Tuesday 7 November 2023

Does Scotland need more migrants?


The Scottish Government in its latest independence white paper expresses concern that Scotland’s population is aging and the birthrate is declining. It argues that migration is the sole driver of population growth and would like migration to increase. It therefore sets out various new visa schemes that an independent Scotland might adopt, would make it easier for asylum seekers and add new immigration routes for people wishing to come here.

The oddest route to coming to Scotland would be that you would gain points not only for speaking English but for speaking Gaelic. It’s hard to see who would benefit from this. There may still be a few Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia, but it’s unlikely that many of them would want to come to Scotland.

It may be that an independent Scotland would accept someone studying Gaelic on a Duolingo course as providing the necessary points. After all, when the Census asks if you are a Gaelic speaker it doesn’t go into much detail about how fluent you are. If it did it would not reach even 20,000 speakers.

But how are the newly arrived Gaelic speakers from abroad going to improve their skills. The only places they could go would be the Outer Hebrides and Skye. But imagine the result of large numbers of Duolingo Gaelic speakers arriving from abroad moving to the Highlands and Islands. Is it likely that they would speak Gaelic better than English or their own native language? The danger would be that the Gaelic speakers already in the Highland and Islands would find themselves rapidly outnumbered. If I wanted to kill off Gaelic in Scotland, I could hardly find a better way to do it than the SNP’s latest plan.

But this illustrates the problem with the SNP’s approach to a declining birthrate. The reason we have an aging population and can look forward to a declining population is because women in Scotland have fewer babies than the replacement rate. So, we import people to make up for those that we didn’t give birth to. Well, what happens if the people who migrate to Scotland, for the same reason as those already living here, have fewer babies than the replacement rate. Well then, we have to import some more. The flaw with this approach is obvious.

If you continue down this route long enough you will find that the future Scottish population has little or no connection at all with the present population. They will not speak Gaelic, they probably won’t speak Scots. They may not even speak English. It’s an odd form of Scottish nationalism.

Instead, why not address the root of the problem. Scots had no problem making enough babies for the past thousand years and more. If they hadn’t there would be no Scottish population today. If they could manage, why can’t we?

Our generation of Scots is far wealthier than any previous generation. The standard of living we enjoy is better than even forty or fifty years ago let alone two hundred. Yet even so Scottish women had large families despite their being poor compared to us.

The Scottish Government should focus on making it easier for women to have children. Pay each woman thousands of pounds for each child. Give her as much maternity leave as she wants. Do everything you can to encourage women to have children. Then there would be no need to increase migration.

The problem with the Scottish Government’s approach to migration is that independence would make it worse.

The demographics of Scotland have hardly changed at all since the last census. Approximately 95.4% of the Scottish population is white, which is down from 96.2% in 2011. The population of Scotland has increased slightly to 5.563 million from 5.281 million in 2011 but is forecast to decline.

But the rate of migration into the UK as a whole is massively higher than Scotland. 14% of the UK population was born abroad and net migration to the UK was 606,000 in 2022. The UK already has rates of migration that are similar to other OECD countries. What brings migrants to these countries is economic opportunity.

At present few migrants to the UK choose to live in Scotland, though every single one of them could do so. But after leaving the UK, not one of the migrants to the former UK would have the automatic right to live or work in Scotland, because they would have a former UK visa rather than a Scottish visa. Independence would erect a barrier to migration not only for those migrants who arrive in the former UK, but for the whole former UK population who would no longer have the automatic right to live and work in Scotland because they live in the same country but might not have the right to live and work in Scotland at all.

The UK already has a very liberal migration system. In ten years at the present rate more migrants will arrive in the UK than the whole Scottish population. How would an independent Scotland increase this rate so that Scotland’s population increases? Well Scotland could either become much more prosperous than London, so that migrants prefer to live in Glasgow than the southeast. But it’s not obvious how erecting an international border with England will achieve this.

Alternatively, Scotland could offer much more generous terms to migrants and asylum seekers than is the average in Europe. People who fail to obtain asylum or who are rejected by France, the Netherlands and Germany might be allowed to migrate to Scotland. But this would mean lowering the points required rather more than asking people to speak Gaelic. We would be fortunate if they could speak English and had any skills at all.

Whenever there is an international crisis, the SNP could send rescue planes to refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank or Syria. Instead of making people risk their lives in boats across the Mediterranean or English Channel generous Scots could offer them Scottish passports and free Gaelic lessons.

But it is clear that the vast majority of migrants who come to the UK want to live in one of the large English cities. How would an independent Scotland stop them leaving? By letting them practice their Gaelic and Highland dancing?

If suddenly the former UK discovers that large numbers of people instead of using dinghies to cross the Channel are being taken to Scotland by the Scottish Government what is the likelihood that there would be passport free travel between Scotland and England or that Scotland would be part of the Common Travel Area? Scotland can’t have a different migration policy to other members and expect to gain membership.

But most importantly the SNP is missing the point. Scotland’s population in 1801 was less than two million. We were doing fine. What does it matter if population declines if the future brings with it a world where AI might do much of the work. There will probably always be work, but much of what we all do today will be done by robots or computers. If the creation of wealth will not depend on migration, then those countries which are importing vast numbers of migrants to do work that may last only a few years or decades will still have to pay for the schools and pensions of these people long after the work they do has ceased.

In that case we would have changed Scotland beyond all recognition for nothing.

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