Scotland needs flexibility on immigration policy - Euan McColm

IT was a scene guaranteed to provoke an emotional response in anyone who witnessed it.

One of two men are released from the back of an Immigration Enforcement van accompanied by Mohammad Asif, director of the Afghan Human Rights Foundation, in Kenmure Street, Glasgow which is surrounded by protesters
One of two men are released from the back of an Immigration Enforcement van accompanied by Mohammad Asif, director of the Afghan Human Rights Foundation, in Kenmure Street, Glasgow which is surrounded by protesters

A Home Office van sat in the middle of Kenmure Street in the Pollokshields district of Glasgow. The words “Immigration Enforcement” emblazoned on the side of the vehicle ensured no passer-by could have been in any doubt about the reason for its presence in their community.

Several police officers surrounded the van which had been sent to transport two men of Indian descent into custody. This was the UK government’s “hostile environment” policy in all its brutish, boorish glory.

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But the police and the immigration officials were far outnumbered on Kenmure Street on Thursday. Hundreds of local people gathered to protest the removal of the men. “These are our neighbours,” they chanted, “let them go.”

Scots residents block immigration van amid 'stand off' over Home Office raid in Glasgow.

A seven-hour stand-off ensued before it was announced that, for the time being, the police thought it wisest to release the men. There would be no detention that day.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accused the Home Office of being “staggeringly irresponsible” for attempting to detain the men during Eid, in a Muslim community, in the midst of a serious Covid outbreak. The deeper problem, she added, was Westminster’s “appalling” asylum and immigration policy. It was time - of course - for powers over these matters to be handed over to the Scottish Parliament.

There are, I’m sure, many who reckon this would be an excellent idea. Those who indulge in the popular current vogue for Scottish exceptionalism will tell you that a Scotland with powers over immigration would be a kinder, more compassionate Scotland. See Scots? See immigrants? Scots love immigrants, so they do.

If an SNP-approved playwright isn’t already half way through the first draft of an exhaustingly sentimental screenplay about the Kenmure Street stand-off, I’ll be astonished.

But the truth is that attitudes towards immigration in Scotland are not much different to those south of the border.

Research by Professor Sir John Curtice and Ian Montagu for the social research agency NatCen, published in 2018, found that when it comes to believing immigration is good for the economy, the Scots and the English are in agreement, with around half thinking positively about it and a fifth taking a negative view.

Research published in June 2014, three months before the independence referendum painted a picture of Scots that flatly contradicted the popular view that ours is a peculiarly welcoming country. Nearly seven out of 10 Scots backed stricter controls om immigration and more than half wanted to see international aid budgets cut.

The Scottish Government, had it the power to set immigration laws, would not simply throw open the doors. There would, for good reasons, be limits on the number of people would could move her and criteria to be fulfilled by those offered the opportunity. Immigration policy is not necessarily evil or malign. It is necessary.

But the appalling bovver-boy approach of the Home Office last week with their scary branded van - “do you see that, everyone? we could be coming for you next?” - and their legion of police protectors turns what is a complex issue into something black and white. Of course, the instinct is to side with the protestors because the alternative is to side with those carrying out their duties in service of a government that appears to have built cruelty into its handling of immigration and asylum issues.

While the United Kingdom endures, the reason for a uniform immigration policy is pretty clear. If, say, it was easier to move to Scotland than it was to move to England then someone wishing to move to England would come via Scotland.

Despite this, these is a case for Scotland to be allowed more leeway when it comes to who should be allowed to move here from overseas. As people live longer, the balance between those who work and those who are retired is thrown off. Scottish government figures predict that the pensioner population will rise by 23 per cent over the next quarter of a century while the number of working-age Scots will fall by 7,000.

One needn’t be in possession of a fully-working crystal ball to see where that will take us. Not only do we face the prospect of a shortage of available workers across different industries, we are also heading towards an unsustainable situation where the costs of caring for an ever-expanding number of elderly Scots collides with a drop in the number of people paying tax.

The CBI - hardly a crucible of revolutionary fervour - argues that if Scotland is to flourish then it is time to think about a bespoke immigration policy, fit for the nation’s needs.

Events in Pollokshields on Thursday show that people can effect change, temporarily at least. But the truth is that the men detained and then released are likely to be scooped up again soon in an operation that’s a little lower key. That, I’m afraid, is the sort of thing that happens all over the world, every day, as countries enforce their own immigration laws.

Opposition politicians are perfectly entitled - and, I think, morally right - to attack the Conservative Party’s use of immigrants as political pawns, to condemn scaremongering over “illegal asylum seeks”, and to demand a more humane system.

But it is in Scotland’s self-interest for the SNP government to try, however difficult it may be, to find some amiable compromise with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Scotland needs flexibility on immigration policy. That elusive prize can only be won if Nicola Surgeon employs a bit less fiery political rhetoric and a bit more old-fashioned diplomacy.