Can we have a grown up discussion about migration into Wales?
Ifan Morgan Jones
It’s almost impossible to have a reasonable discussion about migration into Wales without an immediate accusation of xenophobia.
The standard response is that you must somehow ‘hate the English’.
So, let’s make it clear at the start that this article is motivated by nothing but concern for Wales’ economic, political and cultural well-being.
If in-migration into Wales didn’t exist, then I wouldn’t exist. My mother and grandmother were born in England, and my great-grandfather in the United States!
The fundamental question here isn’t ‘do we want people to move here?’ Of course we do – that’s central to the economic health of any developed economy.
The question is rather ‘what kind of policy can encourage the kind of migration that best serves the economic interest of Wales?’
To ignore the issue completely would, I think, be to ignore one of the biggest economic challenges facing Wales over the next decades.
This discussion has been given added impetus due to the discovery by Dr. Daniel Evans of a Welsh Government report that discusses this very problem.
The report has been thoroughly taken apart by State of Wales and I recommend that you pause here and read his article.
I’ve warned in the past that Wales’ fate, unless we can somehow jump-start the economy, is to become the costa geriatrica Brinley Thomas envisaged back in the 1950s.
What’s shocking about the Welsh Government report, however, is that the authors seem to shrug their shoulders and accept the inevitability of this outcome.
Moreover, they seem to want to actively encourage it to happen. Maintaining the population, it says, will “mean catering, at least to some extent, to the preferences of prospective in-migrants over where to locate housing and the nature of housing provision”.
Even if we set aside emotive issues such as culture and language, this recommendation is a very dangerous one, economically.
The economic miscalculation at the heart of this report is that elderly retirees are a good replacement for the young people of working age that are flowing in the other direction.
As State of Wales notes, the report has already failed to predict that the rate at which the Welsh population would age and rather naively suggests that because they will live longer they will also be able to keep working.
“There’s little benefit to replacing people of working age with the retired or nearly retired and it seems madness to suggest it’s fine,” the site says.
The consequence of encouraging the in-migration of the elderly is a massive strain on Wales’ public services without any extra money to pay for it.
This isn’t ageism – I too, plan on being old some day. It’s just a fact that older people are more expensive to the state.
Funding for Wales by Westminster is not calculated on the basis of the age and health needs of the population. So we don’t get any kind of extra bonus for taking on this extra elderly population.
If more is spent on health, less is spent on other services such as education, where Wales spends less than the other nations of the UK, and unsurprisingly gets worse results.
Less can also be spent on the kind of economic stimulus that would attract a younger population to Wales and also encourage those born here to stay.
It should also be remembered that the Welsh Government is pursuing this policy of actively ageing Wales while also maintaining other policies, such as paying the tuition fees of students who want to go to universities outside Wales, which encourages a ‘brain drain’ in the other direction.
Although peripheral to party politics in Wales, a discussion about demographic change in Wales seems at least to be gaining ground within Yes Cymru.
Eifion Thomas of that movement has conducted quite a bit of research on the topic. You can watch him discuss it on the above YouTube video from a recent Yes Abertawe meeting.
But what hasn’t been discussed is how incredibly politically short-sighted it is for the Welsh Government to pursue such a policy.
The existence of our Welsh Parliament and Government depends upon the majority in Wales considering it to be a nation, and therefore in needs of its own political institutions.
Pursuing policies which encourage the leaving of working age Welsh people on the one hand and encouraging the migration of retirement age people from elsewhere is very unlikely to be conducive to that.
They should note the age gap in the vote for Brexit. If a vote was ever taken on the future of devolution, the influx of elderly retirees could be enough to tip the balance.
Devolution will also very quickly hit the economic and political buffers if the Welsh Government can’t afford to finance, and as a result are seen to be making a pig’s ear of, those areas they already control.
So why isn’t anyone discussing this issue?
Plaid Cymru would be the best candidates to tackle it, but have found it particularly difficult to discuss migration into Wales for two reasons:
- Despite being a socialist internationalist party, their political opponents enjoy accusing them of fascism – a claim that has been debunked.
- It’s difficult for a pro-EU, socially liberal party to be seen to be suggesting that some migration isn’t always a good thing.
The Conservatives aren’t going to mention it, as – given the age divide between Conservative and Labour voters – they are likely to benefit in terms of votes.
Even UKIP – usually vocal on issues surrounding the free movement of people – haven’t taken it up. A little awkward when the party leader lives over Offa’s Dyke.
But why Labour seem happy to pursue this policy, given that the long-term consequences seem to run completely contrary to their own electoral good health, is a complete mystery to me.
The time may have come to admit that if Welsh political parties aren’t discussing the consequences of migration into Wales, then they’re ignoring one of the biggest long-term issues facing the country.
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