"I want people who can sit on my board, not people who will wash my Rolls."
That was the way one of this country's hugely successful immigrants, the head of a large company, put his perspective on the issue of immigration to me on Friday.
Migration was at the front of all our minds last week because of the shock waves that followed Jean-Marie Le Pen's success in France. But it ought to be in our minds for the much less publicised comments, also last week, by Gordon Brown, that one of the reasons why the Treasury had raised its estimate of the UK's potential growth rate was inward migration.
Over the last 20 years the UK has grown at about 2.3 per cent a year. But now the Treasury reckons that the potential growth rate is 2.75 per cent, which if right, would enormously increase the wealth of the country over the next 20 years. It helps in the short-term, too. The faster the economy grows, the more tax the system generates. Had it not been for this higher estimate of potential growth, Mr Brown's tax increases would have been nearer pounds 10bn instead of "only" pounds 8bn.
The detail of the new estimate for our underlying growth rate is not yet clear but it seems that the net migration into the country and the implications that has for population change is one of the key factors. Whereas during the 1970s and early 1980s there was net migration out of the country, the net flow since then has been the other way - snapshots of the inward and outward flows in 1971, 1981, 1991 and 2000 are shown in the left-hand graph.
Just what these flows, plus the natural increase or decrease in the population, will do for the size of the UK population is not at all clear. We do have some UN projections for 2050 in the middle table. If these turn out to be right, the population will be down a touch by then - though not nearly as sharply down as that of Italy, Russia or Japan. Aside from the rather special case of Ireland, the main EU population winner would be France, which is expected to grow slightly. Elsewhere, population is expected to shrink.
But of course the greatest winner is the US, thanks to its slightly higher birth rates but much more to its expected immigration. The intriguing question is whether the UK might be heading down the US path. We have a relatively small stock of foreign-born nationals by European standards, but the strength of the UK economy clearly makes the UK an attractive destination. It has the lowest unemployment of any large European nation.
This raises the central question, "What sort of immigrants?" EU nationals have free access to this job market, which is immensely attractive at both the bottom and top ends of the scale. At the bottom end, entry jobs in the UK tend to require fewer formal qualifications than the rest of the EU, with the result that young Europeans are able to finance …