As you may have noticed, the last three years or so has seen the UK consumed with the ins and outs, the minutiae and meanderings of some little thing called Brexit. Now, it seems as if it has really happened, and the UK has actually left the EU. Of course there is still a long way to go to figure out the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU, and to figure out who is going to plug the financial hole left in the EU’s budget.
However, the implications of Brexit, particularly in relation to immigration, are starting to worry the Scottish government. This is because (like so many other western nations) the Scottish population (and indirectly, its economy) is dependent upon continued immigration to bolster its population.
In the early part of this century, the Scottish Executive (as it was then called) was concerned that the working-age population was about to decline and that the population as a whole would dip below five million people by 2009. As it turned out, these predictions were only half right. The number of adults of working age population living in Scotland is declining and the population is ageing. But the fears of imminent population decline were proved wrong. The population is now nearing 5.5 million people and the current projections are that the population will only start declining in the early 2040s.
However, the Scottish population growth of the past 20 years has been largely driven by immigration – indeed, the natural growth of the population (births minus deaths) has been negative for the past five years. The total fertility rate is at a very low 1.4 children per woman and the trend for the number of live births is down. According to the 2019 annual report from the National Records of Scotland:
“Natural change (births minus deaths) is projected to fall to lower levels than have ever previously been recorded. Inward immigration is projected to be the only source of population growth.”
That is where Brexit comes in. Large numbers of immigrants to Scotland came from eastern Europe (Poland and Lithuania) under the EU’s freedom of movement. The concern is that, with the UK setting its own, points-based, immigration policy, the number of migrants to the UK (and to Scotland) will decline. The UK government has announced that will discourage low-skilled immigration from the EU and will not issue visas to migrants who lack qualifications or a job in a “high-skilled” profession. The Conservative government wants to reduce net migration and to encourage employers to provide better training and incentives to local and existing workers. (This is similar to the immigration visa system we have in New Zealand.)
The Scottish Government has demanded that powers over immigration be devolved to it so that it can develop its own (presumably more relaxed) immigration policies. Westminster has refused to allow this and will, if it wants to keep the Union together, continue to refuse this. Once Scotland has its own immigration policy then freedom of movement would need to be ended between Scotland and England if the more rigorous immigration south of the border was to mean anything. If immigration policy in London is tightened up, then this will probably have a large impact on Scotland’s population: indeed, it will probably determine if the Scottish population continues to grow or not.
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet’s blog on population issues.