Exodus: The Great British Migration; They Go to France, Spain, Canada, New Zealand and, Increasingly, Eastern Europe. Britons, Particularly the Middle Classes, Are Leaving in Greater Numbers Than Ever before. David Nicholson-Lord Reports

By Nicholson-Lord, David | New Statesman (1996), August 2, 2004 | Go to article overview

Exodus: The Great British Migration; They Go to France, Spain, Canada, New Zealand and, Increasingly, Eastern Europe. Britons, Particularly the Middle Classes, Are Leaving in Greater Numbers Than Ever before. David Nicholson-Lord Reports


Nicholson-Lord, David, New Statesman (1996)


Two or three years ago, everybody I met seemed to be thinking of moving to New Zealand. At the time, I put it down to the arrival on our cinema screens of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, with its ravishing depiction of South Island landscapes, and wondered if it was a passing fad. Then I got an airmail letter out of the blue from one of those sojourners, an old friend, who announced that he'd actually done it--almost. He and his partner had moved to the eastern seaboard of Australia and, although it wasn't quite South Island, it did have environmental quality in abundance. "I think the amount of space people have here, whether it's at home or on the beach, is one of the big bonuses ... people seem much happier and more relaxed as a result."

Most people in the UK could these days tell a similar story, of people they know who have moved "out"--wherever "out" might be--in search of a better life. And though it is conventional to decry such anecdotal evidence, condescension, in this case, would be misplaced. Demographics--the study of population, its growth and movements--is in a fundamental sense an attempt to capture in statistics the lives that anecdotes describe. And there is little doubt that such anecdotes embody something real, and worrying.

Take second homes, for example. People own them in some remarkably far-flung places--ski resorts in Canada, villas in the West Indies. These are not always very wealthy people; owning a second home is turning into a middle-class norm. Officially, there are 151,000 second homes in England and Wales--but they come a poor second to property owned abroad. The industry estimates that there are 750,000 homes in Spain owned by British nationals, roughly 500,000 in France, and many more in places such as Florida, Portugal, Mediterranean countries other than Spain, and, increasingly, eastern Europe. So at least 1.5 million British households--roughly 6 per cent of the total--have given up sufficiently on their "normal" lives to want to half-live somewhere else. And that is just those who can afford it.

But half-living somewhere may be only a stepping stone to moving there: some observers call it "pre-emigrating". Surveys recently have uncovered huge numbers of Britons who, given a free choice, would get out of the country. Separate polls by ICM and YouGov found that more than half would like to leave--the YouGov poll found that 55 per cent had "seriously considered settling in another country". A recent survey by the offshore bank Alliance & Leicester International and the Centre for Future Studies put the proportion of Britons "considering moving abroad to work or live" at a third. Based on these figures, the bank projects that by 2020 an extra six million British citizens--more than one-tenth of our current population--will be living or working abroad. Roughly four million of these will be people aged 50 and above--representing one in five of that age group.

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In historical terms, such figures would represent a huge population exodus--far bigger than that caused by the Irish potato famine in the 19th century, for example. Are they realistic? A projection--or, come to that, a pipe dream--is one thing. Getting off your backside and doing it is something else again. But getting off our backsides is what, it seems, more and more of us are doing.

Over the past dozen years or so, some remarkable changes have occurred in Britain's demography. London's long-standing population decline has halted, and the capital's "recovery" (in economic growth and numbers) appears to have accentuated the north-south divide. It also appears to have accelerated the metamorphosis of much of lowland England, south and east of a line from the Wash to the Bristol Channel, into a kind of infinitely greater London--a peri-urban zone where the landscape may look rural but the lifestyles, noise and congestion are metropolitan.

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At the same time, national population growth has taken off again, driven primarily by immigration and by the greater fertility of newly immigrant populations. …

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Exodus: The Great British Migration; They Go to France, Spain, Canada, New Zealand and, Increasingly, Eastern Europe. Britons, Particularly the Middle Classes, Are Leaving in Greater Numbers Than Ever before. David Nicholson-Lord Reports
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