Monday this week (16 September 2007) there was a very interesting article by James Button in the Sydney Morning Herald, Winds of change create a very different Britain, that created a focus for a number of things that I have been thinking about.
James's opening paragraph reads:
A huge experiment is under way in Britain, one not all the locals like, though it seems to be doing many of them good. It is the transformation of the country into one of the most open, globalised nations in the world.
Now I do not think that James is necessarily right here for reasons that I will explain in a moment. But first his analysis.
Migration and Demographic Change
James begins by pointing to British migration statistics, statistics that I found quite fascinating because of the scale.
Last year, a record 574,000 people moved to Britain, nearly 1 per cent of the population. Australia, by contrast, took a bit over 130,000 migrants - 0.65 per cent of its population. These numbers do not count the 600,000 workers from Eastern Europe who have arrived since 2004.
This immigration is offset to a degree by record emigration. Last year, a reported 385,000 people left the country for good. One in ten Britons now lives abroad, a figure twice as large proportionally as the Australian equivalent. Nearly 700,000 Britons live in France, 800,000 in Spain, 1.3 million in Australia.
Migration and emigration together suggest a net gain of 189,000. Then there are the many short term workers entering the country adding to the population movements. To put these figures in full perspective, in 2005-2006 there were 131,593 migrants to Australia, 63,740 Australians migrated, for a net gain of 63,740. I do not have figures for those on working visas.
If we dig below the raw data for the UK, we find a number of interesting trends.
The British economy has been growing rapidly. In 1997, British per capita GDP (Gross Domestic Product) was the lowest in the G7, now G8. Today it is second. This growth makes it a magnet for migrants, especially from Eastern Europe.
But, and as evidenced by the posts on the demography matters blog, Europe in general, Eastern Europe in particular, has an aging population. This has led to competition for workers.
In Poland, somewhere between one and two million mainly young, well educated workers have left the country in the recent past. To meet resulting labour shortages - the Ministry of Labor estimates that the country needs 500,000 foreign workers annually to meet labor demand gaps - the Polish government is facilitating entry in the country for immigrant workers from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. But these countries have their own problems.
The population of the Ukraine has been in decline since 1992. The Ukranian economy has been growing quite rapidly, so there are labor shortages. Russia, too, is experiencing population decline and is targeting worked from both the CIS and former communist states.
Without going into a full demographic analysis, underlying James Button's story is a complex pattern of mass migration with winners and losers. The UK is a winner. Poland and Ukraine are losers, as is Germany which faces population decline marked by migration of the educated young, part offset by major intake of guest workers.
The Rise of London
James Button talks about winds of change brought about by economic liberalisation creating a very different Britain, an open globalised nation. This is deceptive. We should really be talking about the rise of London for, as James also notes, London is becoming a kind of city state. Sydney is the Australian equivalent.
London, like Rome before it, has long been an imperial city drawing wealth not just from the Brittish Isles, but also from what was a vast empire. When I was born, London's population was greater than all of Australia.
London retains it's imperial position. But now the city is morphing into something more akin to Venice, a city that draws its wealth from commerce independent of the ruled hinterland. In some ways, there are now two UK's, London and the rest.
According to James Button, over the next ten years, 80 per cent of immigrants to the UK are expected to go to London, where a third of the population is already non-white. By contrast, the figure in the rest of the country is only about 8 per cent, about the same as the Australian average.
Just as has already happened in to some degree in New Zealand with Auckland, London will become a very different entity from the rest of the country. I suppose that you could say that that has always been the case at one level. However, there has always been a cultural and historical continuity that is likely to survive, at best, in an attenuated form.
Lessons for Australia
Those who read this blog will know that I am not worried at a personal level by ethnic diversity. Far from it.
But I am fascinated by what the change process means for our future.
At present, and to a degree by luck, Australia is still in the same position as the UK in its immediate region.
In an aging world of increasing mobility and competition for the best people, Australia can still attract people. But that attraction is, I think, declining.
Further, and as is happening in many countries in Europe, the proportion of young, bright, Australians leaving continues to increase. While, as James Button says, the proportion of Australians living abroad is lower than the UK, it is increasing at a fast rate.
Again as is happening in Europe, we are increasingly dependent upon migrant workers to fill gaps. I think that this will continue to increase.
But while I can plot things on straight statistical trends, I cannot say what the actual outcome will be. I suppose my best guess at present would be this.
In a world of global cities, I think that Sydney is our one chance of a global city. Sydney is already different from the rest of the country, and will become more so. This will happen anyway.
But what I don't know is whether that city can be more than a regional centre, an Auckland to Australia, but small in importance on a global scale.
In a world of global people movements, we know that the Pacific, Chinese, Indian and ASEAN influence will increase. We do not know whether Australia can retain sufficient drawing power to get its share of the best people in the global village. My best guess would be yes, but that is as much a hope as a rational aspiration.
So in all this, I do not know. But my thanks to James Button for extending my thinking.