Jack McConnell believed plans to increase migration to Scotland to offset population decline would be welcomed by the public due to a “more tolerant culture” north of the Border, newly released cabinet papers show.
The then First Minister set out his proposals to attract more people to live in the country in a private memorandum shared with his Scottish cabinet colleagues in February 2004.
The document, which has been made public under the 15-year disclosure rule, gives an insight into how seriously senior politicians took warnings that Scotland’s population was in steep decline.
Mr McConnell – who led a Labour-Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood until 2007 – was concerned that an ageing society would see the number of working-age adults shrink, with dire consequences for the country’s tax base and ability to pay for public services.
Official projections at the time showed Scotland’s population falling below five million by 2009, with figures suggesting the speed of the decline was the fastest in the EU.
The then Scottish Labour leader would eventually unveil plans to promote the country as a place to live and work, with a particular focus on encouraging students from overseas to remain in the country upon graduation.
But the First Minister also warned the issue would also have to be handed sensitively to avoid “inflaming a negative public reaction”.
In the 2004 memo, Mr McConnell said: “Scotland can play a significant part in the UK Government’s planned increase in economic migration.
“While there may be public perception difficulties in England concerning immigration – in particular toward those seeking asylum – those difficulties may not be quite so marked in Scotland.
“This might well be explained by the limited number of migrants coming to Scotland, plus, I would hope, by a more tolerant culture in Scotland.
Anticipating opposition to his plans, Mr McConnell continued: “We should not believe, however, that our new policy will automatically be popular.
“There is a difficult argument to be won by convincing others we are doing the right thing in the national interest.
“And we must implement the initiative on the ground in a sufficiently sensitive way to avoid creating significant race relations problems.”
He added: “To avoid inflaming a negative public reaction to this initiative, all public statements need to be considered very carefully, explaining why population decline is bad for Scotland.”
The project, called the Fresh Talent initiative, saw Scottish ministers work with the Home Office on plans to increase the relatively low number of applications for two visa schemes administered from Whitehall – for work permits and for skilled migrants.
Fresh Talent proved a success in the short term. By October 2005, applications from overseas students to Scottish universities had risen by 20 per cent.
But a 2011 Scottish Affairs select committee report found that half of those who qualified for Fresh Talent then left Scotland to find opportunity in other parts of the UK.
The report also found that a quarter worked in jobs that didn’t require their skill levels and only around a quarter of the total stayed in Scotland working in a job related to their degree.
Fears that Scotland’s population would dip below five million did not come to pass. The number of people living north of the Border hit a record high of 5.44 million in 2018 – the ninth year in a row the figure increased.
Population growth has been driven by a combination of inward migration from other parts of the UK as well as migration from overseas, with Scotland’s birthrate dropping to record lows.
Official figures published in April found that 20,900 more people came to Scotland than those who left, from both overseas and the rest of the UK, over the year to mid-2018.
In contrast, natural change – births minus deaths – did not contribute to Scotland’s population growth, with 7,700 more deaths than births over the same period, the largest natural decrease on record.
Immigration remains a live political issue. Since taking power at Holyrood in 2007, the SNP has argued that Scotland requires a separate migration system.
These calls have intensified since the 2016 Brexit referendum.