Sturgeon turns focus on immigration

Nicola Sturgeon
Image caption Nicola Sturgeon discussed a range of issues facing Scotland

Me? I'm recovering, painfully slowly, from a cold, I have been undergoing a course of dental treatment and the team I support lost 6 - 1 at the weekend. To Falkirk.

Still and all, a guid, if tardy, New Year tae yin an' a.

Today? I have been interviewing the first minister, thanks for asking. I asked about education. Signs of improvement, apparently, bit of a way to go.

I asked about the health service. Ms Sturgeon tendered apologies to those who had treatment deferred but insisted there had been a winter pressure plan in place, backed up by cash.

Flu cases had doubled, she said. That allied to icy weather had contributed to the strain. But she warmly praised NHS staff and suggested that Scotland was coping rather better than England.

I asked about the economy. She countered critics who said that increasing the income tax burden in Scotland by £160m would damage growth. She said the increases were fair, affordable and would help protect vital public services.

On the SNP "growth commission", she said publication was in the hands of Andrew Wilson and his fellow commissioners. She expected a "frank assessment" of the economy under independence - but also an acknowledgement of the advantages which would accrue to an independent Scotland.

Each core topics. Each seriously and substantively addressed by the FM (and, I hope, me). However, perhaps you will forgive me if I dwell upon another subject. Yes, you've guessed it, Brexit.

Image caption Nicola Sturgeon is to set out a fresh paper of Brexit analysis later this month

Nicola Sturgeon wants Scotland, wants the UK to remain inside the European Union. She acknowledges, however, that the UK government appears intent (they would argue, not unreasonably) upon meeting the demands of the electorate in the European referendum. For departure.

The question, in those circumstances, is how Brexit is to be implemented. Ms Sturgeon said that the Scottish government would be contributing still further to that debate by publishing a new document later this month, canvassing options.

Chief among those would be retaining membership of the single market and customs union. So far, so familiar. But Ms Sturgeon went further in the interview with me, dealing directly - and with verve - about the related topic of freedom of movement. Or immigration.

She acknowledged that many people who voted to Leave the EU were motivated by concerns, sincerely felt, over immigration. She said that included people in Scotland, people in her own constituency. People, let us not forget, who may be inclined to vote SNP in other contexts.

EU leaders say that freedom of trade, access to the rights of the single market, is not feasible without freedom of movement. The two are not divisible.

Ms Sturgeon acknowledges that - but does not thereby conclude that the single market should be abandoned as an objective. Rather, she wants to convince people - other politicians, voters - of the merits of freedom of movement. Starting with sceptical people in Scotland.

National self-interest

She says politicians like her need to level with folk. OK, they may not buy the liberal argument that an inclusive, open, welcoming society is intuitively to be desired. They may retain doubts about immigration.

So, she argues, set that philosophical approach aside. Appeal to the pocket and the purse. Remind people that you need taxpayers to fund services, particularly with an ageing population. Remind people that means you need to grow the working age population, not shrink it.

Remind people that Scotland's working age population was shrinking until efforts were made to attract inward migration (firstly by Jack McConnell). Argue that Scotland will continue to need immigration, even more than England.

It was, the FM said, a matter of "national self-interest".

And independence? Despite my repeated efforts, the FM declined to be drawn. Ms Sturgeon stuck to her narrative that she will not even contemplate the issue of a second referendum until the Brexit terms are clearer, perhaps around October this year.

By then, my cold will hopefully have abated, my term of dental servitude will have ended. And Dundee United will be back where they belong, in the Premier League. All things must pass.

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