The next UK Prime Minister, likely to be Boris Johnson, should not simply dismiss a request to consider piloting a Scottish immigration scheme from the Scottish Government.
Rightly or wrongly, immigration clearly played a significant role in the 2016 Brexit referendum result. Given the closeness of the vote, it is probably true to say that if Leave campaigners had not successfully turned immigration into an issue, the UK would have voted to stay in the European Union.
So politicians like Boris Johnson, expected to win the Conservative leadership election and become Britain’s next Prime Minister, are always going to be wary of offending this particular constituency among the electorate.
As a unionist, Johnson will also be concerned – or, if he is not, he will be reminded of the need to be by Scottish Conservatives, among others – to avoid agreeing to policies that might encourage the break-up of the United Kingdom. So if a letter from the Scottish Government’s immigration minister Ben Macpherson, to his UK counterpart Caroline Nokes, eventually reaches Prime Minister Johnson’s desk in 10 Downing Street, his initial, instinctive reaction would probably be to consign it swiftly to the bin.
The letter formally proposes that Scotland should pilot a distinct system of immigration in Scotland. Macpherson writes that he wants to “discuss how we can work together to deliver the regional immigration pilot projects the MAC (Migration Advisory Committee) recommended in their most recent report, which was a welcome acknowledgement of the need for tailored migration policy for different parts of the country”.
On both issues, migration and the union, this seems to be at odds with Johnson’s stance. Scotland wants to encourage migrants to move here? Scotland wants to take control of a policy currently handled by Westminster? However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the idea out of hand. A key plank of SNP strategy has long been to create a sense of difference between the politics of Scotland and the rest of the UK. The idea promoted by the SNP that Scotland welcomes immigrants in contrast to other parts of the UK plays into that narrative. In this story, Scots are friendly, liberal internationalists in contrast to the all-too-prevalent xenophobia of jingoistic Little Englanders ... time to break free. If Westminster tried to impose the values of the latter on Scotland? One can feel the outrage already.
This political fury would be given added weight because Scotland will have a genuine problem if migration is curtailed. With too few newborn Scots and an ageing population, this country needs an influx of young people with a healthy dose of get-up-and-go.
Allowing migration to Scotland to continue at its current rate would not be politically controversial. And, when even the leader of the Better Together campaign, former Chancellor Alistair Darling, has called for the UK Government to consider allow Scotland to control its own levels of immigration, it seems clear that this would not be a fundamental threat to the union.
Indeed, showing the flexibility to accommodate different needs and views of different parts of the UK could be construed as a sign of strength and offer reassurance to Scots who are at odds with the politics of people like Johnson – and that includes a fair number of Tories, to an extent at least.
Some believed that devolution would dampen down calls for Scottish independence. Many now think the reverse was true. However, it’s a mistake to assume that devolving more power to Scotland will necessarily encourage independence.
And it goes without saying that it is also important for Westminster to act in Scotland’s best interests.