Free movement will play pivotal role for British workers

Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon are on a collision course over the principle of free movement of labour in post-Brexit Britain.

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Free movement played a key role in the UK’s decision to leave the EU; this the Prime Minister recognises. The First Minister is conscious Scotland needs to grow its population – so believes the principle must be retained. If there’s ever to be another Scottish independence referendum, free movement will play a pivotal role in the nationalists’ argument for separating Scotland from the rest of the UK. But surely the argument is more complex than Ms Sturgeon suggests?

Recently Deputy Dutch Prime Minister, Lodewijk Asscher, said the fundamental EU principle of freedom of movement, must be subject to reform. His concern is not necessarily the principle but the practice: the influx of cheaper labour displacing indigenous workers or/and depressing wages. Some British workers in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs feel resentful. And, while Mr Asscher’s views are questioned by some, crucially he is, in this, far from alone in Europe. Limitation of movement, to some extent, seems probable.

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So where does this leave Ms Sturgeon? Key to her proposition that Scotland must leave the UK and join the EU is ensuring European migrants are attracted here.

Ms Sturgeon’s view that Scotland would benefit from an influx of labour is uncontroversial, particularly with our low birth rate and ageing population. Though areas within the Central Belt are over-developed, we live in a thinly populated part of the UK – in 2011, Scotland’s population density was recorded at 67.22/km2 compared to the UK’s 259.16/km2. Even with large uninhabitable tracts, we have the room to grow our population.

There’s a distinct possibility though, should Scotland leave the UK and perhaps after many years, eventually join the EU, that by then the principle of free movement will be significantly altered.

But if it’s not, would migrants be attracted to Scotland anyway?

To date, inward migration has favoured elsewhere in the UK. 14per cent of those living in England were born abroad compared to just seven per cent in Scotland. Migrants are apparently more drawn by the global economic powerhouse that is London and the south-east and other large conurbations down south rather than Scotland.

Looking ahead, to meet EU entry requirements the Scottish population would have to endure years of high taxation and public service cuts to reduce our 9.5 per cent GDP deficit to the three per cent level required by the EU, while establishing a costly central banking system.

Let’s not forget that by far the largest non-Scotland born population here are those from elsewhere in the UK, at almost ten per cent. If Scotland gains EU entry, workers from the rest of the UK, drawn from similar educational backgrounds and currently the largest source of inward movement of labour, would be blocked from employment in Scotland.

Is that what most of us we really seek?

Ms Sturgeon’s objective to increase Scotland’s population is sound. But her argument that, by Scotland joining the EU, it will achieve population growth appears questionable.

Martin Redfern is a publishing consultant from Edinburgh