The news that 205,000 people have moved to Scotland from elsewhere in the UK within the past four years should be a wake-up call to those who doubted the success of devolution. It's also a sign of things to come, and a warning that we need to act now to develop policies for integration so we can make room for these people, benefit from their skills, and avoid related social problems.
To some of you living in other parts of the world, 205,000 may not seem like that big a number – but bear in mind that Scotland's total population is just five and a quarter million. Scotland has big cities – Glasgow and Edinburgh – but large parts of it are virtually empty, popular with tourists as one of Europe's last remaining wildernesses. In many ways this small population is its biggest strength. Not only does it have ample natural resources, it's really well represented in terms of politicians per constituent. Whilst Westminster increasingly flounders under the weight of the work it has to process, Scotland is a country where things can actually get done, where it's easier for parliamentary activity to keep pace with social change. Individuals have more chance of getting their problems noticed and it's easer for them to contribute their ideas.
Of course, whilst people are coming into Scotland, others are leaving. Nevertheless, net inward migration has risen steeply over the last decade and as far as our relationship with the rest of the UK is concerned, immigration has consistently outpaced emigration during that period. Furthermore, whilst population growth may not be as dramatic as those initial figures suggest, immigration creates its own particular issues, not all of which are tied to population growth itself.
With a birth rate below replacement rate, Scotland has, over the last few decades, been notably more welcoming to immigrants than other parts of the UK. We should be taking lessons from other areas, however, in how easily that can change. Immigration is particularly hard on low-skilled people who already struggle to find employment. If we are to avoid the tensions that have resulted from this elsewhere, we need to (a) concentrate on boosting this part of the economy (not as hard as it might sound in a recession, when building homes and infrastructure can be a good way to kick-start growth), and (b) ensure that incomers are well distributed across the country, avoiding a build-up of people competing for the same jobs in already deprived areas. We need to understand incomers in the same way we understand tourists and effectively market different parts of the country to them, helping them to make informed choices about the available options rather than just being drawn to the bright lights.
Scotland has a particular advantage when it comes to English immigration given the disparity in house prices north and south of the border. It's always easier to relocate if one has money; if one sells a house in England and buys one in Scotland one will have money left over. Of course most people doing this will still be weighed down by mortgages, but they should nevertheless see their disposable income rise, and we need to encourage them to invest that in Scottish businesses as well as spending it on Scottish goods. This financial gain will be important in balancing the initial outlay on integration.
There is one other sizeable group of people moving, or thinking of moving, to Scotland, and that's long term sick and disabled people. Scotland's free personal care has long been attractive to those south of the border, and coupled with the fact that changes in the UK's support system look likely to be resisted up here, it's creating a situation in which many people feel they can't afford not to move. This may worry some Scots, given the potential cost of providing support for a larger disabled population, but it shouldn't need to. Most disabled people can work if they have the right support, whilst others can make different types of contribution to society. The key is to make work more accessible so that support costs are balanced out, if not exceeded, by the tax revenue generated by working disabled people. This is relatively easy to do if approached as a serious social and economic infrastructure project. Making it more tempting for business to take on disabled employees who work from home, for instance, can make a big difference. If the state steps in more quickly to help with the costs of sickness absence (rather than repaying money months later) and if regulations ensure new office buildings have better disabled access, we can all gain not only from the work of disabled incomers but also from an enhanced contribution from our existing disabled citizens.
One thing all immigrants have in common is initiative, and settling in a new country often goes along with a desire to contribute, to make oneself a part of it. Scotland as a nation needs to engage with that. Many of those now arriving are long-absent Scots or have family here and are excited by the emerging sense of nationhood. Others are among those traditionally seen as the old enemy, but want to be part of what's happening here. We need to make sure they're not seen as invaders and act now so this process can provide opportunities for everyone, including Scotland's long term poor. That means we need to start national conversation on the matter now, not wait until we begin to feel overwhelmed.
NOTE: Thanks to Kate Higgins for succesfully clearing up a problem with the stats I originally used in this article. I've amended it accordingly but am leaving it in place because I still think the trend is significant and the issues I've raised here need to be addressed.