Time for a Scotland-specific immigration policy


by Harry McGrath

I’m in London and have two hours to wait for the train north – there’s time for the pub and a bit of football.  Beside me are a group of English Defence League lads fresh from their day out in Luton.  It’s an Irish theme bar.  The EDL, it seems, doesn’t do irony.

It does, however, approve of literal statements like “state multiculturalism has failed” and just about anything with the word “muscular” in it.  When the Prime Minister of Britain gets the thumbs up from the EDL, it’s a sign but not a good one.  And just so that David Cameron can be doubly assured about who is impressed, Marine Le Pen of the French National Front has now added her congratulations.

Cameron’s new friends are indicative of the fact that he is just plain wrong.  I lived half my life in a country that is arguably the ultimate expression of ‘state-sponsored multiculturalism’ (now a pejorative term in some sections of the British media) and, believe me, it works.

Canada embraced a policy of multiculturalism in the early 1970s and reshaped its immigration arrangements to make it happen.  Today it has the highest rate of immigration per capita in the world and interracial marriages are soaring.  Statistics Canada projects that by 2031 50% of the population over the age of fifteen will be foreign born or have at least one foreign born parent.

On the whole Canadians are supportive of, or at the very least sanguine about, all this.  A survey conducted at the end of last year by the US German Marshall Fund found that Canadians were amongst the least concerned about immigration.  The British, predictably enough, were the most concerned.  This might explain why Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, so similar to Cameron in a number of ways, has repeatedly stated his commitment to multiculturalism.

But where does all this leave Scotland?  Are Scots really as concerned about the immigration issue as the “British” in the USGMF survey?  Do we really want to be lumped in with Cameron’s views on multiculturalism and become associated with the EDL and Marine Le Pen? Have we had enough of state multiculturalism?

The answer is ‘no’ on all counts.  First of all, it is impossible for Scotland to dismiss state multiculturalism when, as a stateless nation, it has never had the opportunity it try it.  Secondly, Cameron’s pronouncements on immigration and multiculturalism seem to have galvanised otherwise disparate Scottish voices against him.

The SNP believes in ‘open’ immigration for Scotland.  Its policy requires refinement, but chimes with a recent pronouncement from former First Minister Jack McConnell that Scotland needs “to open its doors not just to new ideas but to new people”.  The principals of five Scottish universities have appealed against Westminster’s proposed cap on non-EU students.  They are concerned that this will impoverish their universities but should also be concerned that it will impoverish Scottish society in every sense.

All agree then that Scotland has different immigration requirements, but recognizing that is not news.  Several years ago, with its population in serious decline, Scotland was granted the Fresh Talent programme.  It provided something to sell internationally but was essentially a woefully inadequate Westminster concession.  This time we need something with teeth that can meet Scotland’s immigration needs and have the added bonus of eliminating us from the dance with the far-right that Cameron is now engaged in.

The time is right for a Scotland-specific immigration policy and the Canadian system with its mix of economic, social and humanitarian components is an ideal model.  I heard Dianne Abbot MP, who made a career in immigration casework, describe the Canadian system as consisting of the twin notion of what you can do for Canada and/or what Canada can do for you.  It is not too much of a stretch to imagine that said of Scotland but we’ll need to do it ourselves.



Harry McGrath is the former coordinator of the Centre for Scottish Studies at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.  He is now based in Edinburgh and runs the Scottish Canadian Agency.