Ewan Crawford: Don’t dismiss Botham’s Brexit blast

Sir Ian Botham with Boris Johnson at a Vote Leave photo-call, when he raised the prospect of a 100m population. Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
Sir Ian Botham with Boris Johnson at a Vote Leave photo-call, when he raised the prospect of a 100m population. Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
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CRICKET hero says England should be England – but it makes no sense to adopt his stance in Scotland,

writes Ewan Crawford

THE low point, for me, of the EU referendum campaign so far has been the moment one of my all-time sporting heroes, the former England cricketer, Sir Ian Botham, ended a photo-call with Boris Johnson by declaring “our country” was in danger of getting “cluttered” by lots of European migrants.

I’ve always thought warmly of Beefy since his incredible 118 against Australia in 1981, which I maintain controversially (well it’s a controversy if you’re into cricket) was even better than his famous Headingley innings that same summer.

It was his astonishing batting and bowling, rather than his political views, that I was interested in.

But it’s now time to take these views very seriously indeed. After that photo-call Sir Ian went on to set out the basic reason he’s campaigning for a Leave vote: “England”, he said, “should be England.” And an England that was England would not be one with 100 million people in it (a figure he came up with while, amusingly, accusing others of plucking figures out of the sky).

But these arguments should not be dismissed as the thoughts of someone who’s been hit once too often on the head with a cricket ball.

Sir Ian was clearly articulating a concern over immigration and population growth shared by many who want to leave the EU. Who knows, those concern may even be enough to take the Outers to victory on 23 June.

I’m not one of those who believe a discussion about immigration should be off-limits in polite company. I am conscious that I live in a part of the world where most of my neighbours look and sound like me. Maybe it’s easier to be liberal when it comes to an issue like immigration in areas like mine compared with some other places.

Even so I find it deeply troubling the way the term “economic migrant” is now commonly used as a pejorative term. Aren’t people who take the huge step of moving country to get on in life the kind of citizens with the drive and ambition any society would want to have?

Indeed the really big issue about this whole immigration debate led by the England-should-be-Englanders is that it completely distorts the reality of life here in Scotland and crucially turns on its head the kind of discussion we should be having about population.

The debate may well be dominated night after night by concerns about a rapidly growing population in parts of England but it’s the lack of population growth that we should be talking about north of the Border.

The population issue in Scotland is much bigger than immigration, important though that is. It is also about political and economic power, about birth rates in Scotland, the level of outward migration among young people and about the sort of powers we need to do something about it.

In this respect the Westminster Union seems to have been far more significant in terms of Scotland’s population than the European Union.

200 years ago England’s population was around five times that of Scotland. Today it is more than ten times.

To put it another way, if Scotland and England had grown at each other’s rate over the last two centuries there would be nearly 10 million Scots and about 25 million people living in England.

It may be that the relative performances on population have nothing do to with the fact that, within the Union, economic and political power has rested firmly in London and not Scotland. But that seems fanciful.

In terms of the effects, economists and others offer frequent warnings that an ageing population, with proportionately fewer people working, will pose big problems for public and social services in the future.

However, there is also some interesting counter academic evidence suggesting many of these arguments are ideological and designed to query state provision.

Indeed one of the big concerns in Scotland should not just be how to deal with an ageing population but to ask serious questions about why people here tend to live less long and healthy lives than those in the rest of the UK and further afield.

It’s time we also asked ourselves just how family-friendly Scotland is and to engage with academic research which examines which measures directly benefit women who work, including the role of fathers in child-rearing. Recent evidence suggests European countries where dads take on more childcare tend to have higher birth rates.

As a very basic step to addressing population and economic issues, the ridiculous Tory decision to scrap the post-study work visa and turn away talented overseas students from Scotland needs to be reversed.

Looking forward, if current trends continue, in just over 20 years’ time Scotland will make up just 7.7 per cent of the UK population.

And this position relative to the UK as a whole, is the context in which the consequences are likely to be most damaging.

Because of the way the UK operates, with so much economic and political power at Westminster, our relative population decline will lessen Scotland’s political influence. There will be growing pressure to cut Scotland’s funding and jobs and opportunities will inevitably flow south at a faster pace.

But while the population debate is held through the prism of how to stem “the rising tide” most of these arguments will be obscured.

The population and immigration issue is just one example of the UK’s political divergence and of the need to change political power structures in order to reflect that divergence.

To coin a phrase, I think “Scotland should be Scotland” – an open, diverse, welcoming member of the European Union, which believes immigration enriches our national life, and which has the powers of a normal, independent country to improve the lives both of those who live here and of those who seek to make it their home.