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  1. Election 2024
  2. Scotland
22 November 2023

Scotland has an immigration problem

The country has to overcome three barriers to attract the migrants it needs.

By Chris Deerin

Scotland has its own immigration debate. It doesn’t want fewer migrants, it wants more. The challenge is how to get them.

There are three barriers. The first is that Holyrood lacks any control over immigration, which is reserved to Westminster. As it stands, the number and type of people allowed into the United Kingdom is decided in London, and the Scottish government has no input into this decision other than in an advisory capacity.

The second issue is that not enough migrants want to come. As the former Labour minister Brian Wilson pointed out this week, where Ireland has one in five born outside the country, Scotland only has one in 14. Most arriving on these shores still head for the south, where they see better economic opportunities. 

If the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the current UK government hardly makes Britain seem like the most welcoming place, history tells us that Scotland has rarely held great appeal for those seeking to start a new life. At a recent event, I heard Hong Kongers who had moved to Scotland since the Chinese security crackdown say that when they were making their choice, there was little done by the Scottish government to persuade them of the nation’s benefits. Why on Earth not?

Third, whether or not it makes sense for Holyrood to control an element of immigration policy, there seems little prospect of agreement being reached on this between a Tory government at Westminster and an SNP one in Edinburgh. Both are struggling anyway, have directly opposed policies on migrants, and they are constitutional enemies – there is little impetus to find concord.

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[See also: Keir Starmer needs a coherent plan for immigration]

Wilson makes the point that many of the practical challenges of increasing migration north of the border have yet to be addressed. Where would they live? What would they do? How would they be integrated? There is a lot of warm talk, but not enough hard work on these essential aspects.

Interestingly, though, Wilson – a well-known hammer of the Nats – argues that in an improved political climate, agreements could be forged. He writes that “peripheral places would be an obvious starting point for piloting immigration flexibility to meet labour shortages and population decline”.

This chimes with an article by the former SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes. Writing in West Word, a community newsletter for Mallaig and the Small Isles, Forbes backs a programme based on the Canadian Atlantic Immigration Program, which would allow rural areas to advertise job vacancies internationally, based on local needs. With the population of the Highlands and Islands predicted to decline by 16 per cent over the next two decades, its need for immigrants is especially pressing.

Forbes argues that “employers and communities could work together to assess prospective candidates… Once applications had been agreed, they would recommend the chosen candidates to the Home Office for the various security checks that are required. The candidate would then be free to travel to and work in Scotland.”

There are issues with this, not least how the authorities would guarantee immigrants stay in rural Scotland, rather than deserting for the more prosperous central belt or heading over the border. But the separate Scottish tax code could at least ensure they stay in Scotland.

At the very least, it’s welcome that thinking on immigration is developing at a level beyond the progressive back-slapping that has marked the debate so far. Still, further progress might require democratic change. As Wilson writes, “Having two governments in Whitehall and St Andrew’s House which are capable of, and indeed eager to, work together would transform the picture.”

Perhaps a centre-left Labour-SNP arrangement in London and Edinburgh would allow such progress. That would no doubt suit Forbes. Wilson, of course, is counting on Labour winning power in both parliaments. Don’t expect too much harmony.

[See also: Maga’s foolish embrace of Javier Milei]

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