solution to Britain’s malaise. ■
Read more from Bagehot, our British politics columnist:
It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Tory rule (24 November)
Who speaks for the Great British Guy? (November 17)
Night watchman welfare state (November 10)