Michael Russell: Despite Tories’ xenophobic policies, Scotland is still open

THE expiry on Wednesday of the deadline for EU citizens who are resident in the UK to apply for settled status – and its late postponement – quite rightly attracted a great deal of attention.

As ever, the Prime Minister was far from truthful about the matter but the reality is that the scheme is, and has been from the beginning, contrary to what was promised during the 2016 referendum and the cause of huge distress to many thousands of good people who have made a massive contribution to the wellbeing of their neighbours.

The scheme is also, as SNP Westminster immigration spokesperson Anne McLaughlin has pointed out, very likely to go the way of the Windrush scandal which, as part of the UK’s “deeply flawed and discriminatory immigration system” – a description from the Joint Council from the Welfare for Immigrants – has cruelly devastated the lives of people with a longstanding moral and legal right to live here.

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But there is more. Even putting the individual human issues aside, this poisonous approach will weaken Scotland at home and abroad, jeopardise the future of some of our most fragile communities, damage businesses and impoverish our culture. Freedom of movement within the EU was a great boon to Scotland It allowed us to address the issues of labour shortage and rural decline caused by an ageing population.

It enabled our young people to broaden their horizons and all of us to choose a much wider canvas on which we could live parts of our lives and become, by sharing new experiences, internationalists.

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To claim, as the current UK Tory Home Secretary Priti Patel (above) did last year, that ending it would “open Britain up to the world” was a sinister and dishonest abuse of language. The Tories have no intention of increasing immigration and the very narrow list of sectors in which shortages will permit exceptions is not only badly skewed towards the south of England, but is also politically constrained by Tory dogma.

Tory UK immigration policy is not about, in Patel’s twisted rhetoric, ensuring “people can come to our country based on what they have to offer, not where they come from”. In reality it is about pandering to backward-looking xenophobes – to the type of people who were standing outside Wembley Stadium before England’s Euro 2020 match bawling out a song about the RAF shooting down German bombers.

No matter how high minded the claimed justifications for it, Brexit has virtually legitimised such actions. It has also, even without the direct experience of racism, led to decisions to leave from people such as the 70-year-old EU national I met in my office a couple of years ago who had been in Scotland for almost half a century but who was returning to the country of her birth not because she wanted to, but because of the settled status scheme. She felt it discriminated against her and devalued all she had contributed to a country she loved and thought of as home.

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Other EU nationals have simply crossed Scotland and the UK off the list of places they might work for a few years, causing increasing labour shortages in key economic sectors. Vets and researchers don’t see career opportunities, lorry drivers, hospitality staff and care workers are harder and harder to find and the shortages are becoming acute in sectors such as meat processing and fruit picking where local people are often reluctant to work. Rural areas are being particularly badly hit and if there are no economically active incomers to keep up demand then the spiral of decline in services and facilities will just accelerate.

Having what William McIlvanney called a “mongrel nation” is also wonderfully good for our quality of life and culture.

Bashir Ahmad, the first Scots Asian MSP, was not only the kindest friend I ever had, with his generous attitude to life grounded in a profound Islamic faith, he was also one of the most patriotic Scots in the country.

Likewise some of the most enthusiastic and inclusive SNP members I know are originally from EU countries. By choosing to live here and working for our independence they are paying us, collectively, a great compliment.

The concept of diverse influences on our intangible cultural heritage is not folded closely enough into our understanding of who we are though I am glad to have played a part in ensuring the contribution of the Scottish Traveller community was recognised by eventually listing their monument in Argyll, the Tinkers’ Heart.

But just as we need to acknowledge, understand and celebrate what the travelling community has contributed, we also need to do the same for the positive input of citizens of other countries who have decided that living in our country, and being part of our ongoing story, is what suits them best.

Putting up the barriers, demanding that everyone salutes the flag, insisting that a crass song of loyalty be sung by our children and insulting (directly or indirectly) those who want to live alongside us isn’t the way forward – it is a cul de sac of isolation and discontent. We cannot allow ourselves to be dragged down that blind alley.

The French theologian Teilhard de Chardin talked of “saying yes to life”. Yes in this context means welcoming the challenge of harmonising our distinctive voice with those of an increasingly diverse world. It means recognising Scotland needs the input of others to keep moving forward and accepting that we all change as a result of that process.

It means rejecting the narrow, inward-looking, arrogant defensiveness of the current Tory UK Government and insisting on openness, inclusivity, curiosity and generosity as the foundation stones of the Scottish approach.

We need to demonstrate that by speaking up for those who have got settled status if they continue to be harassed; standing up for those who haven’t if they have a perfect right to remain; and telling Europe and the world as loudly as we can that Scotland isn’t, and won’t ever be, full up.

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