In 1990, Britain’s population was 3 million fewer than in 2007.
By 2007, immigration had risen to the top of the public agenda. Pressure groups, internet blogs and sections of the national press claimed that the swelling of Britain’s population through immigration was a problem requiring urgent attention in order to maintain social cohesion and to protect the ‘British way of life’. In the 2001 election, opinion polls found that immigration was regarded as a vital issue by only 3 per cent of voters; similar polls in 2007 put the figure at nearly 30 per cent. There were worries that Britain’s population was growing too fast, that the country was ‘full up’ and there would be rising community tensions as a result.
However, demographic changes also occurred because people were living longer, due to improvements in medical care and living standards. There were accelerating changes in where people lived and shopped, such as the rapid expansion in the number and size of out–of-town shopping centres and the massive increase in single-occupiers (people living alone). Economic factors meant that London and the south-east grew rapidly, with housing, transport and social services stretched. In Scotland and parts of the old industrial north, the population was declining, with depressed house prices and urban decay.
Governments attempted to counter this by granting funds for regeneration and by relocating government departments out of London. Regeneration projects had considerable success as towns and cities such as Glasgow, Birmingham, Leeds and Gateshead benefited from new museums, art galleries, concern halls and extensive property development. Yet London and the south-east continued to attract the lion’s share of economic growth during the years of prosperity from the early 1990s to 2007.
One fundamental population trend was the vast increase in life expectancy. Britain’s population was becoming older with every passing year. By 2007, the average age was 39 years; in 1997, only ten years earlier, it had been 37. In 2007, for the first time in history, there were more people of retirement age in Britain than young people under 16. There was a surge in the over-60s generation because those born in the ‘baby boom’ after 1945 were reaching retirement age. The percentage of the population over 80 years of age had doubled in 20 years and seemed set to continue growing.
By 2007, this ‘greying of Britain’ was having important social consequences. There was a surge in demand for medical treatments for the elderly, such as hip replacements, eye surgery and relief for arthritis. NHS hospitals and local authority nursing homes struggled to cope with rising demand for long-term care and the steep rise in cases of dementia. As the proportion of the population over 65 rose, pensions became a major political issue. More and more people were depending for longer and longer on their pensions; the costs of both state and private pension schemes skyrocketed. Pundits predicted the retirement age would have to go up to 70.
The ‘grey pound’ was also a big factor in social and economic change. The new generation of active retired people (many having retired well before the state retirement age of 65 for men, 60 for women) had more disposable income than previous generations. They went on long-haul holidays, bought second homes, surfed the internet, joined voluntary organisations such as the University of the Third Age, and provided important new markets in property, shopping and leisure. The advertising industry was quick to target these new consumers.
On the other hand, the millions of pensioners who had not been lucky enough to retire early because of private or occupational pension schemes, or had not benefited from the huge rises in house prices, the ones dependent wholly on the state pension, were less fortunate. Many pensioners struggled to cope with ‘fuel poverty’ (defined as needing more than 10 % of their income to pay for energy costs, especially heating). It was clear that the effects of the greying of Britain would continue to have a big impact on British society far into the future.
Another demographic shift, from the countryside into towns and cities, could be traced back well before 1945. It was in the 1990s, however, that its impact on society became an urgent public concern. In 1951, almost half the population had lived in rural or semi-rural areas; by about 2000 only about 3 % of the workforce was employed in agriculture. Intensive farming methods changed the landscape. Many small farmers went out of business. Many farmers also ‘set aside’ land to cut down food production in return for EU grants.
In thousands of villages, there was no school, no shop, no post office, perhaps even no pub. Younger people were forced to move out because they could not afford the house prices being paid by commuters and owners of second homes. Urbanisation swallowed up large slices of the countryside through housing estates, road building, and out-of-town shopping centres. Most of these trends had been happening for a long time but a number of factors came together to make them noticed.
In the 1990s, livestock farmers were badly hit by the outbreak of BSE in cattle and a ban on British beef exports. There was a fresh scare in 1996, when scientists provide the link between BSE in livestock and the terrifying human disease vCJD. In 2001, a massive outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease caused the mass slaughter of cattle. Much of Britain’s countryside was virtually closed down. Rural communities faced severe economic hardship. These feelings contributed to a sort of countryside rebellion, over fuel costs and hunting. Farmers joined forces with road hauliers in a fuel blockade that briefly brought Britain to a standstill in 2002. When Labour MPs pushed through a ban on hunting, the ban stirred deep opposition from the Countryside Alliance.
Many people felt the Blair government was unsympathetic and urban-oriented. Yet there were subsidies for diversification, for rural public transport and schemes to provide affordable housing for local people. There were attempts to get away from the stranglehold of the supermarkets through farmers’ markets and organic farming. These measures made only a marginal difference. By 2007, Britain was a more urban country than ever.
Globalisation accelerated the movement of people. So did the consequences of famines and regional conflicts. The rapid expansion of the European Union opened the way for people from Central and Eastern Europe to move to Britain. The numbers of new arrivals increased rapidly, sometimes placing strain on local authorities and on community relations.
Inward migration included many immigrants in the traditional sense, people from New Commonwealth countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, often relatives of people already living here. But, in the 1990s, there was a sharp increase in the numbers of asylum-seekers, fleeing from violent upheavals in places like Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Associated with asylum-seekers were economic migrants using the asylum system as a means of entry. The issue of so-called ‘bogus’ asylum-seekers aroused massive public controversy; and the sheer weight of numbers made it very difficult for the authorities to process so many claims.
Other migrants were skilled workers and professionals, coming to fill skills shortages; the families of immigrants already living in Britain; foreign students at British universities; people from the new states who acceded to the EU in 2004 and 2007. There was also increased outward migration, as British people went abroad for employment opportunities or brought retirement homes in sunnier locations. After 2004, many ‘guest workers’ entered Britain from the A8 countries (those who had just joined the EU), especially from Poland.
Newspapers like the Daily Express focused on problems, associating migrants with criminal behaviour and with taking jobs away from local people, or driving down wage levels by accepting low pay. The pressure group Migrationwatch headed by Sir Andrew Green, focused on the dangers of large numbers of immigrants arriving so quickly that public services such as health and education were overstretched and social cohesion might break down.
Most economists argued that the nation benefited economically from migrants: they filled Labour shortages, brought valuable skills, set up useful small businesses and were a net gain to the economy. They argued that most immigrants were young, active and healthy, so they did not make heavy demands on social services. Migrant families tended to have more children at a younger age, with a beneficial impact on overall birth rates. Many migrants returned home; about one-third of migrants from Poland did so. Many British people were leaving to work abroad or to buy retirement homes in Spain. Such reassurances did not convince everybody.
One expert predicted in 2007 that Britain’s population would increase to 71 million by 2050, but this prediction was based on economic trends that would almost certainly change over time.
Ethnic diversity had been a fact of life for a long time; by 2007, its effects were more noticeable. Mosques were a familiar feature of most towns and cities. Schools, local government and corporate organisations launched initiatives to celebrate the cultural background of people from ethnic minorities, many of whom had been born in Britain. Some people took pride in the progress made towards a genuinely multicultural society; others were critical of the failure to move faster. There were continued complaints that police forces were ‘institutionally racist’. Some felt that ‘white Britain’ was failing to do enough to ensure equality of respect and opportunities for ethnic minorities. From the other side came complaints that not enough emphasis was being placed on the responsibilities of immigrants to adapt to the British way of life, and that the identity of traditional working class communities was being unfairly neglected.
Two explosive incidents seemed to show the urgency of these concerns. The first was the murder of a black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in 1993; the second was the terrorist attack on London on 7 July 2005. In four separate suicide bombings, on a bus near Tavistock Square and on three underground trains, 52 civilians were killed and a young Brazilian was mistaken for another suicide bomber and was controversially shot dead by police. The most alarming fact about the attacks was that the bombers were not foreign imports but British-born citizens who had seemed to be assimilated into society. One common perception was that Britain’s foreign policy, especially the war in Iraq, had dangerously alienated British Muslims. Others argued that the essential need was for greater security through better border controls, identity cards and other restrictive measures. Others pointed to the defeats of IRA bomb attacks between the 1970s and 1990s and emphasised the importance of carrying on normally without overreacting and cutting back civil liberties.