With extinction on its mind, Scotland wants population growth

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Census figures just released show Scotland's population will fall below 5 million by 2009. So while most countries are worried about unchecked growth, the Scots have extinction on their minds. If current trends continue, by the year 3573 there'll be two people left in Scotland, probably an octogenarian couple living in St. Andrews for the golf.

Quite a few vibrant nations have populations smaller than Scotland's, among them Norway, New Zealand, and Ireland. None of those countries, however, are declining in population; Ireland, in fact, is the fastest-growing nation in Europe. Within the EU, only Germany and Scotland are shrinking.

The Scottish population, stable for the past century, peaked at 5.24 million in 1974. A relatively high birthrate has traditionally been offset by emigration. Lately, however, once-reliable trends have beenreversed. In 1991, there were 6,000 more births than deaths. But by 2001, deaths exceeded births by 4,800. Thus, not only is the population getting smaller, it's also getting older. A steadily shrinking percentage of workers will henceforth have to support a growing number of pensioners. The population issue has sparked vitriolic debate on the floor of Parliament and forced politicians into policy contortion.

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The problem brings to mind that familiar warning: Be careful what you wish for. In the 1960s, zero population growth was the rage. While ZPG was a goal for Britain as a whole, it has been most successful where it is least appropriate. In Scotland, the average family now has only 1.6 children, though why the Scots are reluctant to procreate is not entirely clear. Some now feel that women's liberation, another Swinging '60s cause, has made Scottish women more interested in careers than in families.

Lately, left-wing female politicians have advocated more "family friendly" policies - polite euphemism for pronatalism. One suggestion is £1,000 ($1,900) "baby bounties" for each child born after the first. These policies assume that the reluctance to have children is based on economic grounds. But if this were so, birthrates among the poor would be lower than among better-off families (which has never been true). Pronatalist ideas often reduce a complex, heartfelt decision to something akin to negotiating a mortgage.

First Minister Jack McConnell has been reluctant to jump onto the pronatalist bandwagon, arguing that incentives to fertility would inevitably mean higher taxes, a disincentive to live in Scotland. Instead, he wants to encourage expatriates to return, while persuading foreigners to stay.

The eagerness of Scots to leave their homeland has traditionally been something of an embarrassment. Over the past 15 years, however, immigration has roughly equaled emigration. But migration statistics are currently kept in balance by the fact that young people leave Scotland, while a similar number of older people return. Consequently, Scotland loses those in their most productive years while it gains people whose contribution is limited by advancing age.

Encouraging immigration is nevertheless perilous, since Britain desperately wants to keep asylum-seekers at bay. The term itself is amorphous but highly charged; it includes those genuinely fleeing political persecution in Middle Eastern and African countries, but also "economic migrants" from Eastern Europe. While immigrants of this sort might find a welcome from the warmhearted Scots, the British government fears that they would migrate to more-crowded England, where racial tensions are higher.

Mr. McConnell has no intention of allowing just anyone to come to Scotland. He wants high achievers who won't make the natives restless. Foreign students will henceforth be encouraged to stay after earning their degree. He's also proposing extra money for the tourist industry, in the hope that visitors might fall for Scotland's charms and immigrate.

Persuading dynamic young Scots not to leave is more problematic. Scottish nationalists have long blamed high emigration on the rapacious English, arguing that poverty-stricken Scots were forced out. In fact, recent studies have revealed that the diaspora has been motivated not by desperation, but by self-improvement. In other words, the dynamic were those most inclined to leave.

In the past, Scots left farms and factories because opportunities abroad were genuinely better. Today, working-class Scots leave to escape the determinism of their birth. While opportunities elsewhere are not necessarily better, a new country offers a new start.

Getting people to believe in Scotland is perhaps the answer. But that's hugely difficult since Scotland has never been seen as a place of opportunity. Granted, some people would love to come here, but they aren't the "right sort." Scotland might nevertheless find that, when it comes to encouraging immigration, beggars can't be choosers.

Gerard DeGroot, an American, is professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

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