Immigration: more or less?

Douglas Fraser
Business/economy editor, Scotland

  • Published
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Should we be surprised that nearly two-thirds of Scottish voters want to see immigration reduced?

That's according to the YouGov poll for BBC Scotland, the first part of which is being published today. The survey found only 5% of the 1,100 Scottish sample want to see immigration increased.

And within the 64% for reduction, 15% of the total want to see immigration stopped altogether.

So if you listen to the rhetoric in Holyrood, then yes, you would be surprised, because there's a cross-party consensus in favour of increasing immigration.

The agreement across parties is not quite as firm as it was when Jack McConnell seized the issue of Scotland's demographic challenge and made the case for more immigrants.

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Some of his Labour colleagues at Westminster were sceptical about the then first minister's initiative. But other parties at Holyrood joined the Labour-Lib Dem administration in supporting the case.

It created one of the many tense encounters between the Labour first minister and the Labour administrations in Westminster.

This was over the 'Fresh Talent' initiative - giving a special right to non-European Union students at Scottish universities to have a work permit for a limited period after graduation.

By the standards of the Smith Commission, such divergence now seems no big deal. Yet the initiative was ended. Universities say it has put them at a significant disadvantage in recruiting students from Asia.

And attempts to bring it back, even with the support of prominent Scottish Conservatives, are understood to be getting nowhere in Whitehall.

Stricter controls

By contrast with Holyrood, the Westminster conversation about immigration is about sounding tough. That's where the polls are, and that's where UKIP is. Those polls have focussed the attention of party strategists ahead of the general election.

The odd bit is that the polls in Scotland have not been that different.

So in answer to my opening question: no, we shouldn't be surprised. The YouGov polling last week was in line with what we already knew.

With the help of the What Scotland Thinks website, recent findings have gone like this:

In May last year, Survation found 68% supporting stricter controls on immigration, and 10% against. In November, the same pollster asked if immigration has been good or bad for Scotland. Good won, but by a margin of only 44 to 40%.

The Scottish Social Attitudes survey last year found 62% saying the number of migrants to Britain should be reduced, and 9% saying there should be more.

The Holyrood government's plans for an independent Scotland foresaw the opportunity to relax immigration controls to suit Scotland's demographic priorities.

Asked by YouGov 13 months ago what effect that would have on levels of immigration, 40% of its sample said they would get higher, and 19% said they would get lower. So the message seems to have got through.

But that doesn't mean it was supported. Survation found last July that, if independent, only 10% said Scotland should have more immigrants and 56% said there should be fewer.

Distinctive

The evidence is consistent that Scottish public opinion on immigration is less negative or hostile than in Britain as a whole. But not by much.

Only rarely do the comparable Britain-wide survey results reach the opposite majority conclusion to those in Scotland.

So why the mismatch between public opinion and political consensus? Perhaps it is merely a desire for a point of difference.

Perhaps it is because it is a less salient issue for Scots: having less experience of ethnic minorities in their neighbourhoods, they care less about it than other issues.

You could argue that MSPs at Holyrood are out of touch, and in an elite which finds immigration useful in providing the low-price labour to support its lifestyle.

Or you could see MSPs as leading public opinion, setting out Scotland's distinctive attitude to foreigners and incomers, on an evidence base about demographic change with which few others are familiar.

That version of Scotland's outlook on the world may not be based on public opinion. But it's a positive story to tell.

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