Scotland has a problem. No, not that one. Or that one.
It’s a problem that if you squint your eyes, you can see, menacingly, on the horizon. Its distance makes it all the more challenging to solve, as politicians focus on the present and at furthest the next election.
The problem is an ageing population and a declining birthrate. In an excellent article on Scotland Can, Aveek Bhattacharya discusses improving Scotland’s birthrate and the perils facing a society that doesn’t seek to address these twin issues.
This matters to us all. Every generation. A country that isn’t replenishing its youthful vitality will stagnate and suffer from eventual long term decline.
Some of our most precious public services face serious challenges. Left unreformed and unresolved, the NHS will be looking after an older population with more complex and costly health requirements. To fund this, the diminishing working age population will have to be taxed ever higher – negatively impacting Scotland’s competitiveness and productivity.
So, what can be done? A quick and obvious solution would be to increase immigration to Scotland. This may sound easy, yet appears to be curiously difficult.
As James Kirkup observes in The Times, immigration to the UK is actually increasing – despite the rhetoric of Brexit. Yet figures from the Office of National Statistics requested by ScotlandCan reveal that, in the most recently available year, 2020, Scotland has both a significantly lower percentage of non UK born residents than England as well as a lower percentage of net long term migration. It would seem that despite the rise in people moving to the UK, they are choosing to remain in England rather than make a life north of the border here in Scotland.
Non-UK born population
Country of birth, Jan 2020 Dec 2020
Non-UK born estimate
% of the population
Long-term international migration mid-2019 to mid-2020
Mid-2020 population estimate
% of the population
Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister has said she is pro-immigration. In dark times, it has been refreshing to see a leader stand up for (some) liberal values and defend the benefits of legal immigration.
However, as every journalist, commentator and opposition figure in Scotland is fed up of saying, once again the lofty rhetoric does not match the action.
Scotland has a truly great international reputation that dwarfs the size of our small, plucky nation. The Scottish government should be capitalising on this to lure skilled and entrepreneurial people to stimulate our economy and infuse it with new ideas. On this, it’s important to note that an ageing population and a declining birthrate are not unique to Scotland. It is a phenomenon happening across Western Europe. What this means is that there is, or soon will be, competition to tempt those who can make a positive economic contribution. If the first rule of politics is that there are no rules, then the second rule is that those who move first gain the initiative.
Interestingly, as also noted by Kirkup but witnessed through New Labour’s neutralisation of immigration as an issue in the 2005 election, when people are satisfied immigration is controlled they are more open and tolerant to it. Put simply, in order for progressives to successfully advocate the benefits of immigration, they have to ensure they are trusted on illegal immigration. It is an equation that requires sustained attention to both sides (the SNP opportunistically interfering in the Home Office’s remit in attending to those who haven’t played by the rules may excite the radicals but probably sets the wider case for immigration back).
It is fair to say Sturgeon has the political space to call for more immigration to Scotland. Whilst there is a case for Scotland to have devolved powers for economic migration, this isn’t necessary to begin today. The UK government has offered refuge to some Hong Kongers who Azeem Ibrahim, also writing for Scotland Can, rightly champions as “some of the most educated and entrepreneurial people in the world”. The Scottish government should be moving heaven and earth to convince them to make their home in Scotland. India is another country whose citizens the Scottish government should be seeking to tempt.
Scotland is blessed with beautiful scenery, vibrant cities and world leading universities. We need to start making the most of them. The Scottish government has to step up and launch a concerted campaign to remind the world that Scotland is open for business. Not just in terms of our values, but because fundamentally our future depends on it.