Why Britain Needs a Population Policy

Author, former MEP and father of six (!) campaigns for a national population policy

In 1949 the Report of the Royal Commission on Population was published. The Commission considered that a replacement size of family was desirable in Britain at that time. It recommended that the Lord President of the Council, who had responsibility for population matters, should be responsible for a continuous watch over population movements and their bearing on national policies.

More than twenty-one years later, the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, in their first Report of 5th May 1971 – noted that the Lord President of the Council had not assumed the duties proposed by the Royal Commission, nor had any specific allocation of such duties been made to Ministers. The Select Committee went on to conclude that ‘the government must act to prevent the consequences of population growth becoming intolerable for the everyday conditions of life.’

The Select Committee saw fit to quote, with evident approbation, the Conservation Society’s statement: ‘We have to ask ourselves: is Britain likely to be a better place to live in with a steadily growing population or will it be worse? Does life somehow become better when there are more people to experience it or not? The Conservation Society believes that the quality of life is crucially dependent on the amount of land and the pressures upon it, that on this criterion Britain is already overcrowded and additional numbers can only diminish the quality of life.”

In spite of the fact that the Campaign Guide of 1970, published by the Conservative Central Office, stated the Conservative belief that the ‘question of continued population growth in Britain is central to all other issues’ and that the implications of population trends for economic and social policy and for efforts to maintain and improve the quality of the environment should be immediately and thoroughly examined, the Conservatives still during the course of the 1970 election campaign placed little stress on the need to deal with Britain’s own demographic issues.

I was actually working on these and related issues in the Conservative Research Department (CRD) Government in the run-up to the June 1970 General Election. I remember once suggesting
to Reggie Maudling, who had overall
responsibility for the CRD, that the Conservatives ought to campaign strongly in favour of a ‘national population policy’. Reggie put an arm round my shoulder and replied: “Not one for the hustings, my dear chap!”

Forty-five years later, with the next election less than two months away (May 7, 2015), I strongly believe that the time has come for political parties of all persuasions to revisit this issue. This is not something that can be ducked any longer, on the grounds that is ‘too controversial’ or whatever.

Reggie Maudling quote

Let’s look at the facts. The ‘population explosion’ in Britain began somewhere around 1750. A decline in mortality occurred – probably through improvements in nutrition and clothing, better sanitation, cleaner water supplies, improvement of medical services etc. From 10 million in 1802, the population rose to 37 million in 1900, and over 54 million by the beginning of the 1970’s. The last UK census was carried out in 2011, showing a population of 63,181,775, increased from 2001’s census figure of 58,789,194.

The current estimate for 2014 is 63.7 million, making the UK the world’s 22nd largest country by population.

At the end of February 2015, only weeks after the Office for National
Statistics (ONS) predicted that the UK will have 10 million more people within the next 25 years, it published new estimates showing that the true figure could be four million higher.

The dramatic upward revision suggests the population of Britain could rise from its current record level of 63.7 million to just under 78 million by 2037. On the same projection it could reach as much as 132 million by this time next century!


Office of National Statistics findings
suggest that natural growth in the UK is currently at its highest level since the so called ‘baby boom’ years of the 1960’s. This natural change, the difference between the current birth rate and death rate, is also reported to be responsible for over 52% of the UK population’s growth.

But that is not the end of the story. Net migration also has played its part with a two-pronged contribution to the estimate’s findings. Under the thirteen years of Labour (1997-2010) net inward migration totalled a staggering 3.6 million. There has also there been a significant introduction of women born overseas who were of child-bearing age, and inclined in any case to favour large families.

The Department of Communities and Local Government recently published its household projections for England out to 2037 in which they state that future increases in households will come overwhelmingly from population growth, with an extra 5.2 million households by 2037; an increase of 4,000 households per week.

5.2 million more households by 2037! What does that mean in terms of demand for food and housing, health and welfare, transport, energy, and education? What are the implications in terms of pollution, waste and the general impact on the environment? What does that imply for our already strained efforts to protect the landscape and the countryside, and the wild places which mean so much to us?

This is manifesto season. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, is already desperately seeking ways to redeem his ‘no ifs and buts’ pledge to reduce the rate of net immigration (currently running at 300,000 a year). If that involves a rupture with the EU over the ‘freedom of movement issue’, then – in my view – that is a price which must be paid as we seek to stabilize the UK’s population at or near current levels. As far as immigration from third countries is concerned, here too – I would argue – we have to look carefully at the burdens laid on us under treaties which were signed and ratified before the era of mass migration of refugees began. The place to solve the refugee crisis is in the countries where the potential refugees originate.

I go back to that First Report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, of May 1971. The Conservatives had been returned to power the previous year with Mr Heath as Prime Minister. Though Reggie Maudling had said population policy was ‘not one for the hustings’, the Select Committee called for a ‘Special Office on Population’ reporting direct to the Prime Minister. The Select Committee pointed out that it is not necessary to know the ‘optimum population’ for Britain, to seek population stability now. It may not in fact be practical politics to define an ‘optimum population’. It may be enough to know that we have already exceeded the optimum and that once stability has been achieved (the first step), achieving a reduction in absolute terms (social incentives and disincentives?) may even be on the cards.

Those who argue that population growth is the driver of economic growth often surprisingly, fail to do their sums. Even assuming that economic growth is the be-all and end-all of policy (something which I would strongly dispute), population growth can of itself hold back the rise in per capita income. In April last year the Office for National Statistics reported that Britain had recovered little of the ground lost during the deep recession of 2008-09 once a rising population is taken into account.

Setting up a Special Office on Population, reporting direct to the Prime Minister, may not get us very far on a road we should have taken over forty years ago.  But at least it would be a start.  Another good move would be for the government to reassert its commitment to the massively important decennial census. The first one was held in 1801.  The next is due in 2021.  I can’t help feeling that the main reason they now want to scrap it is that the results, next time round,  may be politically too explosive.  Never miss a chance to bury bad news!

Stanley Johnson

The second volume of Stanley Johnson’s memoir, ‘Stanley I Resume’ is out now. therobsonpress.com
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