Saturday, 14 June 2014

Why an independent Scotland would face a demographic challenge

One of the biggest challenges an independent Scotland would face is demographic.  People in Scotland are living much longer than they used to, which of course is great, but so too are fewer babies being born which is less great. Under these circumstances any country will eventually struggle to pay for the public services that we all want. After some decades of ever increasing longevity and ever fewer babies the Scottish population has become more and more unbalanced. Ever fewer working age tax payers have to find ever more to fund the care of those who have ceased working.

What can a country do about this situation? One thing you can do is to encourage more children to be born. The SNP’s plan to help women with child care is an excellent idea, flawed only by its not properly being costed. It’s important to admit that free childcare for everyone would be very expensive, but it would also be worth it. Here I think all parties in Scotland should work together no matter the result of the referendum. Scotland’s low birth rate amounts to a national emergency and a united approach is needed if we are going to do anything about it.

But even if you can increase child birth, it will take a long time before it makes a noticeable difference to the work force. There are only so many women in Scotland and they can only have so many babies. You have to wait twenty years or more before a new generation of mothers is available.

It is for this reason that an independent Scotland would significantly need to increase immigration. Estimates vary but it is likely that we would need somewhere between 500,000 and one million extra immigrants over the next 30 years.

The demographic situation facing Scotland is not unique. It is something that we have in common with much of the developed world, but it has to be admitted that our situation is rather worse that the other parts of the UK. England especially has rather less need of immigration now partly because they have had much more over the past 50 years than Scotland. If Scotland were to remain in the UK we would not need the extra immigration for our demographic situation would be counterbalanced by that of England. This is one of the main benefits of being in the UK. The relatively younger English population makes the relatively older Scottish population unproblematic simply because we live in the same country and fiscal transfers happen automatically.

One of the difficulties that an independent Scotland would face is that immigrants are clearly more attracted to living south of the border rather than here. Why is that? Perhaps it’s the weather, perhaps the size of London, most likely it’s because immigrants prefer to move to where there are already immigrant communities.

This though would present a challenge to an independent Scotland in trying to come up with an immigration policy designed to attract more immigrants to Scotland than the UK. How are we to keep them here, if where they really want to go is London? Moreover, if the UK Government decided they would prefer rather fewer immigrants than Scotland, how could they prevent people, who have been admitted to Scotland, simply moving south? The challenge for Scotland would be to have an immigration policy that satisfied Scotland’s needs without being so different to that of the UK’s needs that it would be incompatible with the existence of the Common Travel Area.

Scotland needs people. But out of all the people living in Scotland, who were not born here, where do the vast majority come from? The answer is obvious. They come from the other parts of the UK. But why do people move here from places in England, Wales and Northern Ireland? We all know that there are lots of great things about life here, but one of the fundamental attractions to people from other parts of the UK about Scotland is that they would not be immigrants. At the moment, if you move to London to Edinburgh you are not emigrating, but rather moving to a different part of the same country. Anyone who has lived abroad knows that an international move is a much bigger step. Moreover many people are reluctant to live where they are not a citizen. For this reason the number of people moving to an independent Scotland from the UK is bound to decline. In this way independence is rather self-defeating with regard to immigration. Fundamentally if you want to attract people to Scotland you ought not to put an international border between Scotland and the greatest source of those people. 

Anecdotally I’ve come across quite a lot of Scots, especially those with high paying jobs who are making contingency plans to move south if Scotland votes for independence. They’ve looked at SNP plans and worked out that it is likely to be them that foot the bill.  I’ve met people who say they simply could not afford to live in an independent Scotland.  Surveys suggest that the people who are most opposed to independence are highly qualified, relatively affluent professionals. But these are exactly the sort of people who can vote with their feet. The immigration situation of an independent Scotland may therefore need to take into account the loss of some Scots who perhaps find that the business they work for needs to move from Edinburgh to London or those who simply don’t like the direction that nationalists are liable to take our country.

Where is Scotland then going to get the extra people we would need? Well one source is clearly the EU. Access to the EU labour market is one of the major benefits of being in the EU. Given our demographic situation, only a fool would complain about people coming here from Eastern Europe. It is the fact that we have been able to attract people from elsewhere that has enabled us to continue funding our pensions and health service without massively having to increase taxation. The likelihood however is that an independent Scotland’s path into the EU would be rather tricky and there could be a period when we were not in it. What would happen to those EU citizens already living here? The basis for their right to live here would have ceased. How would we be able to attract more EU citizens if for a time we were not even a member?  These kinds of uncertainties are liable to have a detrimental effect on EU immigration.

But even if an independent Scotland were to remain seamlessly in the EU, it’s important to be aware that many EU citizens are attracted to Scotland precisely because we are part of the UK. The Russian word for England is the common way to refer to the whole of the UK. Just as many Scots are unfamiliar with the geography of Eastern Europe, so Slavs are often unaware that the UK has parts. (How many republics in Russia can you name?) What they are attracted to is the traditional image of Britain picked up from films and literature. They generally see the Union Jack as a positive fashion statement that signifies being in the West. Again, putting an international border between Scotland and the British brand is hardly going to attract immigration, especially when so many Scots openly express such hostility to that brand.

The level of immigration we get from the EU is unlikely to increase whether we are independent or not. It may decline. Where else can we obtain people? There are lots of people from outside the EU who would love to come to Scotland. We have a much higher standard of living than much of the world. But then one of the difficulties for an independent Scotland would be to persuade the seven out of ten Scots who want stricter immigration controls.

I think these people are mistaken. Scotland’s choice will be between immigration and maintaining public services. But it’s also important to realise that there are significant challenges that go with increasing immigration. If a million more people come to live here in the next 30 years, where are they to live? We would need to build another three Edinburghs. What jobs would they have? How would we maintain a cohesive society with a common Scottish identity? How could we maintain an open border if we want to allow many more non EU immigrants than the UK?


There are lots of advantages to Scotland increasing its population. It would almost certainly be beneficial economically. London is in part wealthy because it can attract people from all over the world.  An independent Scotland would need to do likewise. But nationalism, which immigrants can rarely share, is hardly something that attracts; rather it is something that frequently repels.  The contradiction at the heart of the SNP’s policy is that increasing immigration is about bringing down borders not erecting new ones, it’s about recognising what we share with people from elsewhere rather than what makes us different, it’s about internationalism rather than nationalism. 

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