In 2005, immigration became an election issue for the first time since 1970, a development caused in part by a record number of arrivals that 35 years ago would have beggared belief.
Last year, 2004, saw the highest net migration on record, with an inflow of 223,000—72,000 more than the previous year, largely as a result of the EU’s expansion.
The number of Britons alone leaving increased to 208,000—the highest annual outflow on record. This year, 2005, net migration is forecast to be even higher at 255,000, before reducing to an annual rate of about 145,000 from 2008.
When Labour took office in 1997 net migration was about 50,000 a year.
For the first time in its history, Britain’s population is growing primarily because of immigration.
Government figures indicate that the population is projected to rise by more than seven million in the next 25 years and more than half of this will be the direct result of immigration, with another 30 per cent formed by the children of recent immigrants.
This great movement of people, a trend seen across Europe, is a dilemma for politicians. The indigenous populations of their own countries have largely stagnated and in many cases would, without immigration, decline.
But the sheer volume of arrivals places a strain on public services and cultural tensions are never far below the surface, as witnessed recently in France.
Both these tendencies are on show in Britain.
Politicians have sought to make a virtue of practically porous borders by welcoming the influx of new workers on economic grounds.
Then again, they have been required to respond to public concern about immigration, as evinced by poll findings before the general election which suggested that it was the most important issue facing the country.
At the election, the Conservatives promised to impose a ceiling on immigration, the only issue on which they held a consistent lead throughout the campaign.
But, after their defeat, they were concerned that they had become associated with harsh rhetoric on the subject and, under David Cameron, are anxious to tone it down.
The Government, meanwhile, has responded by proposing a points-based entry system, similar to that in Australia, under which certain workers will be allowed in but only the highly-skilled will have the right to settle.
It is due to be introduced in 2007. But critics say that, without an annual limit, such a system will become an open door to ever-rising numbers because of the ease of travel in a “globalised” world. The question that arises is: can this be sustained without changing the country irrevocably?
Immigration over the past 10 years has been unprecedented. More than 4.3 million people born abroad were living in Britain at the time of the 2001 census—an increase of around one million compared with 1991 and two million higher than 30 years ago.
Across the country, the proportion of overseas-born residents is 7.5 per cent; but in London, one in four was born abroad and in some parts of the capital, one in two.
Such record levels, plus greater longevity, have caused the Government actuaries to recalculate population growth.
They now think it will pass the 65 million mark in 2023, reach 67 million by 2031 and keep growing until 2074, placing huge pressure on public services and pensions.
Much of the increase will be in England, and especially in the South-East.
By contrast, Scotland’s population will increase only slightly until the year 2019 and then start to fall. The Government says high rates of immigration are needed to sustain the economy.
With unemployment at a low rate, most settlers are easily absorbed into the workforce, though many are in the black economy.
But the policy now being adopted will have perverse effects here and abroad. A points-based immigration system will make it almost impossible for the lower-skilled to stay indefinitely.
Yet it is often the low-skilled that an advanced country needs most—to do the jobs the indigenous population shuns.
On the other hand, the scheme will encourage the immigration of highly-skilled and well-educated workers, mainly from the Third World, denuding poorer countries of doctors, nurses, teachers and entrepreneurs while professionals here find it increasingly difficult to get jobs.
For the modern, western economy, attracting such people may seem a clever thing to do.
But there are ethical considerations and, increasingly, negative consequences such as housing shortages, transport congestion, pressures on the NHS and on schools.
In a world on the move, however, it is a phenomenon to which we will have to adapt. If we do not, the political and social consequences 20 years from now could be bleak.