Written by Classical Liberal


Britain is a nation of emigrants, not of migrants. Since the Middle Ages, our people have spread to all corners of the globe. Britain’s dominant migration experience has been to send people abroad rather than to receive them from overseas. The balance did not change until the early-1980s.

Henry VII encouraged John Cabot in his transatlantic ventures to Newfoundland at the end of the fifteenth century, around the same time as Columbus. From Elizabeth I to the Stuarts, emigration to the new colonies in the Americas and elsewhere became an established part of British life. As always, motives were mixed: opportunity, improvement, making a fortune, freedom for unpopular religious views, and plain greed. Some encouragement was given to the emigration of the poor, from Tudor to Victorian times, to relieve the burden on Parish rates.

There are no direct data worth mentioning until the nineteenth century. Still, indirect estimates suggest a net emigration of between 5,000-7,000 per year from the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century. By the later nineteenth century, we know from direct data that up to 90,000 persons per year were leaving Britain. That was a significant demographic contribution to the great democracies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the USA. Peak emigration from the UK was reached in the last years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. Over eleven million Brits and seven million Irish emigrants joined the total of about fifty-two million Europeans who emigrated across the Atlantic from 1815-1930. Many returned, of course. Perhaps a third of those who left. 

After the Second World War, migration resumed on a large scale, encouraged by governmental and Commonwealth schemes of various kinds, which did not end until the 1960s. While emigration to the USA never exceeded about 13,000 per year after the mid-1960s, the net loss to the Commonwealth (Australia/New Zealand/Canada) was 104,000 as late as 1974. Even the substantial immigration from the New Commonwealth that got underway in the 1950’s was smaller than the net outflow of British citizens until the early 1980s. 

In the last forty years, Britain has become a country of net immigration, thus reversing the historical trend of previous centuries.

More than 5.5 million Brits live overseas, equivalent to nearly 10% of the population of Great Britain. The top ten destinations for Brits fleeing the UK are as follows:


          1) Australia 1,300,000

          2) Spain 761,000

          3) USA 678,000

          4) Canada 603,000

          5) Ireland 291,000

          6) New Zealand 215,000

          7) South Africa 212,000

          8) France 200,000

          9) Germany 115,000

         10) Portugal 60,000



In the year ending March 2020, 403,000 people emigrated from the UK. An increase of around 10,000 from the previous year.

During the same period, 715,000 migrants arrived in the UK. In December 2019, 6.2 million people living in the UK had another country’s nationality, amounting to 9% of the population.

Thus, in the year ending March 2020, there was a net migration of 312,000 people.

Is the number of Brits moving abroad growing? According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the statistics have broadly stayed the same in recent years, after a significant jump around 2005.

According to the Institute for Public Policy Research’s (IPPR) ‘Brits Abroad Project’, Brits emigrate for four reasons. Firstly, family ties: to reunite with family and friends living abroad. Secondly, lifestyle improvements: young families and retirees looking for better weather and a cheaper cost of living. Indeed, a quarter of British expats in the USA/Canada are pensioners. Thirdly, adventure: younger Brits who decide to live and work abroad to learn new skills and take part in activities they cannot access in the UK. Fourth, career opportunities: earning more money is a significant factor for many Brits who emigrate. Two-thirds of those who leave the UK do so to find work. And, many of those who do so are highly skilled workers.

For those of us who feel that the UK as we know it is in terminal decline and are pessimistic that nothing will be done to save it, emigrating to a ‘better’ country might be the answer.    

Am I wrong? 

Is the UK in terminal decline? Can it be saved? Will it be saved? Is emigration a solution? Are any other countries better than the UK? Or is the whole Western world dying the same death?


Photo by University of Glasgow Library

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