Why Farage getting his dream of net zero migration would probably not be a good sign for the UK economy

Today Nigel Farage, the Reform leader, declared that "net migration should be zero".

It's a striking statement, given that migration totals are so high.

But it raises a question: when was the last time net migration was zero or negative - in other words, when the number of people entering the country did not exceed the number leaving the country?

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The (possibly surprising) answer is that for much of Britain's post-war history, it had negative net migration.

For nearly every year from 1947 through to the early 1980s, there were more people emigrating from the country than coming in. This was not seen as a particularly positive story at the time.

Policymakers fretted about the "brain drain" of promising minds leaving the country.

Britain, with its post-war rationing, relatively slow growing economy (compared with much of the rest of the world) and, in the 1960s and '70s, high inflation and unemployment, was simply not seen as an attractive place to come to and live in.

That gets to an important point. While it's tempting to assume there's some lever the government can pull which will lower or raise the net migration total, invariably it's a product not of direct government policy but of something else: economics.

When a country is doing well, generating decent amounts of money and jobs, then people tend to want to come to work and live there. Net migration tends to swing into positive territory.

When it's doing badly and unemployment is high, net migration tends to swing into negative territory.

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This is not the only dynamic affecting migration. Consider the enormous surge in numbers after new-post Brexit rules were introduced in 2020 - or consider what happened in 1988, when freedom of movement suddenly meant Britons could go and work in Europe.

In 1988, UK net migration swung into negative territory as lots of UK workers took advantage of the new rules.

But broadly speaking, "it's the economy, stupid", to coin a phrase.

It's not coincidental that the last time UK net migration dropped into negative territory was in 1992 and 1993, as it faced a toxic combination of a deep recession, high unemployment and double-digit interest rates.

So, much as politicians like to declare that they're in favour of lower migration (and much as they like to impose migration caps which stand little chance of actually working), they tend privately to concede that these flows are the consequence of a more positive economic story.

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'Abnormal' recent migration - but UK needs workers

But that being said, it's important to note that the flows of migration we've seen in recent years are far from normal.

Adjusted for the size of the UK population, there is no other year in history (well, going back to 1855) when the flows of net migration have been as high as they were in the past couple of years.

And note that these flows utterly dwarf the immigration stories we mostly tend to hear about from our politicians.

The number of people arriving on these shores in small boats over the Channel last year was just under 30,000.

The number arriving to study (and their dependents) was 379,000. The number arriving to work (and their dependents) was 423,000.

Even if you subtract the dependents from the total, or ignore students altogether, we're looking at an unprecedented flow of people coming into this country. There is nothing whatsoever "normal" about recent migration figures.

And while it's tempting to put it down to a single issue - say, the arrival of migrants from Ukraine and Hong Kong, or the introduction of new post-Brexit migration rules, or the pandemic - the reality is it's a combination of all of the above.

Most of all, it's a function of economics.

The UK economy is not doing brilliantly, but it's doing somewhat better than most of Europe. It remains an attractive place to work.

Just as importantly, it's facing a serious shortfall of labour, since many people who left the workforce during the pandemic simply haven't returned.

In short, there are still many reasons for people to come to the UK, sometimes on boats but mostly through entirely legal routes.

It's not clear that any of the policies proposed by the major parties will do much to stem this.

And it's not clear how one could shift from today's numbers to the zero figure Nigel Farage wants, without some serious economic damage being imposed along the way.