Is Scotland being let down by UK immigration policy?

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April 9, 2015 by Nash Riggins

Prime_Minister_David_Cameron,_speaking_at_the_opening_of_the_GAVI_Alliance_immunisations_pledging_conference_2Immigration is a touchy subject in Britain. No matter where you stand on the spectrum, it’s become a sort of dinner party faux pas. Bearing that in mind, it only makes sense that most politicians have been doing their absolute best to tip-toe around the issue in the run up to May’s general election.

David Cameron has tried to swallow his party’s spectacular failure in capping net migration, and is promising more benefits restrictions against those already living here. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg reckons we should simply do a better job of counting immigrants as they enter the country, and Ed Miliband is only able to articulate his thoughts on the subject via the most effective known political medium out there: coffee mugs.

That lack of discourse is upsetting a whole lot of blue-collar Englishmen frightened by the prospect of change. According to pollsters, over a third of voters have argued the Conservatives aren’t saying enough about immigration. Almost half the electorate are saying the same thing about Labour and the Liberal Democrats. But what’s the feeling north of the border?

This week, Humza Yousaf, the Scottish government’s minister for Europe and international development, has come out blasting against the ways in which UK immigration policy has stifled Scotland’s economic growth. He claims that Scotland’s ability to take on immigrants is guided by the priorities of the south-east of England, and completely discounts Scotland’s societal interests. To be honest, the guy’s got a point.

Scotland has always been a relatively multicultural place. Almost a fifth of central belt residents were born outside of the UK, and this foreign-born population is getting smarter and more highly skilled every year.

Half of the immigrants that settle in Scotland have already got a university degree upon arrival – almost twice the proportion of the population as a whole. Around 60% of those migrants come from the EU, and they earn 7.6% more than the average UK worker. These migrants are also more likely to contribute to high-value industries such as Edinburgh’s thriving finance sector, and generally pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits.

That’s not exactly the positive image we get from down south. By and large, England and Wales play home to a higher proportion of lower-skilled migrants, and so a lot of residents there want the UK government to do everything within its power to keep foreigners from stealing blue-collar British jobs. But the way politicians have tried to achieve that misguided mandate has proven a self-inflicted shot in the foot – and it’s hurting Scotland more than anywhere else in the country.

It all boils down to education. Before the coalition took power, most overseas students were encouraged to apply for post-study work visas after graduating from university. That kept Scottish-trained talent working for Scottish companies, paying Scottish taxes and spending money (Scottish money). All in all, it was a pretty good set-up. Cue Theresa May and her unashamedly populist and completely unachievable net migration targets. In order to reduce our stock of foreigners, the Tories decided it made sense to axe these sort of visa programmes – forcing highly-intelligent graduates to look for work in competing economies.

Bearing in mind that a third of all migrants travelling to Scotland do so in order to pursue a university degree, this means we’ve sent a lot of smart cookies packing over the last couple of years. And as Scotland’s population continues to grey, the country very well may be on the brink of a brain drain crisis in the next couple of decades. Basically: English politicians are keeping highly-educated workers from living in Scotland because that’s what English voters seem to want in their own back gardens.

That really is a shame, and it’s a good argument for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. But the catch-22 is this: it turns out that Scottish voters don’t want foreigners living here, either. In a poll conducted last month, the BBC found that 49% of Scots are demanding less immigration – the same proportion of English voters. More depressing still, 15% of Scottish voters say immigration should be stopped altogether, and 38% think it’s bad for the country.

So, where does that leave us? Nowhere we should particularly want to be. Until Scottish politicians are able to convince voters that immigration is actually good for the country, we’re at an impasse. Scotland is being let down by UK immigration policy – and that’s exactly the way Scots like it. It’s completely irrational, but it’s just where things stand. Democracy has a sick sense of humour, huh?

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