Sunday, 11 November 2012

Europe's Grey Future

Recently I was lucky enough to visit Wittenberg, situated  in what we of a certain age still think of as "East" Germany in the region of Saxony-Anhalt, just 90 minutes from Berlin by train.

Wittenberg is, of course, famous for being the place where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church, railing as he did against the inequities of an  over-mighty, pan-European and authoritarian organisation, just as we do in our time.

Visiting the town where Luther, one of my personal heroes, changed European history forever was the realisation of a long-held ambition of mine, but the most powerful impression the town left on me was for a much sadder and poignant reason.

It seemed almost entirely depopulated.

As we walked through the town centre towards the church I remarked to my sister that it looked like a neutron bomb had gone off. Yes, it was a Sunday morning, but the place seemed gripped by an unnatural, deathly quiet and devoid of people, apart for a few, largely elderly, couples walking down the street. Many shops were bordered up and paint peeled off the buildings. The sense of abandonment, decay and air of quiet despair was palpable.

This is the Germany nobody talks about. If we are honest with ourselves, we tend to be rather envious of the Germans, with their superb, seemingly invincible economic and industrial machine, capable of absorbing any shocks and overcoming any challenges.  But away from the vibrancy and optimism of Berlin, large parts of the old East lie semi-derelict and partially abandoned.

Germany has, of course, notoriously low birth rates, but here demographic trends have been greatly amplified by the effects of German reunification: the young just left the poverty of the East for a better future, leaving the old and immobile to fend for themselves as best they could. My sister remarked how terribly cruel life had been for that generation, having been born, probably, in the depressed 1930s, grown up during the rise of Nazism and the Second World War, and then spent their best adult years under  the Soviet occupation and communist oppression. Now, having finally been liberated, they were too old to exploit the opportunities and were abandoned by the younger people seeking a better life.

The old East Germany is an extreme case, but I would advise anyone who wants to see the effects of an ageing society to visit it, and see Europe's future. It is a very sobering one.

Although we are vaguely aware that Europe is an ageing society, no one likes to think of their own mortality, and in any case politicians tend to think only within the context of the short-term electoral cycle. It is therefore not surprising that the vast amount of discussion about European economic weakness covers the travails of the Euro, the implication being that everything can be solved by technocratic solutions in the relatively short term. The reality is that it is in large part due to long term demographic trends with below replacement rate birth rates in most countries. Germany itself is about to go into net population decline, to be followed soon after by other European countries with similarly very low birth rates. It is not too much to say that Euro crisis masks a much deeper crisis of the failure of the European social model, as the journalist Mark Steyn has long foreseen. Indeed, it is not hard to foresee that, in order to replace it's own ageing workforce, the German economic motor will suck in large numbers of youth from the already crippled Southern European countries, leaving them in an even more desperate situation than they are now.

Not all European countries have declining populations of course - the UK's population is expected to expand to an astonishing 70 million in the medium term and overtake Germany's by 2040. But this is largely fuelled by immigration or significantly higher birth-rates from ethnic minorities. Many people, particularly on the Left, like to gloss over the cultural tensions that this changing demographic balance causes and see immigration as the solution to the economic issues of an ageing society.  Indeed it can be, but only if immigrants wish to integrate into a host society willing to accept them, and are themselves economically productive.

Many immigrant groups are productive, of course, and really do want to integrate, and there is no doubt that in many cases the doom-sayers on immigration have been proved wrong, particularly about the issue of  race.  Indeed, the growth of racial tolerance and successful integration of many ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom has been perhaps the greatest cultural success stories of recent decades. However, that should not blind us to the fact that much immigration and demographic growth, particularly that from conservative islamic countries, comes from cultures that seem to have no intention of integrating and are not particularly economically productive: instead the fatalism and sectarianism of much (but not all) of Islamic thought seems to offer the worst of all worlds - a rise in sectarian tensions and challenge to our Western way of life, and a further economic drain on an already ageing society. The multicultural lie that all cultures were both  of equal worth and compatible with each other was always socially unaffordable. It is now plainly economically unaffordable also.

The third demographic trend we have to confront is another one we feel uncomfortable in discussing, namely that birth rates are often highest in those sections of society least able to provide for their children. This is in part due to the benefits system, which means that people on welfare have no incentive to stop breeding. The result is that proportionately high numbers of children are brought into families and sub-cultures of low expectation and attainment, and so the cycle of dependency continues from generation to generation. Admittedly some of the Tories in government such as Iain Duncan-Smith have tried to address some of these issues, but they are hampered, of course, by the wretched Liberal Democrats.

Of course, leaving the European Union would help us address some of these problems, not least by furthering our economic potential and stopping free movement within Europe (now, insanely, to be expanded to include Bulgaria and Romania). But even if we leave, serious demographic issues will still confront us. It is plain that we have to become brave enough to talk honestly about all these trends in society. The culture of dishonesty and suspension of reality that we allowed to flourish during the long boom years has still not being disgarded. Those years are now behind us and will probably never return.

We seem to be left with the following choices:

1. Stop mass immigration and accept that, as a consequence, our living standards and prospects may decline as our society continues to age.
2. Accept that a strong influx of young, dynamic and talented people maybe necessary if we are sustain a healthy age structure to society, but that we have every right as a society to discriminate in favour of those cultures that are both productive and likely to integrate, and against those that are neither.
3. Radically reform the welfare and tax system to favour children being born and brought up in the best environment and culture possible, which includes strong support for marriage and limitations of benefits such as child benefit.

Professional politicians, as always, are loath to talk openly about these issues for fear that it will make them unpopular, and consequently the lack of honesty in debate naturally stymies the acceptance by the public of solutions that will prove painful to enact. The result is that the can is kicked ever further down the road even though the day of reckoning clearly cannot be put off for much longer. Let UKIP, with its well-deserved reputation for courage and straight-talking, be the party to really grasp the nettle.

The people are ready to listen.