Artillery Row

Scotland – an open door or a back door?

The SNP has out-outmaneuvered the Scottish Conservatives on immigration

Scotland is dying. Without a major infusion from elsewhere, it’s native population is slowly giving up the ghost. More deaths than births are projected for every year for the next quarter century.

This is the portend of doom underlying Nicola Sturgeon’s demand that Scotland gets its own powers to offer visas to attract more immigrants rather than be bound by the UK’s post-Brexit rules. Whilst the latter seek to pivot towards attracting higher-income higher-skill migrants at the expense of those earning below £25,600, Scotland wants to continue to be open to the lower paid too. Without gaining the ability to attract the world’s care workers and hotel staff as well as its brain surgeons and accountants, Sturgeon says Scotland will be on a “disastrous path.”

It would be easy to portray this demand as but the latest in a never-ending list of manufactured grudges through which the Scottish Nationalists demand something they know “London” will deny them, thereby maximising the potential for grievance. When, predictably, Boris Johnson duly rejected the demand for Scotland to issue its own visas stating that it would require border posts at Berwick to prevent Scotland being a backdoor entry route into the rest of the UK, it was not just the SNP’s Westminster leader, the permanently outraged Ian Blackford, who unleashed his daily response of shock and disgust. Even Scotland’s Minister for Public Finance, Ben Macpherson, was spitting about how “the UK government had disrespectfully and offensively refused to listen.” Anything that can support the “Scotland denied” narrative is in-step with the SNP’s Long March to independence.

But not everything is only about political calculation. This time, the SNP has an issue that unites it with a far broader constituency of support than narrow party advantage could summon. From the Scottish Trades Union Congress to much of the business community, the belief is expressed that without a considerable influx of lower-wage migrants, Scotland’s economy is stuffed.  A report from the Federation of Small Businesses suggested that one in five small businesses in Scotland could close, or radically change their business model, unless Scotland could diverge from UK-wide immigration plans that prioritise qualifications and earnings.

Business leaders calling for a system that maximises the supply of cheap labour instead of having to offer better inducements to their existing workers is not necessarily a benefit universally acknowledged, as the CBI discovered over Brexit. But the coalition of concern about a shrinking labour force in Scotland is broad. Besides representatives of the hospitality, food processing and care sectors, farming interests echo Sturgeon’s attack on a “one size fits all” immigration policy. Scott Walker, the chief executive of the Farmers Union of Scotland, has called for “a system that recognises the different regional requirements across the UK. Scotland-specific work permits would do that.”

Then there is one of Scotland’s most established think tanks, the David Hume Institute which has pronounced that, “Scotland’s future immigration needs are distinct from those of England: in particular, we need higher rates of migration. This means that we require a system which can take account of different needs in different parts of the UK, as well as different needs across Scotland.”

These analyses share a sense of the immediacy of pending doom. It is as if Scots, having self-replenished themselves for generation upon generation, have suddenly lost the mojo to reproduce. How will Scotland cope with a declining birth rate?

In fact, it is Scotland’s recent population growth that is historically anomalous. Throughout the twentieth century the population of Scotland was either stagnant or declining. Remarkably, its population in 2001 (5.06 million) was still less than it had been in 1951 (5.1 million), although living standards improved substantially across that half-decade.

But in the first twenty years of this century, thanks in part to immigration, the historic trend has been altered upwards, with the population now up beyond 5.4 million. In the last decade particularly, this has coincided with a flat-lining in Scotland’s productivity growth which is now around 20 percent below the 2017 target set for it by the Scottish government.

Throughout the twentieth century the population of Scotland was either stagnant or declining

The reasons for this chronic under-performance are varied, and cannot be crudely acquainted singularly to an influx of cheaper labour ensuring poorer productivity. But acknowledging that – whatever its wider societal consequences – low-wage immigration is not a magic pill to Scotland’s economic problems would help an increasingly frenzied debate gain a sense of perspective.

Whatever the solutions, for now the politics of the debate has tilted decisively in the SNP’s favour. Their Scottish visa demand has especially shown-up the Scottish Conservatives at their most flat-footed.

Painfully trying to sound distinctive from Boris Johnson and not wanting to put himself at loggerheads with a large part of the Scottish business community, the Scottish Tories new leader, Jackson Carlaw, initially maladroitly garbled, “we are still digesting the Scottish government’s paper [on a Scottish visa] as well, which we, the Scottish Conservatives, believe had quite a sensible analysis of the situation and there were some sensible suggestions made in that too.”

The SNP duly tweeted that even the Scottish Conservatives supported a Scottish visa.

Since then, Carlaw has rowed-back somewhat whilst still keeping us in suspense as to what the Scottish Tory position now is. On 5 March, Alister Jack, the Secretary of State for Scotland, stepped-in to state that a Scottish visa “doesn’t work” but that having listened to those sectors that are most dependent upon seasonal work, the government “has a plan in mind to solve the problem,” hinting that this would be a UK-wide policy rather than an exemption for Scotland.

The Scottish Nationalists have made the running on this subject and we can assume that even if the UK’s new immigration rules are amended to benefit the demands of Scotland’s care and seasonal work-dependent businesses, it will be chalked-up as a result of SNP pressure and not Scottish Tory influence.

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