This article by Chris Deerin first appeared in The Times on 18 June 2018.
Scotland has a people problem. There will be dramatic shift in our demographic profile over the next 25 years: we’re about to get much older. If left unaddressed, this will only make it tougher to meet the formidable and unavoidable challenges of the 21st century.
As it stands Scotland already has a lower general fertility rate than every other nation and region of the UK. Over the next quarter of a century, it’s projected that there will be more deaths than births every single year. The number of pensioners will increase by 25 per cent. The number aged 75 and over will rise by 79 per cent.
The consequences are obvious. The working-age population, though smaller, will have to pay more. Demand on the welfare state — on the state pension, on the NHS, on social care — will rocket. Taxes will have to rise. Public services will have to fight ever harder for funding. Plainly Scotland needs more people, and it needs them quite quickly. The only way to get them, beyond an unlikely upsurge in sexual athletics, is through increased immigration.
There’s a difficulty, though. Theresa May is determined to reduce annual net migration to Britain from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. That desire is shared by many of those who voted for Brexit. The conversation at Westminster is about how to restrict rather than boost the number of people coming to live in Britain.
There is little that Holyrood can do about this, despite cross-party f support for more immigrants, as control over the policy is reserved to London. A possible solution has emerged, though, and it is one that would not require any further devolution of power. Last week Sajid Javid, the home secretary, announced that doctors and nurses are to be excluded from the UK-wide cap on skilled worker visas, to ease pressure on NHS staffing levels. Why not similarly remove Scotland from the immigration target, allowing us to attract the workers and families that will fit our future population needs? The new, separate Scottish tax code makes it easier to ensure that immigrants stay north of the border once they get here.
You could argue that Scotland hasn’t really tried immigration yet. At present, only 7 per cent of Scots were born outside Britain. For the rest of the country that figure is 14 per cent; in London it is 35 per cent. If we want the economic flexibility and dynamism to thrive in a changing global climate, this needs to change. Removing Scotland from the immigration cap would be a good start.