Scotland shows some independence on immigration
Official attitudes towards migration are very different north of the border
Alex Salmond: The first minister insists Scotland could have an immigration policy substantially different to the rest of the UK if independence is voted in in next year’s referendum, and still be free of border checks. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA wire
Imagine the following scene: British prime minister David Cameron appears at a lectern in No 10 Downing Street, with a sheaf of notes in hand.
“Healthy population growth is important for the United Kingdom’s economy,” he declares, against a backdrop of whirring cameras and rustling notebooks.
“One of the main contributors to the United Kingdom’s population growth is migrants who choose to make the United Kingdom their home,” he says. Cameron has the attention of the room.
“In future, our enhanced economic strategy will also do more to encourage young people to build their lives and careers within the United Kingdom and to attract people to live in the UK.”
Such language would be unimaginable. However, substitute “the United Kingdom” for “Scotland” and one is left with a speech recently given by Scottish first minister Alex Salmond.
The exercise highlights the difference between opinion in Edinburgh and London on immigration – over which power is vested in Westminster.
Immigration is not a “live” issue in Scotland as it is in London. Indeed, a poll by the Oxford-based Migration Observatory found only Scotland favoured more immigration. Part of that is explained by Scots’ own cultural memories, the nearly half a million people who emigrated in the 1920s and the earlier waves fed by the Highland Clearances.
Equally, Scots have obsessed about their own extinction. A slow steady decline in numbers took place after 1984. By 2002, live births were the lowest ever recorded, at 51,270.
Two years later, Scotland had 4,012 more deaths than births, and there were doom-laden predictions that teenagers would be as rare as the Loch Ness monster.
Part of the attitudes are framed, too, by an acceptance that Scotland has skills gaps that will be impossible to fill from within the domestic population.
The lack of general ill-feeling towards immigrants is partly explained, too, by the fact that Scotland does not have many. Just 6 per cent are foreign- born, about represent half of the UK average.
Despite the predictions of a decade ago, there have never been so many people living in Scotland – the 2011 census reported 5,295,000 people living north of the border.
The increase since 2001 is put at 233,000, or 5 per cent – the fastest growth rate between two census years in the last century, the National Records of Scotland happily reported.
Some of this increase is down to Scots’ greater fecundity, some to immigration. Much of the increase, however, is down to the fact that Scots are living longer. Indeed, Scotland is getting older faster than anywhere else in the UK. More than one-in-eight Scots are pensioners – an issue that perturbs Salmond.
The first minister insists Scotland could have an immigration policy substantially different to the rest of the UK if independence is voted in in next year’s referendum, and still be free of border checks.
The model, he argues, is the Common Travel Area that exists between the UK and Ireland.
Scotland, he says, will offer a points-based immigration scheme, one that encourages highly skilled arrivals, particularly those prepared to head for remoter parts.
The focus on such regions is hardly surprising since the population of Argyll and Bute, including the Inner Hebrides, has shrank by 2.2 per cent in a decade.
The Canadians and the Australians have visa regimes that tie entry to location, usually for three years. After that, the conditions fall away. By then immigrants have put down roots, ensuring that most will not head for the bright lights that would have otherwise attracted them.
The SNP’s rhetoric about more welcoming rules is one thing. Reality is another, since it is far from clear how different Edinburgh’s rules could be to London’s without causing significant trouble.
Salmond has said an independent Scotland would not become part of the EU’s Schengen Agreement, but it would likely face pressure to join talks to decide on Scotland’s terms for membership of the EU. This would probably be a negotiating ploy by the other states, but could be a complication, nevertheless. In reality, Schengen would not work for either Scotland or the rest of the UK.
Meanwhile, the Scottish government was happy this week to publicise a 14 per cent fall in the number of racist incidents involving minorities over the last 12 months.
In all, 4,628 such incidents were recorded by Police Scotland, down from 5,389 a year before. However, the number of anti-Scottish and anti-English incidences rose over the same period. For example, there were 145 racist attacks on white English people, up from 80 the year before.