If we assess the latest immigration figures against the UK Government’s target, the fact that a record number of people have arrived and net migration is three times what is aimed for suggests that Theresa May has a problem.
In Scotland, we are far less aware of the rise in immigration than is apparent in England, and with this difference in mind, the figures offer one strong suggestion to those bewildered by Brexit over just why we are now preparing to leave the EU.
If figures of such a scale had been released shortly before the referendum, the Leave campaign’s margin of victory would likely have been enhanced, while those who did vote for Brexit because of their concerns over immigration will feel justified at having done so.
The UK Government says that its aim is still to reduce net migration to below 100,000. The outcome of the referendum shows that the pledge wasn’t convincing earlier this year, and the new figures make the target seem even more unrealistic.
But what does all this mean for Scotland, where immigration isn’t such a hot topic? One of the Scottish Government’s stated beliefs is that to grow the economy, we need a bigger workforce, which can only come from increased immigration. Few quarrel with this, but there is a difficulty: plenty of immigrants are coming to the UK right now, but few see – or are aware of – enough opportunities north of the Border to bypass the big population centres in England and head to Scotland.
The SNP is to call next week for a separate immigration system for Scotland, although that move appears to have been seen off at the pass by Philip Hammond yesterday, with the Chancellor stating bluntly that there will be no separate or special Brexit deal for Scotland on trade or immigration. The latter would be “impractical” said Mr Hammond.
But would a separate system make the required difference? As things stand, all that is stopping more immigrants from heading to Scotland is a good reason. We need a better way of persuading immigrants to come here than simply being able to say “England won’t let you in, but we will”. It’s an approach which will have some success, but it’s some distance short of being a successful strategy.
If there is no separate immigration system in Scotland, the need to come up with a means of growing the population is even greater. The SNP is highly critical of the UK Government’s attitude to immigration, so it should come as no surprise if the Brexit deal we end up with involves a crackdown on entry to the UK. If that is the worst case scenario, then the Scottish Government should prepare for it, and build a strategy designed to get the most out of it by attracting more immigrants north.
There should be no argument with the Scottish Government trying to get the best deal for Scotland here – we should all want that, whatever the issue – but there is work to be done regardless of the outcome of such negotiation. If Scotland needs immigrants, we should not forget that our door has been wide open for some time, and not enough are coming in.