Brian Wilson: SNP plans border on the ridiculous

SNP policy on immigration would inevitably lead to the setting up of checks and controls, writes Brian Wilson
Scotland welcomes you  but for how long will it be easy just to step over the border? Picture: Neil HannaScotland welcomes you  but for how long will it be easy just to step over the border? Picture: Neil Hanna
Scotland welcomes you  but for how long will it be easy just to step over the border? Picture: Neil Hanna

You can’t beat an old maritime metaphor, so Jim Sillars’ image of the anti-independence movement “knocking seven bells” out of their opponents creates an admirably succinct summation of the contest so far. He complained that the Nats’ only tactic in the face of hard questioning has been to mumble about “scaremongering”, while none of the big questions – currency, pensions, Europe, etc – appears to have been anticipated on the bridge of the SS Separation.

No sooner had this critique emerged than another glass jaw volunteered itself. The issue of Scottish immigration policy was addressed by our external affairs minister, Humza Yousaf, who bemoaned the “restrictive” approach pursued from Westminster.

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He asserted that independence is the only way to get an immigration policy suited to Scotland’s needs. In other words, we would have a different immigration policy from what was left of the UK. At this point, one wonders if these guys ever think anything through before glibly declaring policy.

Inescapably, where a land border exists with different immigration policies on either side of it, you get border controls for both goods and people. So, while complaining about UK immigration policy is one thing, committing Scotland to a different regime is a can of worms that Yousaf has obligingly opened.

The spectre (or, to some, the dream) of border controls at Berwick is dismissed by Nationalists as one of those hoary myths that has no place in modern debate. They talk airily of the Schengen Agreement, safe in the assumption that 99 per cent of the population could not immediately distinguish it from the Dreyfus Trial or the Bosman Ruling. But it sounds good.

And then, with a more-in-sorrow-than-anger little laugh, they will tell you that we would be in exactly the same position as Ireland, which co-operates with the United Kingdom in a common travel area to facilitate free movement between the two states. Both of these arguments are worth testing, in the light of Yousaf’s declaration.

For starters, both the UK and (as an inevitable consequence) Ireland opted out of the Schengen Agreement, which in 1995 created free cross-border movement within most of the European Union. A single Schengen visa can transport foreigners across 26 sets of state borders without let or hindrance. Schengen is now embedded in EU law and all new member states are required to join.

But leave that little difficulty aside. The important point is that the UK government decided not to join Schengen because it preferred to keep control of our own borders rather than subordinate that authority to the EU. Once a person is admitted to Britain, he or she can, of course, move freely from Land’s End to Unst.

That only works, however, because Britain is covered by a single set of immigration laws. If that was no longer the case, the new international border would become a physical reality. All the more so since the stated aim of Scottish policy would be to create a more liberal immigration regime than exists in what would be a separate UK state.

Immigrants are, by definition, people who can see the benefits of cross-border mobility. So, if it became obvious that the easy way into “restrictive” England (by then under permanent right-wing government) was to board a plane to welcoming Inverness before catching the first train to London, then why would they not do that if there were no border controls to challenge them?

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In short, border checks are the inevitable consequence of different immigration policies within our small island – and while they may be necessary to catch the few, they inevitably affect the many.

So what about Ireland and the common travel area? For starters, it is untrue to claim that this is, even in current circumstances, the same as moving between Scotland and England. It is necessary to carry either a passport or other photo ID which may be checked and can lead to refusal of entry. For the vast majority of Irish and UK citizens, this is a formality – less so for others.

A few years ago, I helped a Colombian musician friend in his efforts to remain in the UK, having arrived as a student and then over-staying his original consent. It was a long-running case during which he was not allowed to leave the country. Ill-advisedly, he broke this condition and went to help a friend in Ireland who was teaching music.

When he tried to return, he discovered the limitations of the common travel area. Certainly, he drove across the “border” within Ireland without challenge but, when he got to Larne, he was cross-examined and the next I heard from him he was being detained in Dungavel and came within a whisker of being deported. That could not happen at present if a person in a similar situation travelled only within Britain. That would change if we put ourselves into the same constitutional relationship as Ireland. In the name of liberalism, we would be exposing such cases either to even greater restriction – or to the forces of illiberalism.

The residents of many foreign countries, including China, require visas to enter the UK – more than two million last year. This is already a point of irritation for the tourism industry, which wants the government to sign up to Schengen. The immigration minister, Mark Harper, recently felt it necessary to make clear: “People looking for us to do that are wasting their time.”

So, what would Scotland do? If it hooked up with Schengen for visa purposes, it would disqualify itself from the common travel area. But if it didn’t, we would have to issue separate visas to foreign tourists who wished to visit both Scotland and England. Wherever a point of difference is created, border controls and economic consequences are the inevitable corollaries.

The irony is that there is merit in Yousaf’s basic point. There are parts of the UK which have skills shortages that need immigrant labour, at least in the short term, to fill them. There are also parts of the Scotland – including the one where I live – for which immigration is the best bet to reverse dismal demographic trends.

We should be trying to address these challenges within the UK in a sensitive, sensible way, as has been done in the past. But as in so many matters, the proposed cure is much worse than the problem – splitting the island in two each with its own immigration policies, lumbering the entire existing population with inconveniences that do not currently exist and creating out of nothing tensions between neighbouring states with different laws and conflicting priorities on who can and cannot enter their territory.