MIGRATION is one of the most sensitive political topics because it affects so many people in the details of their everyday lives – in what jobs they can get, in what wages they can earn, in whose shops their spouses can browse, in what parts of town they can afford to live.
It is also, unfortunately, one of the types of public debate where politicians are most eager to stride in and take over the arguments, pitting some of the most powerful in our society against some of the most vulnerable. Experience shows unreason can rally support by stirring up raw emotions and igniting ignorant prejudice against other people for how they look rather than for what they do.
Death and destruction down the line from migration disfigure the modern world. This is not the first era of genocide, but on the other hand there have never been such pressing motives for so many refugees to seek shelter in distant parts of the globe, even when they cannot be sure of a welcome. The citizens of the host societies may instead react and, impatient of politics, take a solution to the problems into their own hands. The sight is seldom pretty.
Relatively speaking, Scotland is a tranquil backwater in all this, yet we, too, have seen some of the trouble. In history, our immigrants here have also been persecuted, to their personal injury and sometimes even death. The dirty business raises moral and social problems we should all try to deal with.
In our case, we face the fact of being one among four countries in a political Union where we do not all share each other’s values, loyalties and convictions. The complexities in Northern Ireland have been appalling but largely confined to its own soil. Scotland and England are closer to each other, yet in the last 20 years their differences have intensified. The problems might have reached a long way back into the past, but in modern times were never before so important as to become disruptive.
English people, in the old days praised for their tolerance and sense of fair play, are capable now of stepping forward into the ranks of racists and bigots. They voted by a decisive majority to leave the EU, once it revealed itself as a bold if often clumsy exercise in multilateralism. Now they are giving a positive response to their own government’s toying with hostility towards immigrants – and not only towards the black kind, suffered for a long time, but also to other kinds, including several sorts of the white European.
The Scots and English share their only border, yet diverge amid this new discord over how many non-Scots and non-English they should allow to come into the island and settle on our respective territories. The present UK Government, manned almost entirely by Englishmen, seeks to crack down on immigration, reduce its total count and if possible send back some of those who got in before barriers came down.
A loud voice in favour of such restriction has been heard from the English Home Secretary, Priti Patel (above). She was herself born to an immigrant family, and shows no discontent at the thought she might in person have been turned away if she had arrived at a more inauspicious time than she did. A repetition in different conditions today is quite all right, then. This is not a pleasant policy, but Boris Johnson approves of it.
Boris and Priti tell us it is not mere arbitrary injustice. They suggest tighter controls on immigration will persuade employers to invest in new technology or other measures to raise productivity in backward regions. If that is the best they can do it is still not much good. Our economy does contain sluggish sectors, with outdated techniques and underskilled workers, but largely because they have been protected from financial stringency in an era of cheap money.
There is a limit to what technology can do for men who pick apples and fill potholes, or women who mind children or clean up the incontinent. These are all the kind of outsiders who appeared earliest among the most opulent labour-hoarding suburbs of Greater London.
SCOTS are today more open and tolerant, not least because a range of social conditions forces us to be. This was already true before the pandemic, and the resulting disruption to the older, more coherent working patterns has re-inforced the trend.
At some point, and likely sooner rather than later, something will have to give. It is not easy to forecast what we will choose, as between too many foreign staff working in nursing homes and too many British pensioners failing to receive the care they require. It is not something Priti likes to dwell on. Once upon a time, we had freedom of movement within the EU, but now we have only extra costs to impose on business and, eventually, on consumers. That just shows how hard it is to follow or enforce a rule in the workplace like “take back control”.
Instead, we are being invited to believe the UK has enjoyed a “jobs miracle” since the great recession of 2008. The Government in London would certainly like you to accept as much and itself acts as if it had been an accomplished fact. Priti seems to be trying the ploy of reclassifying “unskilled” jobs as “skilled” jobs so that British business can feel assured of keeping the labour market it currently requires and will still need in the years to come.
In Scotland we do not need to nitpick in this way. We have not enough workers to do the jobs we can offer them, so we need immigrants to satisfy our growing requirements (and theirs). Our population has gone up by half a million since the millennium, and signs of racial tension, while not wholly absent, are all the same pretty minimal.
In civil society of the present time, lucky incomer families may offer a useful service like the corner shop. Their kids do not have to be forced into school (unlike some of the native population) and in adulthood the best of them enter the professions. Their politicians have started to help in running the country too.
There have been waves of massive, sometimes painful change in the British economy, not least the Scottish economy. With each round of closures, there was a re-orientation, adjusting to the seamless supply chains and markets of the growing and integrating EU, and ever more dependent for labour on the skills and flexibility of the vast European labour pool.
Some of these changes in policy we have carried out ourselves, and in pursuit of plans different from England’s. If certain of today’s consequences are merely sectoral, with others we have started to change deeper economic structures, notably the labour market. It becomes ever harder to sustain the essential Tory argument that the economic interests of Scotland and England are identical.
Perhaps it is time to set ourselves apart from England in the way the Irish Republic did after going into Europe at the same time in 1973.
It is today still close to the UK, but less close than it used to be, and far enough apart to contemplate an entire future in a superior trading bloc.