In August 2007, three months after coming to power at Holyrood, the SNP launched its National Conversation on Scotland’s constitutional future. We have been talking about little else since. Among the many national conversations postponed is one on immigration. The CBI has tried to kick-start such a discussion by warning that, within 20 years, just one third of Scotland’s population will be of working age. Given that figure is currently 64 per cent, it is an arresting claim. It is also entirely plausible. The Office for National Statistics predicts the number of working-age Scots to grow by just one per cent between now and 2041, while the pensioner population is expected to surge by 25 per cent. Scotland is getting old, fast, and the birthrate in the last quarter was the lowest since records began.
The CBI wants the UK’s post-Brexit immigration regime to reflect Scotland’s needs, but given the disparities in income, demography and labour across the country, it’s not an easy task. UK government proposals would require skilled workers seeking a five-year visa to secure a minimum salary of £30,000. The median income north of the border is £24,000 and the Scottish Government estimates that a reduction in EU migration would cost the Scottish economy £5bn a year.
For Nationalists, this is just another way Westminster holds Scotland back. The Scottish Government is pro-immigration and an independent Scotland, free from the draconian migration system favoured by the Little Englanders could flourish — or so the theory runs. The Scottish Government might be pro-immigration but the Scottish people are not. This is our dirty little secret: we congratulate ourselves on how tolerant and welcoming we are but, in truth, Scots are hostile to immigration. Polling conducted last month found that 45 per cent of Scots think too many migrants are entering the country, an increase of six per cent on last year. 37 per cent think the current level of migration is about right, while only six per cent want to see more. Somewhat uncomfortably for the SNP, 48 per cent of those who voted for independence in the 2014 referendum believe immigration is too high.
This is perplexing to the Four Ps of the Scottish ruling class – politicians, policy-makers, professors and pundits – because they are uniformly pro-immigration and know almost no one who disagrees with them. They have spent so long reciting their mantras about how different Scotland is from England they forgot to stop and check with Scotland first. If they had, they would know that 72 per cent of Scots told the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey they wanted immigration cut. They would know too that Scottish public opinion of low-skilled immigration is indistinguishable from the rest of the UK. A 2017 poll for British Future found 63 per cent of Scots want to cut the number of low-skilled EU migrants while 69 per cent want a crackdown on those from outside the EU. The UK-wide figures are 64 per cent and 67 per cent.
What should trouble immigration liberals even more is that Scotland shows no sign of replicating the pro-migration trend in UK-wide public opinion. In the same period that anti-immigration attitudes rose by six percentage points in Scotland, they fell by seven points across the UK as a whole. Bear in mind, too, that Scotland has seen nothing like the levels of immigration the rest of the UK has. Scotland recorded net inward migration of 20,900 last year, for a foreign-born population of nine per cent; the UK at large absorbed 283,000 net last year and migrants account for 14 per cent of the population. Against this backdrop, independence or even the devolution of migration powers would set up Scotland’s governing class for a nasty encounter with the country they govern.
The myth of Scottish moral superiority is innate to our national identity and crudely kindled by the SNP to alienate Scots from our countrymen south of the Tweed. On immigration, as on so much else, Scotland’s distinct political culture is exaggerated and sooner or later the facts will have to be faced. Scotland has a demographic time-bomb, but listen closer and you can hear the crisp tick, tick, tick of a political incendiary waiting to explode.