On one subject Alex Salmond and I are in agreement, but we might both be totally wrong. Last month, I wrote about the Mediterranean refugee crisis, arguing that the British could not possibly be so hard-hearted as to refuse these destitute people a safe haven from the warfare, disease, and famine that had caused them to leave home and risk death to reach the safer northern Mediterranean shore.
Last year, the UK government admitted just 14,000 of these refugees, a quarter of the 60,000 that the EU thinks could be accommodated given Britain’s size and wealth. Relative to our population, it is a much smaller proportion being allowed in than by almost every other EU state.
Commenting on Home Secretary Theresa May’s refusal to countenance UK agreement to any EU refugee quota, Mr Salmond was quoted as accusing Mrs May of “hopelessly misjudging the issue”, adding: “I can think of very few people in Scotland, and very few people in England, either, who would want to turn away people in total extremity given the scenes we have all witnessed on our televisions over the last few months.”
He should take a look at the online comments on my article. They were entirely hostile. One expressed sympathy for the refugees’ plight but said western countries could not cope with the numbers. In a later posting, he/she revealed a darker fear: “Most of these people are Muslim and they will swamp these countries to the extent that simply by force of numbers our country will be ruled by sharia law.”
A few referred to the most common economic motives for opposing immigration. One said: “How can we be expected to take these refugees in Europe when we have insufficient jobs and housing for those who already live here?” Another claimed: “These Africans are criminals in my view, have paid Islamist traffickers to hurl themselves at us for benefits, housing and services. We are already absorbing a huge amount of eastern European migrants that are not bringing much to the table, these Med boat males will bring nothing but cost and trouble.”
Since all these comments were posted with the usual bravery of anonymity, I have no means of knowing whether they are Scottish, English, or whatever. But there is reason to think (this is where Mr Salmond and I are wrong) that Scots have the same anti-immigrant prejudices as the English.
An opinion survey conducted for BBC Scotland in March found that Scottish attitudes to immigration are only marginally more liberal than those south of the Border. In Scotland, 49 per cent said immigration should be reduced, the same proportion as in a GB-wide survey; 15 per cent of Scots wanted it stopped completely, slightly fewer than the 21 per cent in the GB sample; only 5 per cent of Scots wanted it increased, much the same as the 4 per cent of GB adults.
Mr Salmond therefore faces an uphill battle to convince public opinion if he wants Scotland to welcome its fair share – around 6,000 – of the 60,000 suggested by the EU. As Scotland annually receives a net annual average immigration total of about 10,000, that would be a big increase which might be supported by only one in 20 Scots.
Of course, not all these people would want to stay here. Most would hope, if conditions in their countries stabilise, to go back and pick up the pieces. But quite a few would want to stay.
So a first step in that struggle to win over public opinion is to challenge the principal anti-immigrant trope – that they come here to live off benefits and, far from contributing to society, are a drain on it. That may be true in a few cases (as it is in the indigenous population) but as a generalisation, it is false.
A useful source for all the academic studies into the economic effects of immigration is the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, not to be confused with the largely anti-immigrant MigrationWatch pressure group.
Collating the evidence from eight major studies done in the last decade, it reports that five found immigrants contributed more in taxes than they received in benefits. The other three, of which two were done by MigrationWatch, found the opposite.
Much depends on the assumptions made. For example, do you allocate public spending on children born to one migrant parent and a UK-born parent to the immigrant or the native parent, or split it equally? Cases can be made for all three approaches.
Other assumptions are more controversial. If immigrants displace UK workers from jobs, should that be counted as a cost? That’s a big “if”, for it is wrong to believe that if an immigrant gets a job, someone else must be losing a job. That’s because while immigrants increase the supply of labour, they also increase the demand for workers. They consume the same goods and services that we do and increased consumption causes increased business investment and creates new jobs.
The academic evidence assessed by the Migration Observatory suggests that migrants can displace indigenous workers from jobs and depress wages, but this mainly affects low-paid workers, many of whom are less recent immigrants, and usually only occurs during economic downturns. It doesn’t seem to happen when the economy is growing, as it is now.
Having read through all this stuff, my overall conclusion is that immigrants make a positive contribution to the economy, not as positive as is sometimes claimed, but certainly not as negative as the online commentators to my previous column evidently believed.
One other point is important. Scotland and the UK face the long-term problem of an ageing population, meaning that there will be fewer workers to pay taxes to support more elderly people. Immigrants are pretty much all young and so help to diminish that problem.
Thus we have little to fear or lose from accepting immigrants and asylum-seekers, and potentially quite a lot to gain. But is any politician prepared to make that case in the face of a very sceptical electorate?