IMMIGRATION is great for Scotland. Hardly a contentious statement, or so you’d think based on our enriched communities, ageing population, and the fact that EU citizens contribute billions more to the economy than they use in public services.
First published in The National, 21 November 2019
When I was travelling all around Scotland during the 2016 EU referendum campaign, the one statistic that caused the most surprise at public meetings and on the doorsteps was this: EU immigrants contribute £55 per second net to the UK public purse. Other figures exist but nobody credible is suggesting anything other than they are a financial benefit. When it feels like you’re being force-fed scapegoating stories about EU immigrants as part of accepted political rhetoric, and in the most dehumanising language – travelling to the UK to claim benefits, causing delays in A&E, and draining resources – of course a verifiable fact like that is going to clash with the popular narrative.
But it’s not just a financial benefit. Our attitude towards immigration – a cold, clinical word for a plethora of human stories and experiences – speaks volumes about who we are as a country, and who we want to be. Right now, in Holyrood, the Scottish Government is working on extending the right to vote in Scottish elections to all legally resident citizens in Scotland, regardless of nationality. The Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill is a dry title for a game-changing document that will be a real case of putting our money where our mouth is. The Scottish Government had the power to ensure EU nationals could vote in the 2014 indyref, and so it did. But the UK Government banned non-UK nationals from voting in the 2016 EU referendum. Those two examples sum up two very different political cultures. The bill is a demonstration of the kind of values we hold and the kind of Scotland we’re building – and I have to say, it’s not coming a moment too soon. Non-EU nationals have been swept under the rug somewhat, and I’ve seen more than a few comments seeking to pit non-EU and EU nationals against each other. That’s not what we’re about.
If you choose to make Scotland your home, you’re one of us. Welcome. Whether you’re teaching in our schools or keeping the NHS going, you’re a part of Scotland’s story. You are welcome here, your contribution is valued and this is your home for as long as you want to stay. My MEP colleague Christian Allard is very open about the fact he only intended to come to Scotland for a short while for work ... 35 years ago. He explains: “First I fell in love with my wife, then I fell in love with Scotland.”
Now he’s representing Scotland in the European Parliament, after serving three years in Holyrood as an MSP for Aberdeen Donside. When he greets MEPs and visitors with “Bonjour – fit like?”, they know Scotland is a very special place, and one that couldn’t be further from the cold, malevolent, unfeeling UK immigration system that rips families apart and wants to throw up walls all around the country.
At a public meeting with MSPs Bruce Crawford and Michael Russell this week, we listened to and answered questions from any members of the public willing to brave a chilly evening to come to the Raploch Community Campus. That included one lady from Chile, who moved here 11 years ago, married, raised her two children and started a business – then found herself almost deported. There was a palpable ripple of anger and upset through the hall when she told us that – not just from the politicians, also from the folk sitting around her.
When you put a human face, a human life, on these statistics and lines of print, you see how hateful and broken the current system really is. Nobody who has come here to work, love, raise their kids, join the darts club, help their neighbours get snow off the path, volunteer at the Brownies or run the quiz nights deserves to have their life put on hold, knowing their future is at the whim of a, quite frankly, maladjusted administrative system that has to strip the humanity out of these numbers on the sheet.
There’s no way of hiding how personally offensive I find that on every level. In addition to knowing first-hand how many good folk are living with this sword of Damocles over their heads, I remember my dad losing his job in Glasgow back in the 70s and us having to move to Saudi Arabia so he could provide for us.
He had to go to the interior ministry every three months to get his card stamped, so there was always this undercurrent of precariousness, of uncertainty. At the time, I thought it was normal, and being around so many different nationalities and languages in my wee school was great, but you always knew in the back of your mind that this was temporary, and you shouldn’t get comfortable. While it’s stood me in good stead these past few years, it’s not a future I’d wish for our young ones or our friends and neighbours.
Scotland should be a safe place for people who want to live, love and work in a progressive, welcoming, dynamic country. On the doorsteps, I’ve been told of the very real disquiet and unease people feel about the hostile UK system. With that in mind, there’s a lot to be said for devolution of immigration policy to Holyrood. There are plenty of folk who would be unmoved by the cultural and social arguments for it, but who would agree with the hard-headed economic self-interest of such a move.
I was proud to see so much pushback against anti-immigrant rhetoric during 2016, and every day since. Now it’s starting up again, and we need to be wary of it. We need folk willing to bang the drum in favour of immigration, and to show their support to our friends and neighbours. It won’t be easy, especially because the past few years have shown how easy it is to blame ordinary people for the failures of a political ruling class. It’s not going to be pretty. But we have to bear in mind the kind of country we want, and act accordingly.