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26 May 2023

Scotland needs immigrants – so why won’t they come?

One can imagine a Kitchener-esque poster of Humza Yousaf, pointing out across the sea: our country needs you!

By Chris Deerin

I was speaking this week to an Italian journalist, drawn from Milan to Edinburgh by the earthquake in Scottish politics that has followed the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon. We discussed all that for a while, and then he asked me why the immigration debate is so much more “mature” at Holyrood than it is at Westminster.

Mature was an interesting choice of word, and I wasn’t quite sure it was the right one. I knew what he meant – Suella Braverman, Nigel Farage, the small boats, planes to Rwanda, National Conservatism and Brexit are all presenting a particular face of Britain and Britishness to the world. For those of us who don’t share the Tory neuralgia about immigration, it’s not the face we might choose.

In Scotland, the discussion is completely different. Every party in Edinburgh, from the Greens on the left to the Tories on the right, wants to see immigration rise rather than fall. Bring us your huddled masses, preferably with a tech company attached, is the message. We desperately want workers to sustain our rural communities and our tourism and hospitality industries. We want business people and innovators and entrepreneurs. Many of us would also like to see a broadening and enriching of national culture. One can imagine a Kitchener-esque poster of Humza Yousaf, pointing out across the sea: our country needs you!

The data bears this out. Scotland’s population is projected to start falling before the end of the decade, and to have dropped by 1.8 per cent by 2045. People will live longer, skewing the age profile further towards the elderly, and fewer babies will be born – again by 2045 it’s predicted that there will be 22 per cent fewer children and 21 per cent more OAPs.

If this comes to fruition, those of working age will have to pay more to fund a growing welfare state, particularly in relation to healthcare and pensions. Added to this, Scotland’s economic growth is expected to trail that across the rest of the UK.

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[See also: Why are voters so relaxed about immigration?]

So we need immigrants, and more of them. The problem is that not enough want to come. Two years ago, following crackdowns by China, the British government opened an immigration route from Hong Kong to the UK. More than 150,000 Hong Kongers have since acquired visas, says the think tank British Future, but few have chosen to make their way to Scotland.

Over the past few decades, immigration to Britain has been at a historically high level. It’s estimated that 37 per cent of people living in London today were born outside the UK, compared with 14 per cent for the UK as a whole. In Scotland the figure is just 9.3 per cent. About 10 per cent of the English population is from non-EU countries, but only 5 per cent in Scotland.

Perhaps this is part of the problem. Scotland is not multicultural enough, and therefore makes an unattractive destination. There are no or only very small migrant communities to join – the most common non-British nationality is 62,000 Poles, followed by 21,000 Irish. We know that the inclement weather is a problem for many – Hong Kongers have told British Future as much. And inevitably the south-east of England, the engine of the British economy, exerts a magnetic force.

The debate at Holyrood may be a more positive one than we often hear at Westminster, but is it more “mature”, as my Italian friend described it? The lack of mass immigration to Scotland has meant that those tensions that can accompany an influx of newcomers, such as increased pressure on public services and housing, and swift cultural changes to neighbourhoods – the kind of impact, or at least the perception of it, that led some to vote for Brexit – have rarely been felt. Scotland is still pretty ethnically homogeneous, and there has been little policy innovation that might alter this. Our politicians can therefore honour their commitment to immigration more in the abstract than the reality – perhaps not so much mature as premature.

Nevertheless, finding a way to attract more people to live in Scotland is something of a priority. The Scottish government has asked the Home Office for a greater say in influencing the decisions of the Migration Advisory Committee when it is setting its immigration targets for the UK. It has also sought the advent of Scotland-only visas, using the new separate Scottish tax code to ensure any migrants who arrive north of the border stay there. So far, Whitehall has shown little appetite for such changes. It should reconsider this.

The danger for Scotland is that Brexit, and the rhetoric continually deployed by right-wingers, paints the whole UK as an increasingly unwelcoming home for would-be migrants. One of the challenges facing Holyrood ministers is therefore how to distinguish on the international stage the mood in Edinburgh from that in London. This would be one achievement, as would finally persuading the UK government to loosen its grip on immigration policy. But for the foreseeable future, convincing foreigners that they should make cloudy, wet, chilly Scotland their home seems likely to remain as difficult a challenge as ever.

[See also: Will the SNP ever stop blaming Westminster for its own failures?]

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