It used to be that every year at this resurrectionary season — the blossom out, the sunshine warmer, the grass greener — a thought would rise from the tomb where it had lain buried since the previous autumn: should we live elsewhere? That is, should we leave the city where I’ve lived and worked for nearly 50 years, where our family and so many friendships have been created, and move to somewhere smaller and prettier, perhaps with a view of the sea?
Throughout this century, dozens of television series have developed and fed this appetite for change and property; and though I never followed any of them closely, I admit that I did for a time buy the magazine Country Life every month to look at the photographs of castles, halls, manor houses, converted railway stations and old rectories that could then be bought — this is no longer quite as true — for less than the price of a red-brick late-Victorian terrace house in north London. Did we ever intend to move? I’m not sure that we did. Perhaps all that reading Country Life did was to enchant us with reflections of our notional wealth: that our house, staring across the street at equally ordinary houses, could — thanks to exorbitant London property prices — be exchanged for a yellow-stone 18th-century villa surrounded by ancient oaks and apple orchards in Gloucestershire.
Perhaps that was all there was to it — a luxurious daydream — though later, when the children had left school and I no longer needed to attend an office, we took it more seriously. We considered the Tweed valley, the Fife coast and Argyll, and though I never spoke of them as places “to retire to”, because I didn’t want to retire, I suppose that’s how I privately imagined their role in my life — and may still do. Retirement is an ancient idea. Hinduism calls it vanaprastha, the third of life’s four stages, when the householder begins to withdraw from the pleasures and burdens of the material world, eventually renouncing them in the fourth stage, sannyasa. Many centuries later, the German chancellor Otto von
Bismarck added a Prussian twist to this notion when he made 65 the age at which workers would be forced to retire, to be supported by another Bismarck innovation, the state pension, rather than by their children or charity and almshouses. Britain followed in 1908, when it introduced an “old age” pension of five shillings a week, payable only to men over 70 — at a time when the nation’s average life expectancy was 47.
It would have been difficult then (and even as recently as 30 years ago) to envisage the movement of population that these changes would eventually encourage. Ever since the days of the East India Company, officials, military officers and traders had retired from service abroad to spend their sometimes ill-gotten savings on a house in a “nice spot” in which they could live out their days. In the 1950s a Victorian villa set at the edge of a pleasant Scottish village might well contain a former tea planter, a jute mill manager or a skipper from the Irrawaddy Flotilla. But they were people who had “come home” — who had “Dunroamin”. The new development was the people who retired and went away — to what they called a cottage in the country or a seaside bungalow, implying that retirement, rather than a retreat from life, could allow the fulfilment of a dream.
Growing up, I knew only one couple like that: an engineer who, when he retired, moved back with his wife to the west coast of Scotland from the east: 80 miles at most. But they lived in what we called a private house, and so they could fund their move by selling an asset — unlike most families in Scotland at that time, who lived in local authority housing, and had no assets to sell. When men retired (very few married women worked) they went on living in the same houses. They did more gardening, television-watching and newspaper-reading than before; they lay in bed longer, and they engaged in more protracted street conversations. But they remained part of the place. Bucket lists and Ryanair had yet to be invented. Only those who had been at sea or in the services had seen much of the sun, and therefore it wasn’t much missed.
Benefits of cheap air travel
Nobody imagined that people like us — what the present government, in its dubious phrase, calls “ordinary working families” — could aspire to retire beside the Mediterranean, which in terms of British migration was still the preserve of celebrities such as Somerset Maugham and Gracie Fields, and the rich invalids who lingered on the Côte d’Azur: their lives, in the words of Giles Waterfield’s fine novel The Long Afternoon, melting “only gradually into the evening, and then the night”. Nobody imagined, either, that a British state pension could in large part sustain such an existence.
And yet it happened. Cheap air travel, increased longevity, rising British house prices, inflation-proofed pensions, together with Spanish property speculation and the EU principle of free movement: they have added about 310,000 UK citizens to Spain’s current population, including 106,610 who in 2015, according to British government figures, were claiming the UK state pension.
Other EU countries also have substantial numbers of UK citizens — Ireland has 255,000 and France 185,000 out of a total of 1.2 million UK citizens living abroad in the EU. And many of these are also pensioners, receiving, thanks to EU regulation, the same annual rises as those at home (such rises are denied to pensioners living in most — though not all — non-EU countries).
Brexit now threatens the future of the pensioner abroad. The pound’s fall against the euro has already shrunk the pension’s value, and Britain’s withdrawal may also mean the ending of the index-linking that pensioners inside the EU presently enjoy. Another concern is health care, where there’s a formidable imbalance between British pensioners using European health services and European pensioners using the NHS: in Spain 70,000 retired UK citizens use Spain’s doctors and hospitals, while in the UK only 81 Spanish pensioners are registered for treatment by the NHS.
Reciprocal agreements between the states inside the European Economic Area (the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) mean that costs are covered by the migrant’s home nation — the UK paid £674.4 million (Dh3.1 billion) in health bills to other EEA countries in 2014-15 and claimed back only £49.7 million. But if Britain leaves the EEA as well as the EU this health provision, which is free at the point of delivery, would — unless it is renegotiated with individual countries — also cease.
In the words of Sir Roger Gale, the Conservative MP and pension campaigner, the victims include “a lot of very elderly, very frail people... [who] have sunk all their disposable income into their properties”. They are trapped. They cannot sell their homes at the price they paid for them, and they can’t afford the inflated house prices or rents in Britain. A state pension, down in value by 10 per cent since June last year for those in the Eurozone, is what they must survive on. Only the meanest bigot could obtain Schadenfreude from such a pitiful situation, but those of us who stayed put — nervous at the prospect of losing our friends and, in a sense, our lives by moving elsewhere in our sixties — we at least can feel thankful for our wisdom.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Ian Jack writes a weekly column for the Guardian and contributes to other sections of the paper. He edited the Independent on Sunday from 1991 to 1995 and Granta magazine between 1995 and 2007.