What I was doing was avoiding something far more tedious - wasting my time going through yet another bloody Daily Mail story about population hitting 70 million. I'd spotted last week and already put it off for ages. "Come on, Crackers," I thought, "there's something more useful you can be doing than unnecessary ironing." So I put down the pillowcase and went to have some chocolate pudding and custard.
I finally got round to looking properly at 'Britain's soaring population on course to hit 74 million' today. I could go into how all that's happened is that the paper has taken the upper limit of a few projections from the ONS and the story is nothing more than another relentless hammering of a pre-prepared narrative over reporting the news, but there really isn't any point. I'd only have to do the same thing again in a few weeks. So bugger it.
There is something I want to ask, though. I've been meaning to ask it for ages, but haven't said anything for fear of sounding like the stupid kid who hasn't been paying attention, but sod it. You never know until you ask these things.
What happens if the population of the UK hits 70 million? Why is that figure supposed to shock us to the very core?
Is it that as soon as we hit 70 million, oxygen will start getting short? Will the islands start to sink? Will people start pinwheeling their arms and dropping off into the North Sea? What? Why that number and not 65 million, or 80 million - or 55 million that we've scarily already passed?
In Anton Vowl's excellent look at 'The annual 70m scare story', he links to a 2006 story from the Mail headlined 'Population 'could hit 70m unless we get a grip on immigration'. In it, Lord Turner says:
What always amazes me is we have piecemeal discussions which never consider: would you prefer a population of 60 or 70 million? It is an area that depresses me.And that would appear to be it.
My answer to Lord Turner's question is, "I don't give a monkey's raas, unless you can show me something solid to suggest the earth's crust will crack from the Land's End to John O'Groats and we'll all start sliding into the fiery crevasse."
Okay - I'll accept less than that - but at least show me something that explains why 70 million specifically is such a terrible, terrible number. Otherwise, I'll be forced to believe it's an arbitrary number that looks as though it will be reached far enough in the future to be impossible to disprove any time soon, but soon enough to frighten people because it will happen in their lifetime.
The thing is, immigration is an incredibly complex subject that's difficult to get to grips with, but it's never presented that way. It's always, "The population must not reach 70 million and something must be done to stop immigration," which sounds plausible on the surface of it. But, aside from the question of what's wrong with the magic 70 million number anyway, what could we do much to stop the population reaching the magic number?
Despite MigrationWatch's laughable attempt at handwaving and misdirection to try to suggest otherwise, migration is a global phenomenon. The number of migrants in the world has risen from 75 million to 191 million between 1960 and 2005. All these people have to go somewhere, and it happens that the UK experiences around the EU average for immigration. Would a cap, or any other policy do much to stop this?
The tabloids would have us believe we have an open door immigration policy. Passports get 'handed out' at an alarming rate. Immigrants get given free cars. And yet, curiously, they would also believe that there are hundreds of thousands, if not a million, illegal immigrants who for some reason risked life and limb to make it to the UK when all they really had to do was turn up.
Given there are hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants that flood to the UK despite having to do bugger all to be let in anyway, what do the tabloids (and people like MigrationWatch) expect would happen if potential immigrants are given more incentive to come here illegally or overstay a visa? How would they expect this sort of thing would be policed? Who would do the policing? What powers would they have? How much would they cost? How would the officials who the tabloids go on about being hopelessly incompetent, and the system that is a 'shambles' suddenly be turned into well-oiled models of efficiency?
There are too many questions that are never answered by the tabloids and their supporters, while they dictate the terms and the course of the debate. Ministers fall over themselves to assure us that the population will never hit 70 million without asking, "What - exactly - would be so awful if it did?" It also doesn't help that throughout the debate, everybody seems to assume that strict immigration controls are free, operate with no complications and are absolutely 100% effective in what they set out to do.
I risk looking like a total fool if it turns out that everyone knows if the population hits 70 million, the demons start emerging from the mirrors or something, but sod it, I'm confused. Why have we settled on that number as the one that must not be crossed, ever?