The Migration Debate: Scotland and the UK’s future

It has been much publicised that the UK government takes a restrictive approach to immigration, with the aim to ‘cap’ net migration to the UK at less than 100,000 per annum by 2015.  Scotland, traditionally a country of net emigration, has demonstrated a more inclusive approach to migration and become a country of net immigration.  The Scottish National Party (SNP) – the party of government in Scotland’s devolved parliament – maintain that migration offers a distinct and positive contribution to Scotland.  Their population-growth target for Scotland is aligned to match the average of the EU-15 over the period 2007-2017.  This target, the SNP-led Scottish Government say, can only be met by supporting migration.  Is this due to demand or because of the positive message of migration that comes out of Scotland?

Surveys suggest that Scotland is generally less hostile to migration than the rest of the UK.  However, looking at regional scales within the UK, it has been shown that opinions on migration in London and the South East are also positive.  Despite Scotland’s more inclusive attitude and approach, and despite the fact that Scotland has its own devolved parliament based in Edinburgh, immigration policy and border control issues remain ‘reserved’ to the UK government.  This arrangement limits the extent to which the Scottish government can directly influence migration policy.  Statistics suggest that if Scotland votes ‘Yes’ to independence this September, migrant numbers would likely increase as Scotland implements its own immigration policy.  It is worth noting that around 7% of those living in Scotland were born outside the UK whereas the figure for the rest of the UK is almost 14%.  Scotland has not been tested with mass migration to the degree that the rest of the UK has.

Economics and migration

Even if Scots reject independence, migration will remain an important issue.  Businesses feel that immigration is addressing skills and labour gaps in Scotland.  Researchers from the University of St Andrews have also highlighted the importance of migration to Scotland as it addresses issues such as Scotland’s ageing population, extending the nation’s global reach and expanding the selection process for migrant workers, bringing economic gains.

These benefits are not exclusive to Scotland.  In 2013, The Office for Budget Responsibility warned that the UK needs millions more immigrants in order to reduce the effects of its ageing population.  As the UK’s age profile increases, unsustainable pressure is being put on the economy, for a variety of reasons.  In January of this year, the UK Treasury’s independent advisers said that immigration is beneficial to the UK economy because new arrivals are likely to be of working age and will contribute to the public pursue through the taxes they pay.  Business leaders in the City of London have also highlighted that a positive and selective migration process is necessary to keep UK businesses and industries ahead.

These opinions are based mainly on economic arguments and they are particularly prevalent in London, the South East and Scotland, whose economies are growing faster than other regions of the UK and where inclusive and tolerant attitudes to migration appear to be highest.  Regional attitudes across the UK are undoubtedly influenced by economics.  In regions where the economy is not thriving and where there is a high immigration flow, there are tangible anxieties – and tensions – surrounding migration, related to employment, welfare provision and social cohesion.

A federal approach to UK immigration policy?

After a ‘Yes’ vote in September’s independence referendum, Scotland would henceforth set its own policy on immigration.  However, Scotland is likely to remain open to migrants, regardless the referendum outcome.  The same may not be said for other regions of the UK.

The current problem for addressing the variance in attitudes towards immigration across the UK is that the UK works on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ immigration policy.  This is not a satisfactory situation.  By way of trying to move beyond this situation, it has been suggested that an immigration policy could be adopted which reflects the Canadian and Australian models, in which territories within these countries are empowered to take precise provincial requirements and person-specific-skills into account when accepting migrants.  This is arguably a more dynamic, ‘federal’, approach to national immigration policy and it is one which has been mooted for the UK.  This model might be appealing to – and work well for – Scotland if its citizens choose to remain within the UK.  Given the contentiousness of immigration, and given that opinion on the subject is very much tied to the varied social and economic impacts that it is seen to have across the regions of the UK, this arrangement might well give Scotland and other UK regions the opportunity to shape an immigration policy that suits them better and which might also diminish tensions where tensions exist.  ‘One size’ does not appear to fit all when it comes to immigration; a more federal approach may well be the answer.
Keith Thomson is Communications and Programmes Intern at the Barrow Cadbury Trust providing communications and research support for grassroots organisations in the UK.  He is a graduate of the Universities of Dundee and Amsterdam and previously worked in the Netherlands for the United Network of Young Peacebuilders.

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