Population growth in independent countries and Scotland

Two weeks ago, the Better Nation blog contained a posting by Jeff Breslin which contained the following passage:

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Ireland’s current difficulties is the number of bright young things leaving the country for better prospects abroad. One could argue that this isn’t a road that Scotland would want to go down through independence and, yet, that is precisely what is happening now. (I know this from experience as I moved to London strictly because Scotland couldn’t provide the PhD that my partner wished to study. Wales, incidentally, could).

The Irish population in 1961 was 2.8m. The population today is 4.5m.

The Norwegian population in 1961 was 3.6m. The population today is 5.0m.

The Icelandic population in 1961 was 179,000. The population today is 318,000.

The Scottish population in 1961 was 5.2m. The population today is 5.2m.

There is clearly only one stagnant, problem child in the above list and that is because there is an historic, corrosive brain drain taking place in Scotland that is damaging growth from both a population and an economic viewpoint. It is little wonder that ‘London-based parties’, to use an unfortunate phrase, are championing the continuation of the UK when it is London that is the prime beneficiary of this very brain drain.

Kids wanting to get away from it all in Sweden move to Stockholm, kids wanting to get away from it all in Norway move to Oslo and kids wanting to get away from it all in Iceland move to Reykjavik but too many kids wanting to get away from it all in Scotland move to London, and we are haemhorrhaging talent and creativity as a direct result.

I decided to have a closer look at this. Using figures from Wikipedia (look for the articles called Demographics of …), I’ve made two graphs.

The first one (top right) shows the populations of Scotland, Ireland, Denmark and Norway from 1900 to 2010. In 1900, Scotland was by far the most populous country of the four, with almost as big a population as Norway and Denmark combined. Scotland and Ireland had almost stagnant populations for the following decades, while Norway and Denmark grew rapidly. A while after Ireland became independent, the Irish population suddenly exploded, and it has now almost caught up with Denmark. Scotland seems to have experienced modest growth after the introduction of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

The other graph (on the left) adds Sweden and England, but instead of using absolute numbers, the graphs are relative to the populations in 1900.

The second graph clearly shows a difference between non-independent Scotland and pre-independence Ireland on one hand, and the independent countries (or the dominant part of the union, in the case of England) on the other.

If Scotland had experienced the same relative population growth as Denmark since the year 1900, the population in 2010 would have been around 10.1m instead of 5.2m. Would this have happened if Scotland had regained her independence under Queen Victoria, or are there other reasons why Scotland would never have been as fertile as Denmark?

14 thoughts on “Population growth in independent countries and Scotland”

  1. Englandvand Scotland went thru industrialization before Scandinavia. Maybe hey just got their growth before the others? How about going another 100 or 150 years back?

    1. You’re right, of course, that there might be many causes other than (in)dependence.
      However, according to Wikipedia, in the year 1801, Denmark had 929k inhabitants, while Scotland had 1608k; these figures seem very similar to the ones recorded a century later.

  2. I’ve found some historical population figures for the British Isles here.
    According to this source, in 1751 England and Wales had a population of 5.8m, while Scotland in 1755 had one of 1.3m. In other words, if Scotland had grown as fast as E&W, today we would have had a population of 12.2m instead of 5.2m. It’s quite a difference!

  3. The Highland Clearances will have made a difference. The same thing happened in England (the Enclosures) but in England the people driven off the land went to live in English cities. The Highlanders driven off the land went to Nova Scotia … continuing the centuries-long westward Celtic migration.

  4. What’s so bad about Scots going to London? There is a two-way traffic of talented and creative people between Scotland and England.

    1. A certain level of migration towards London (and New York and other global metropolises) is completely normal and to be expected. It only becomes a problem if it becomes a necessity for a large number of people – “if you want a career, move to London”.

  5. Here, it’s “If you want a career, move to Australia”. London’s interesting.

    There’s still a belief that the streets are paved with gold in London but it’s very hard to ‘make it’ in London. Much easier to make it big in a smaller pond (if your aim in life is to make it big). London’s a stressful place to live in — I loved living in Edinburgh and Glasgow but did not really enjoy London so much.

    1. I’m sure there are many downsides to working and living in London, but it still distorts the UK economy far beyond what’s reasonable.
      A mathematician friend of mine told me once that a colleague of his had worked out that many of the UK’s problems would be solved if the capital was moved from London to somewhere else (it didn’t really matter where, just away from London). That is, the government and parliament would be moved by an act of parliament, but businesses would of course be free to remain in London.

  6. You always want to muck about with England, Thomas! It’s almost as though you see England as a problem to be solved!!!

    1. It’s actually not England that I consider a problem, it’s Greater London (or the South-East, or whatever you want to call it), which is just completely ruining the rest of the UK. I have a feeling that the urge for Scottish Independence would be much less strong if Greater London had become an independent country already, because the rest of England would be much more similar to Scotland.

  7. OK … as I’m *from* the south east of England, I’m used to hearing that we (well the pre-18-year-old me we) are/were the cause of the woes of the rest of the UK but I don’t get what’s so wrong about being the economic powerhouse region of the UK economy. If you muck about with that you’re killing the goose that lays the golden egg. The answer is not to blame the south-east for problems elsewhere but for other parts of the UK to develop their own economic-powerhouse-potential.

    1. The problem is that the other parts cannot develop their own “economic-powerhouse-potential” because the UK is run by the SE of England. Ideally, taxes should be lowered outside Greater London to make it attractive for people and businesses to move there, but nobody is suggesting this, because it would be harmful to many of those people who would have to introduce it.

  8. Living in London/SE England is already much more expensive than everywhere else — London is just not an affordable city to live in for many people. It’s also overcrowded. If you had higher taxes in London than the rest of the UK you’d increase the feeling (irrational I know but real) that people feel there that they’re subsidising the rest of the country. Why should a Cockney cabbie pay more tax than a Newcastle one?

    1. The whole idea of lowering taxes elsewhere would be to create a flow of people away from London to compensate for the flow into London. Your cabbie will ask for a pay increase of move to Newcastle if he can get a job there, which will help the economy of the north.

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