Why I fear Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon will just play politics over immigration – Brian Wilson

Scottish and UK governments need to take a serious and practical approach to immigration, writes Brian Wilson.

Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon shake hands but relations do not appear overly friendly

The Scottish Government and many others are right about current proposals for post-Brexit immigration being potentially damaging to the economy.

Equally, the UK Government is right that circumstances which apply to some parts of Scotland are found elsewhere in the UK while the “Scottish visa” idea would create more anomalies than it would resolve.

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Within these parameters, the coming months should be spent on refining the script. The UK Government’s Migration Advisory Committee is already recommending changes, and will continue to do so.

Once Brexit noise subsides, there will be less reason for Boris Johnson to pursue outcomes he probably doesn’t believe in, rather than listen to businesses UK-wide which require common sense to prevail.

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The Scottish Government should rise to the same challenge. Do they want a better system or simply a different one? The priority should be to work alongside others for change rather than turn this into another uniquely Scottish grievance.

Rhetoric on immigration is rarely matched by reality, as Theresa May discovered. After all the nasty stuff about “hostile environments” for immigrants, the numbers continued to rise rather than fall.

Progessive ambitions

I doubt if that will change. If the economy requires more labour, the rules will allow that demand to be met. Leaving the EU may alter the migrant mix but it will not lead to predicted calamities.

If it focuses more attention on why we assume vacancies can only be filled by migrants, it will be no bad thing. If wages are forced up to compete, that will be a positive. Permanent reliance on cheap migrant labour is scarcely a progressive ambition.

Prior to eastern European EU expansion, I was on a committee dealing with the implications, including immigration. I recall a meeting at which the Home Office minister came with a brief which recommended the same kind of professional criteria now envisaged.

I felt moved to argue that, as a party of labour, we should extend the same benefits of mobility to all workers. That became the mood of the meeting and ultimately government policy which in turn led to the influx of Polish plumbers, Bulgarian builders and Latvian lettuce-pickers.

This was, on balance, a beneficial policy but it was not compulsory. Indeed, it was the refusal of other large EU economies to adopt the same approach that led to so many coming to the UK. Every government is entitled to political decisions based on current needs.

Notting Hill rather than Nairn?

Crucially, the Scottish visa proposal would not stop migrants moving once they arrive. It may seem inexplicable, but many would rather be in Notting Hill than Nairn. If that means working in the black economy rather than declaring one’s Scottish tax code, then so be it.

When this point was put to Alyn Smith MP, his answer was: “That would be illegal. It would be up to the Home Office to clamp down.” Yet the idea of the immigration service chasing round England looking for migrants who have used Scotland as a back door is ridiculous.

The Canadian system allows provinces to set variable entry rules. However, once migrants are in the country, they are free to move anywhere. Any regionalised system within the UK would have to accept that as the realistic starting point.

A hard border would be the inevitable consequence of significantly different systems within Britain. Since the Scottish Government’s paper stresses that independence would mean a completely different immigration policy, that remains an argument for another day.

My particular objection to the current approach lies in this statement: “For remoter rural areas and islands, attracting working-age migrants is the only realistic option to avert a downward demographic spiral…”

This is such an abrogation of responsibility as to be offensive. Rural decline is attributable to the fact there is no strategy to counter it – houses, jobs, services. Migration can be a welcome factor in such a strategy but it is certainly not “the only realistic option”.

The coming year offers a real test for both governments. Is the debate to be serious and practical – or all about emphasising difference? I recommend the former and fear the latter.