It's not the population - it's the economy
THE world is divided into two types of people; those who divide the world into two types of people and those who don’t. Increasingly, it seems that the policy-makers are in the former category.
A divisive "them and us" mentality pervades much of current British political thinking. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the subject of immigration.
Migrants are either portrayed, with varying degrees of bile, as potential scroungers - clogging up NHS waiting lists, nabbing public housing and generally undermining the welfare state. Or they are depicted, with varying degrees of rose-tint, as the backbone of the nation; hard-working, family-orientated and willing to do the essential jobs that nobody else can stomach.
In terms of personalities, our politicians can outstrip the Dulux chart when it comes to shades of grey, but their thinking remains stubbornly black and white. Intricate, complicated situations, for which one-size solutions are a bad fit, are polarised with over-simplistic rhetoric.
With an election in the offing and opinion polls dictating their every gesture, our political masters have honed-in on immigration as a key battle-ground.
Last week, Michael Howard produced a policy which would end Britain’s adherence to the 1951 Refugee Convention and process immigrants in some, as yet unspecified, off-shore location ... Guantanamo Bay, perhaps? It would usher in quotas (as yet unspecified); 24-hour surveillance at points of entry and heavy penalties for those employing illegal immigrants (which presumably includes Tory matrons employing Guatemalan cleaning ladies as well as criminal gangs employing cockle-pickers).
As a policy, it has more flaws than a Jackie Collins plot. It owes as much to the success of the UK Independence Party and the emergence of Robert Kilroy-Silk as a political force (or should that be farce?) as it does to the situation on the ground. Nevertheless, it was sufficiently hard-hitting to rattle Labour, which, eight years after it came to power, has failed to implement a coherent strategy.
On Monday, a choleric column by Tony Blair appeared in the Times which, when it wasn’t bashing the Tories, was remarkably revealing about how big a fiasco current practice actually is.
Yesterday, Charles Clarke unveiled his party’s new immigration proposals. And guess what? It’s another five-year plan.
Clarke’s scheme involves a points system for economic migrants, finger-printing for all visa applicants, an end to the automatic right of settlement for immigrants’ families, detention, deportation, heavy fines and the use of electronic tagging. The message from the Home Secretary is that immigration is out of control and anything the Tories can do, Labour can do with added jingoism.
The problem for Labour is that in Scotland the immigration message trumpeted by the First Minister is exactly the opposite.
Our falling population is, according to Jack McConnell, "the greatest threat to Scotland’s future prosperity". A year ago, he launched the Fresh Talent Initiative, designed to bring 8,000 immigrants to Scotland annually until 2009.
The plan is as woolly as a pedigree sheep. When I spoke to civil servants in detail about it last year, they admitted they had done no modelling to show what effect these numbers would have on a future Scotland, despite the fact that most academics believe 8,000 a year would make little dent in our demographics.
Nor is there any way of preventing those who do come here hopping on the first bus to London and seeking a better life in a more vibrant economy.
Then there is the fact that Scotland is traditionally poor at keeping and attracting immigrants. Anybody from the European Union is already free to come to Scotland. So far, however, they haven’t come in great numbers. We all know Scotland is God’s own country, but when it comes to employment, education, the weather and the food, there are other European nations which are much more attractive. As long as these countries are actively recruiting skilled workers, it is unlikely that McConnell’s woolly policies will get them flocking here.
The Scottish Executive has no control over immigration to Scotland and it has boxed itself into a corner by unveiling an initiative which is entirely dependent on the whim of the Home Secretary. Yesterday, Clarke made it clear that there would be no regional exceptions to his immigration clamp-down.
IMMIGRANTS are not a homogenous group, irrespective of how the politicians choose to portray them. The issue should not be one of quotas or points or border controls; it is much more fundamental than that. As soon as you stop treating people as individuals and lump them together under one hurriedly-devised policy initiative, you lay the foundations for injustice and intolerance.
If you really must divide the world into two types of people, then how about people who contribute and people who don’t?
It doesn’t matter whether you come from Govan, Gloucester or the Gambia; if you can make a life for yourself and contribute more to society than you take from the state - and I don’t just mean in economic terms although, heaven knows, for Scotland that is vital - you should be welcomed.
Conversely, if you expect the state indefinitely to feed you, house you and put up with behaviour which is either criminal or anti-social, then you have no place in a modern Scotland, irrespective of your provenance.
Clearly, there has to be a fair and effective system - and there are some elements in the policies of both Labour and the Conservatives which, if they could be implemented impartially and calmly, might go some way to addressing the inequalities of the current chaos.
But as soon as you hive-off immigration from the responsibilities that the citizen has to society and the responsibilities the state has to the citizen, you send a message which has distinctly unpleasant undertones.
If yesterday’s vox pops are anything to go by, both the main parties’ policies on immigration are seen as blatant electioneering. The electorate is deeply sceptical about the government’s ability to implement any meaningful policy in this area.
As for Jack McConnell, he is just plain wrong when he says a falling population is the greatest threat to Scotland’s future prosperity. The greatest threat to our future prosperity is economic decline.
Our dismal economic performance does not only mean that we cannot attract the skilled workers we need from overseas; it also leads to our indigenous talent heading south. We know that it is economic buoyancy - not unrealistic quotas or border controls - that is the most effective stimulus for improving Scotland’s demographic profile.
It’s not the population McConnell needs to grow; it’s the economy. Scotland does not need devolved migration policy but a radical economic policy. Immigration, whatever the politicians insist, is not a black-and-white issue; if anything, it’s a red-and-black one.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 21 May 2013
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