Alex Massie: How immigration could revitalise Scotland

WHY can’t the SNP consider creating a ‘tartan card’ and open the Border to talent from around the world, asks Alex Massie

WHY can’t the SNP consider creating a ‘tartan card’ and open the Border to talent from around the world, asks Alex Massie

As Bertolt Brecht put it, “Unhappy is the land in need of heroes”. This sage advice might be coupled with the observation that one should pity the land without an immigration “problem”. Immigration is a mark of national success, not something to be worried about.

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Though polling data says Scots are about as immigrant-friendly as Londoners – and, therefore, likely to be more relaxed about immigration than people in other parts of the United Kingdom – that still means some 70 per cent of respondents agree with David Cameron’s claimed determination to reduce the number of immigrants settling in Britain. On this, as on so many other issues, the difference between Scottish and English public opinion is so small that a visiting foreigner might conclude these peoples could almost share a country.

Perhaps this helps explain why the SNP does not often talk about immigration. The party promises an independent Scotland will “encourage” immigration but, in comparison to other policy areas presently reserved to Westminster, the Nationalists devote little energy to the politics of immigration.

In one sense this is understandable, perhaps even wise. For immigration policy is another area in which an independent Scotland’s room for manoeuvre might be more limited than it is wholly comfortable to contemplate. Since an independent Scotland would continue to share a head of state and a currency with the remaining parts of the once United Kingdom it may profit the SNP little to acknowledge that border security would also, necessarily, be pooled.

Since no-one, I think, wishes to see Border controls at the Tweed it can scarcely be otherwise. London would surely demand assurances from Edinburgh – much as it presently does from Dublin – that Scotland would not become a “back door” for illegal migration into England.

Nevertheless, there are reasons, both practical and symbolic, for the SNP to be “intensely relaxed” about immigration. By definition, the SNP’s manifesto for an independent Scotland is a hypothetical exercise. This being so, its policies are signals demonstrating the kind of country the Nationalists would like Scotland to be. This being so, it is sensible to project a Scotland at ease with itself and open to the world. This Scotland would be open for business and open to talent from around the world. It would offer a confident, positive case for independence rather than, as seems increasingly the case, the small, feart, negative argument that independence is required to protect poor, tiny, Scotland from the ravages of a conservative-led government in London.

How might this work? Rather than look to Scandinavia for inspiration, the Nationalists could emulate the United States, Australia and Canada. Imagine if the SNP detailed plans for a Scottish “Green Card” (a “Tartan Card”?). It could promise to issue, say, 10,000 visas each year to immigrants from outwith the European Union. These visas would grant residence and working rights and, in due course, a path to citizenship. Most visas could be awarded on an Australian-style points system (which would help ensure most immigration is of the high-skilled variety).The practical advantages of such an approach would be considerable. Scotland’s low rate of business start-ups has long been recognised as a problem. Successive governments have made a point of encouraging new businesses but the rate of new VAT/PAYE registrations is much the same – around 35 per 10,000 resident adults – now as it was a decade ago. Fortunately there are some signs this could be changing. A report released by Strathclyde University’s Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship revealed that “the long, slow decline in early-stage entrepreneurial activity” appears to “have been arrested”. Nevertheless, according to Professor Jonathan Levie, there exists “considerable scepticism across the Scottish public about the wisdom of embarking on an entrepreneurial career”.

Which is where immigration comes in, so to speak. Emigration is almost by definition an act of entrepreneurship. Though it may sometimes be driven by desperation or an appreciation of poor prospects at home, emigrants bring energy and business-drive to their new countries. We understand this from Scotland’s own experience of emigration to the United States, Canada and elsewhere. Numerous surveys in other countries demonstrate that immigrants (and their children) are disproportionately likely to start businesses. From Google to restaurants and corner shops, immigrant-founded businesses are drivers of economic opportunity and growth. Immigrants offer a kind of economic blood transfusion. Much of London’s vitality is derived from the hot-house effect of being a global city (and London’s striving immigrants contribute to its state schools being the best in England).

With an ageing population it makes sense for Scotland to offer a home to ambitious immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America as well as non-EU countries such as Turkey and Russia. Without more workers from overseas each “indigenous” Scot will have to support an increasing number of retirees.

After 15 years of “Tartan Cards” Scotland would have built, in effect, an entire new city populated by ambitious, hard-working “new Scots” whose dynamism and entrepreneurial zeal would invigorate the country’s economy and culture in equal measure. Talent is global today and an independent Scotland could and should be an attractive place for immigrants. For the SNP immigration is an opportunity, not a threat. So let’s talk about it.