Managing human population growth will be one of the biggest challenges of this century. Two years ago, I remember being alarmed to learn that, somewhere, the seventh billion human being had been born.
When we are struggling to provide work and homes – even in this still rich country – for our own British young people, how are we going to provide similarly for such numbers in its poorest regions? Even more worrying is that some pundits estimate the planet’s population will not level off until 14 billion has been reached (even in the best scenario, it is said to level off at around nine to 10 billion in the 2060s). Even David Attenborough has expressed his concern in a recent interview, describing the human race as “a plague” on the planet.
Ukip’s 2nd place finish in the recent Eastleigh by-election has been attributed by many to the party’s focus on immigration. And with the expected influx of Romanian and Bulgarian workers next year certain to add pressure to our already stretched public services, the British public has a right to be concerned.
Our own island serves very well as a microcosm of what is happening beyond our shores. When the Romans arrived here 2,000 years ago, it is thought that between 1.5 and 2 million people lived here. It took the whole fifteen-hundred-year period, right up to the reign of Elizabeth I, for that number to double. Yet in just the next 500 years it grew fifteen fold. If we already have a housing problem with strains on public services such as hospitals, schools, transport, only a person in denial would dispute that the expected influx of Eastern Europeans would not further exacerbate it greatly.
Like other developed countries around the world, the UK has a demographic time bomb about to explode; many would argue that a smaller and smaller workforce supporting a larger and larger retired sector is an even more alarming problem than that posed by rising immigration. Yet if Britons’ birth rate is insufficient, they say, we must bolster it with fecund young people from abroad. This, we have to admit, is a cogent argument.
What was needed (and still is) was a national debate in which all these issues could be thoroughly aired. But we didn’t get it. What we got from the Blair government instead was a sly and silent opening of the floodgates, which resulted in a totally unfocused rush towards this country of people with minimal skills and often a hostile outlook towards us. The flood was greater than any known in our history before. It was, in fact, a scandal, perhaps even a crime. What was actually needed was a measured import of those high in skills of the sort this country could have benefited from economically. What was not needed was what amounted to an assault on the working classes by importing people who would work for next to nothing and take the jobs which otherwise would have been theirs. The crime, as I see it, is here.
Yet I believe there was also another crime in pursuing a policy which has the capability, perhaps, of changing the character of our nation forever without securing the consent of the people.
I believe in being open and accommodating to people of all races. After all, no people on the planet have had greater experience of rubbing along with people from other cultures. Ours was the most benign, dynamic and just of all the European empires. Indeed, a local Algerian shopkeeper once told me he saw his own father shot dead before him by the French during their war for independence. Better, he said, had Algeria belonged to the British Empire. “Why? I asked. “Well, they were gentlemen,” he replied.
I’m not saying we never did terrible things: consider Amritsar in the Punjab in 1919, when Ghurkhas under a rogue British brigadier shot dead 400 people at an illegal protest gathering. But at least there was a hell of a public hullabaloo, and a court of inquiry afterwards.
Yet despite such isolated incidents, none of the other former empires have been able to inspire such warmth and a feeling of togetherness. We therefore have no need to take lessons from anyone in how to treat people from other lands. Except, perhaps, from that other former colony of ours which feels the greatest warmth of all to us, but which, strangely, does not belong to the Commonwealth: the United States. There, if you want to make that country your home you have to accept all its values; citizenship comes as a complete package. You must be an American first, and a Hispanic, Japanese or Pakistani second. The U.S. does, however, have problems with its own burgeoning population. But at least it enjoys the luxury of having 32 times more space than we have.
It seems certain that whatever measures the world takes, it cannot hope to stop that seven billionth baby being joined by another three billion others before this century is halfway through. But I believe that human resilience will win through in the end. This has to be by raising living standards in the Third World. Only by spreading prosperity will you put effective brakes on population growth. Show me a First World country with an out of control birth rate (except, that is, where out of control immigration has been allowed).
The greatest service we could do for Africa is to get rid of the protectionist and cruel Common Agricultural Policy. Our chance to do that is coming soon when the Euro nations need our agreement for treaty amendments in the years ahead. Plus, we must bite the bullet where GM foods are concerned. Contrary to what Prince Charles may believe, only with vastly increased yields will we have any hope of filling all those extra hungry mouths.
Two things caught my attention this week and led me to think that I must write about them. First, we have recently noticed that more females are being aborted in this country than males and, second, that Gays want their own Olympics. They are widely disparate subjects, but they have one thing in common: both groups, down the ages, have been victims of discrimination.
If you were going to be born human it has historically always been better for you to be born male. Even in the more enlightened, liberal societies of the West this is still the case – though clearly less so than in times past. We are working hard on the few remaining unaddressed areas of inequality. They tend to be now of the less obvious kind, being more of a subtle nature. But they are there.
That greatest pinnacle of inequality, the aristocracy, is on the threshold of yielding primogeniture – led by the monarch, who has let it be known that she has no objection to a female inheriting the throne, even where there are younger brothers. Why, indeed, should she when she herself is the lucky beneficiary of discrimination on account of the accident of her father having no sons? You might say she became monarch by default. However, history has amply demonstrated that female monarchs can do every bit as good a job as can males; witness Victoria, Elizabeth I and, indeed, the present incumbent.
So if we have learned to value females as much as males, how come we have more females currently being aborted than males? The answer, clearly, must lie with our immigrant population, large swathes of which have brought the malign baggage of boy favouritism with them. (Scans, of course, allow for early identification of gender.)
It seems to me there is only one way to address this issue. We must discourage the ghetto mentality in our immigrant communities and insist on adopting mainstream values, as the Americans do. The burqa and niqab, for example, strike me as no more than prisons of dark drapes – and like a prison there is no escape. Their sentence is one of life. They must learn to live with it. There is no place in 21st century Britain for medieval mindsets which demean and devalue women, even to the extent of dictating what clothes they wear.
It is economics which dictate why many Muslim men think as they do; they believe that male children have greater earning power and are better able to look after them in their old age. When we have educated and seduced them into wishing for the delights of Western consumerism, which after all produces jobs, they will realise that the only way they will acquire the goodies is by putting their women out to work. And since we are well on the way to equal pay for both sexes, we must hope that economics and self-interest will play a large part in overcoming their medieval mindsets.
It is my belief that, notwithstanding these aberrations brought in from abroad, we live in a kindlier, fairer and more forgiving world in the West than we have ever done. Discrimination, bigotry, prejudice and violence in all their ugly forms are on the run – and rightly so. When I was a boy in the fifties, no one thought it odd, much less outrageous, for a landlord to put up a sign in his window saying ‘No Dogs, Irish or Blacks’. If a wife got beaten at home by her husband, the police would rarely intervene. It was, in the common parlance of the time, ‘a domestic’. Now all of these are criminal matters and rightly so. Who would argue otherwise?
As for landlords not welcoming Gays, no notice in the window would be thought necessary. The then generally accepted, disgusting nature of the relationship was considered to make their exclusion obvious. And besides, such debauched subjects were best not touched on and certainly not spoken of in print by putting a notice in the window; rather children seeing it would be their worried concern.
Then there was the huge discrimination against disabled people. That too is being addressed. The recent Paralympics has taught us much in this regard, and was a giant step towards goodness and equality. As a nation we can rightly take pride in what was achieved. It can fairly be said that we have set a benchmark for others to follow – a Gold Standard, if you like.
Yet one of the last great prejudices that we have to overcome is our attitude to mental illness. We still do not give it anything like the sympathy and attention it deserves, and millions – yes, millions – suffer as a result, usually in silence and quiet desperation.
However, in our laudable efforts to come to grips with all of these things and undo the wrongs of the past, we are in danger of creating absurdities. This call of Boris Johnson’s – backed by David Cameron, no less – for London to host the 2018 Gay Olympics seems to me a game too far. All it does is suggest that Gays are, indeed, different – which surely is not what they intend.
Positive discrimination in jobs and other areas is also something we need to watch carefully. If not, we may be in danger of creating a backlash from the mainstream population. I sometimes think that we have travelled so far in that direction that – with the right qualifications – your life chances in Britain today may be better if you are not Caucasian.
In formulating my thoughts for this article, it came to me that long ago I was myself a victim of a quite pernicious form of discrimination. I grew up in a school which was purpose built for illegitimate children: there were six hundred of us. Society had once been prepared to let such children die on its streets before one day it would come to their rescue. On his visits from the docks to Central London, a merchant sea captain called Thomas Coram would be distressed by the sight of abandoned and dead babies. He decided to make it his life’s crowning achievement to do something about it, and seventeen years of incessant lobbying finally brought him in 1739 a Royal Charter to set up Britain’s first Children’s home for the ‘Abandoned & Destitute’ which he called the Foundling Hospital. It was Britain’s first charity.
But while we children had to be eternally grateful to men like him – and a hundred and thirty-five years later, to Dr. Bernardo – we in the Foundling Hospital had a particular cross to bear. We were the children born in sin – the ‘Untouchables’ of our particular culture. And so it remained until as late as the nineteen fifties, when a foundling girl was dismissed from her job because her boss found out about her origins and would not allow her staff to work with her. One of the consequences of this sad and cruel outlook was that all of us felt the need to hide the circumstances of our birth and upbringing and keep it as our own dark secret; it fostered a sense of inferiority and shame. In one sense we were on a par with the dogs and Irish in those ‘No Dogs or Irish’ signs. We were considered not welcome, even dirty.
Of course, as ever, hypocrisy reigned – in this case literally. The one who should have set an example – the king – could have as many bastard sons as he wished and all doors would be open to them. They would even be ennobled and likely as not receive a Dukedom. The Duke of Monmouth even made a bid for the crown itself before he was defeated in 1685 and executed by his uncle, James II. So I suppose in my own way, deep down, I must have been affected, perhaps even scarred by it all. Of course, unlike those with physical handicaps it was not there for all the world to see, but the emotional and mental damage must have been considerable – especially since we were allowed no contact with our mothers (we had been given different names as babies so that we could never search them out). Equally, the mother could never steal back and reclaim her child.
I have often wondered what a shrink would make of me, though I have endeavoured, despite my many failings, to be a good father and husband. The fact is that we are all born in the same messy way, and king or not, we will all shed this mortal coil in the fullness of time. There is a great justice and equality here. What matters is the period between the two events. All efforts should be directed towards achieving equality here also; a level playing field for all.
Today, when almost half the children being born are illegitimate, looking down on them as second-class citizens is both impractical as well as nonsensical. Personally, I regret the numbers being born out of wedlock since evidence shows that children thrive best in a committed family environment. Just the same, we will not force the non-married mothers into an economic cul-de-sac, as once we did, where they cannot afford to provide for their children. Neither will we saddle those children with a cruel burden of undeserved shame. Mothers and fathers will even escape prison if it felt that their absence would seriously impact on their children.
We are a better society than once we were, of that I am convinced. We may not be frequent Christian church-goers anymore, but we have an infinitely stronger Christian conscience. And we do not hang people. We have ‘listened’, at last, to what that great American president, Abraham Lincoln, once said when he appealed to the “better angels of our nature”.
Immigration is a matter of very great concern to us as it has placed huge pressures on all of our public services.
It has even, some would argue, started to erode some of our core British values.
When numbers equivalent to a city the size of Plymouth come into our country each year, it is natural that people tend to become alarmed. Yet I have had an experience this week which has opened my eyes to one important aspect of it.
Having hammered my knees over a lifetime, I needed to get them replaced. The first to receive the treatment was done twenty months ago (successfully, I might add). Ever the glutton for punishment, I pressed on.
It’s a big op, I have to admit, and the aftermath is painful; but what’s a bit of short-term suffering against a very great and long-term gain? Thus I tried to persuade myself, for I knew what I was letting myself in for the second time round.
Everyone will have to cope with clapped out and painful joints as they grow older. The lucky ones, in my view, are the ones where this happens early as they get them replaced. The less fortunate soldier on with their dodgy parts until it is too late… they are too old.
They have to watch the sprightly oldies – with their joints replaced – enjoying full and pain-free mobility while they struggle on with sticks and, if they can afford them, mobility scooters.
I opted to go to the Peninsula Treatment Centre. There, I was surrounded by a mini United Nations.
There were Filipinos, South Africans, Chinese, Jamaicans, Zambians, Polish, Romanians, Germans, French, Zimbabweans, Bulgarians – oh, and yes, one or two Brits. They all spoke excellent English and the service that I received was top-draw.
As a team they were magnificent. If only the UN, away in New York, could perform so harmoniously. Even the building and the standard of cleanliness were beyond compare.
Altogether it was a great experience. It makes you think, doesn’t it? It would not be over-egging it to say that if you’d kept these people out of our country then we would be shooting ourselves in the foot.
In the higher echelon skills at Peninsula, East Europe seemed to have excelled itself. The Communists got many things wrong, but education was not one of them.
I have reason to know this at first-hand. My Lithuanian, university-educated wife (fluent in three languages) is a constant reminder. She even helps me with my crosswords – would that I could do the same with hers – and she sometimes assists with a point of grammar. English was her subject at uni, you see.
It would be no exaggeration to say that if all these superb people were removed from Peninsula it would have to shut down. Who then would be the loser?
Of course, you will have noticed that they all spoke good English and for the most part were highly skilled. This is the road we must go down: cherry-picking the best who want to join us.
As it happens we are the destination of first choice to these people because of our language, law-driven society and tolerance; they are not the sort of people who want to be holed up in some kind of ghetto, insulated from the rest of us.
It was a very big mistake to allow the mantra of diversity to shut down discussion as to how we could best integrate newcomers to these shores, and in this respect there is much the Americans could teach us.
Last week I bumped into a fellow shopkeeper and he too had had both knees renewed. They had been done the better part of twenty years ago and he wasn’t even using a stick. He is 91.
Instead of feeling that he had been put out to pasture, he has been allowed to remain a vibrant member of, and contributor to, our local community.
This has to be the future… keeping as many of us as possible active into old age. But it has to start much earlier than our 91-year-old shopkeeper, that’s for sure.
The wonderful new £41.5m Life Centre, opened this week in Plymouth, is certainly a step in the right direction.
All of us must take charge of our own well being, wherever possible, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in so doing. But those of us who are not prepared to invest in a healthier, happier future must be brought to see how very foolish this is.
We know we can successfully influence people’s life choices. Look what we did in turning attitudes around with regard to smoking and drink driving.
The ticking NHS time bomb of an ageing population could, in large measure, be defused if we could all be persuaded to get off our derrieres and get moving. Preventative medicine has the potential to free up possibly a quarter of all our hospital beds and allow us, in the process, to lead happier, healthier and more productive lives.
If the recession causes us to cut our supermarket food bills, so much the better, say I.
Instead of so many old people feeling surplus to requirements, they would become a valued and much needed part of society.
We British usually appreciate being the first recipients of most things coming over ‘the pond’. But I did not appreciate learning that, after the Americans, we are the next most obese people in the developed world. As it happened, not long after learning that, I watched newsreel footage of our people in the 1940s and 50s. Do you know, I couldn’t see a fatty among them?
Food rationing had done its work and made us the healthiest we had ever been; they all looked leaner, fitter and, I have to say, altogether merrier.
Although the treatments available to them, at that time, were primitive by our standards, at least they weren’t imposing a burden on their fellow citizens, because of their super indulgent, lazy lifestyle. They were all pulling their weight – just not so much of it.
Time, may I suggest, to turn our guns on the fatties amongst us!