There are no major surprises in the Scottish Government’s plans on immigration, as set out in the White Paper on Scotland’s Future published today. As expected, the paper outlines a programme for a more liberal stance on many aspects of immigration and asylum policy. This is refreshing given the largely negative and defensive debate on immigration policy south of the border. But how feasible are the plans for liberalising immigration in the event of Scottish independence?
Border control. The paper proposes that an independent Scotland be part of the Common Travel Area (CTA) currently in operation between the UK and Ireland. This would imply no (or at least very limited) border controls between Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK). This proposal seems reasonable and feasible. Whatever the current rhetoric, rUK would have a strong interest in free circulation between an independent Scotland and England.
What is less clear is the degree to which membership of the CTA would be compatible with a ‘more flexible immigration system’. To be sure, membership of the CTA does not impose formal constraints on national immigration and asylum policies. However, experience of the border-free zone between Schengen countries suggests that a number of concerns about irregular flows might kick in. Notably, the potential for third country nationals not authorised to stay or work in rUK to move across the border from Scotland. I’ll return to this point later.
Labour migration. The paper suggests introducing two main routes for labour migrants. First, a points-based system to recruit migrants who meet particular criteria. Such a system could be adapted to suit the demographic or labour market requirements of Scotland, or even particular regions within Scotland – for example, by awarding points for skills and qualifications, sector, or age. Second, it would re-introduce labour market access for foreign graduates of Scottish universities – as used to be the case under the Fresh Talent initiative, which entitled graduates to stay and look for work for up to 24 months.
Both proposals seem sensible and feasible as a means of attracting skilled migrants to address labour shortages and offset ageing populations. A points based system may not be the sharpest tool for matching workers to jobs in particular sectors/occupations. So the government might be wise to consider complementing this route with an employer-driven scheme for recruiting workers in sectors facing serious shortages. Another caveat relates to the notion that a points-based system could provide ‘incentives’ for people to live and work in ‘more remote geographical areas’. It would be difficult to enforce residency requirements for immigrants. That said, the basic ideas are sound.
Asylum. The government would continue its policy of ‘promoting the integration of refugees and asylum seekers from the day they arrive. And it would end dawn raids and limit the use of detention and forcible removals. In addition, there is a vaguely articulated aspiration to ‘address asylum seekers’ access to employment, education and accommodation’. This formulation is less developed than previous Scottish Government statements about actively promoting employment of asylum seekers to address labour shortages. But caution in this area shows political maturity. The idea of drawing on asylum seekers as a means of addressing labour shortages would set off loud alarm bells in London and Brussels. It would be seen as creating a ‘pull’ factor for would-be migrants, who might abuse the asylum system as a route to the labour market. Whether or not such concerns are well grounded, UK and EU policy circles very much buy into this narrative of asylum abuse, especially where there’s a risk that asylum seekers might travel on to other European countries. Such fears could affect plans to eliminate border controls between Scotland and rUK. If a more liberal asylum policy in Scotland were to attract greater numbers of asylum seekers, then the worry would be that they might travel across the border to seek irregular employment south of the border. Given such a scenario, Whitehall would be likely to place strong pressure on a Scottish government to stick with more restrictive treatment of asylum seekers; or else risk the re-introduction of border controls.
Finally, we should consider how the Scottish public would feel about a more liberal approach to immigration and asylum. Recent research has found that there is a lower level of hostility to immigrants and ethnic minority residents in Scotland, compared to the rest of the UK. But there are reasons for caution about relying on such findings. Firstly, the differences are marginal – a 3-6% variation between Scottish and average UK attitudes according to data from the British Social Attitudes Survey. But secondly, we might expect these dynamics to change in the scenario of an independent Scotland. If a Scottish government were to introduce a more liberal policy, it would create strong incentives for opposition parties and the populist media to score points through highlighting the adverse effects of increasing immigration and asylum. Indeed, this has been the experience of almost all immigration receiving countries in Europe since the 1990s. No single European country – with the possible exception of Spain – has been able to sustain a more liberal policy. Witness the demise of Labour’s more expansive approach to labour migration in the first half of the 1990s. European publics – including those in the UK – have proved highly susceptible to political mobilisation around immigration. Immigration offers a channel for articulating broader concerns about unemployment, inequality and declining social cohesion.
A future Scottish government keen to pursue a more liberal policy would need to think carefully about how it phased in reform, justified it, and – most importantly – how it got the media and opposition parties on board. It’s a noble aspiration. But given what we know about the politics of immigration across Europe, I can’t help feeling sceptical about its political traction.