Between the lines by John Blundell

ONE in five of Scots will retire abroad. That seems an astonishing claim. The phenomenon already has a term in estate agency circles – “the silver flight”. If the claim is correct, it has vast implications for Scottish business. Many of the effects may be indiscernible now.

If one in five couples, retiring at 60 or 65, flees to sunshine locations, it seems obvious the Scottish property market will have to evolve to accommodate the phenomenon. Yet will people jetting off to Florida or the Canaries sell their homes in Dunblane or Dundee? It seems unlikely they would just leave their primary asset empty. They will either sell up or rent out their homes.

The research was conducted by the Institute for Public Policy Research. They also found what are already the favoured locations for this retiring migration. I was surprised to learn Australia is the most popular destination followed by Canada then the US. America seems to mean mostly Florida, already a retirement state for so many New Englanders.

Spain is the top location for Scots retiring to Europe, followed by Italy and France. The statistics are exhaustive in detail – three Scots have retired to Libya, two to Afghanistan and one to Kazakhstan. Is it possible the figures include immigrants in reality settling back in their homelands ? It does seem that many Pakistanis and West Indians aspire to return to their places or origin, enriched by their time in Scotland and probably carrying UK pension rights which will give them princely incomes compared to those who never worked in Britain.

The phenomenon of emigration from Scotland is nothing new but the texture is quite different. This is no Highland Clearances. This is not destitute Scots migrating to the New World to find employment impossible in Lanarkshire or Fife. Past migrant flows were essentially young people seeking to make their fortunes. The force identified by these researches is affluent retired couples who simply want to escape the raw weather of Scotland and enjoy guaranteed sunshine.

I think it possible technology is at work here too. The internet makes home contact almost instant, constant and intimate. Letters from Tasmania to Tayside can take three weeks. An e-mail arrives in a nanosecond. Satellite TV also keeps us in touch. “Scots Greys”, as they are coming to be termed, can tune into BBC Radio Scotland or Reporting Scotland in Fort Lauderdale as easily as Fort William. Indeed there may be a real pang of pleasure at seeing the frost reports and news of traffic snarl-ups while watering your bougainvilleas.

One serious misgiving about living abroad in the past was the loss of your morning copy of The Scotsman but you can read it on line in Tierra del Feugo or Thailand now. Distance is dead.

Come to think of it, I am forgetting my wife and I are part of this new force. We have a home in West Virginia which is a refuge that gives us great pleasure. I can’t quite envisage abandoning the UK, but, like most families, we have now seen much of the world and lost the insularity of past generations.

If one in five of those currently in employment flees, it invites questions about those left behind. It seems indelicate to mention it, but Scotland has a sort of under-class on the bigger council estates, largely locked out of employment and often attending schools which impart little education. These people will not be part of any “silver flight”. They will stay in Scotland with little prospect of sunshine even though a mere state retirement pension would render them rich in many parts of the world.

One misgiving that may have deterred this migration is the trust and affection in which the National Health Service was regarded. My guess is that, the more we travel, the more we are aware that the NHS is now very far from being “the envy of the world”. We observe other nations’ medical provisions offer happier prospects than our bureaucratic system. This too, if correctly diagnosed, hints at a major change in perception of our institutions.

If I am correct, the main impediment to far greater migration in retirement is language. We express a preference for English-speaking locations. I can see the attractions of Florida but it is not cheap. Your pension or your savings will go far further in, say, Belize or the Bahamas. Is it possible to anticipate a Scots Grey colonisation of Africa ?

The accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union is already reflected in a flurry of estate agent activity extolling the sunshine and beauty of these new mountains and seashores. Moldova, Montenegro, Croatia and other Balkan states previously dismissed as “badlands” may become retirement prospects too.

If a high proportion of Scots migrate as predicted, does this have implications for business marketing ? Pringles knitwear sells a high percentage of their cashmere to retirees. Will they be needed in the Cape Verde Islands ? Opticians may see their best customers disappear. We are on the cusp of an unknown but intriguing landscape. The earliest foreign retirements I can detect were the Roman soldiers of the XXth Legion given plots of land around Melrose. How very eccentric to come from the gentle warmth of Tuscany to the tundra of the Eildons. Or was Scotland far warmer then ?

What intrigues me most about this new phenomenon is that it has occurred spontaneously. It is not the result of any design or any coercion by governments. We are discovering foreign locations can be benign for old bones and are happy to flee the promise of the NHS and other repositories for the elderly. I agree. I think I would prefer to expire on an Algarve golf course than freeze in a municipal old folks’ home in Arbroath.

John Blundell is director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs