We passed a demographic milestone on Thursday of last week, according to the media. “UK Population Passes 60 Million For The First Time”, the headlines read, referring to figures produced by the government’s Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Yet back in August 2001, the Observer solemnly reported that the UK population had passed 60 million for the first time, quoting ONS figures.
And again in September 2004, the Guardian claimed that the UK population was “poised” to pass 60 million, again based on seemingly authoritative ONS data.
So according to the mainstream media, this is third time that the UK population has “passed 60 million for the first time”.
In fact estimating the number of people in the country is rather more difficult than one might expect, according to population expert Professor Danny Dorling of Sheffield University.
The most accurate population count is the national census, which happens once every ten years, Professor Dorling told Socialist Worker. The last census in 2001 reported that 58.8 million people were living in the UK that spring.
This was over one million fewer than had previously been estimated. The ONS estimate of net population growth since 1991 had turned out to be around double the actual figure.
One of the reasons for this is the fact that it is very difficult to count the number of people leaving the country, says Professor Dorling. This led to statisticians underestimating the amount of emigration from the UK between 1991 and 2001 by about one million.
In particular, there were much larger numbers of young men leaving Scotland and the north of England to find work elsewhere in the European Union than the ONS had expected.
These factors and other complexities mean that estimating levels of “illegal” immigration is quite hopeless, Dorling adds. “Attempts to count the people deemed to be living here illegally using census data are misguided practically as well as being morally objectionable,” he says.
The focus on immigration and relative neglect of emigration is not just a feature of official government statistics.
It is a key trick used by right wing pressure groups to feed scare stories into the media about how Britain is apparently being “flooded” by unsustainable waves of immigration.
Chief among these groups is Migration Watch UK, an organisation that poses as an “independent” and “non political” thinktank on migration issues.
Its spokespeople are regularly quoted on the BBC and other “respectable” TV news channels, while its scaremongering press releases regularly end up as front pages in the right wing tabloids.
In fact Migration Watch is anything but “non political”. Its advisory council includes a host of figures linked to a variety of neoconservative outfits and far right groups.
These include Baroness Caroline Cox, who is also a senior member of the Freedom Association, a fundamentalist Christian and a co-president of the Jerusalem Summit – an ultra-Zionist organisation that advocates the ethnic cleansing of all Palestinians from Israel and the occupied territories.
The ideology behind Migration Watch is an updated version of the theories of Thomas Malthus, a 17th century economist obsessed by the notion that the poor were breeding uncontrollably.
These views also drive another organisation close to Migration Watch called the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), which uses “ecological” arguments to push an anti-immigration agenda.
OPT spokespeople are also regularly quoted in the press and presented as neutral experts. In fact the organisation is driven by the cranky belief that population levels in Britain should return to those of Victorian times – half the present number.
If these views were confined to a hard right fringe, there would be little to worry about. But their poison is becoming increasingly fashionable in New Labour circles where “managed” immigration is the latest buzzword.
By capitulating to population hysteria, the media and ministers encourage us to blame society’s problems on ordinary people, rather than those at the top. And this ultimately gives a green light to racists – as well as feeding the growth of fascist groups such as the BNP.