Two years is a very long time in politics.
In the 2017 general election campaign immigration – ” one of the most powerful fear factors exploited by the Leave campaign during the EU referendum” as Anton Muscatelli put it in these pages – was a high-profile issue. In 2019 it is not, however toxic the debate around it.
Non-EU net migration may be on the rise, reaching its highest level for 16 years, but the latest UK-wide figures point to a “very precipitous” (Jonathan Portes) fall in EU net migration – more than halving since 2015. This has severe implications for the Scottish economy and for Scottish society as a whole.
This very critical issue has received very little coverage or debate during a campaign dominated by Brexit, independence versus the union, health, crime and, gradually, the climate emergency. Yet, as Nicola Sturgeon put it in her speech to mark St Andrew’s Day, Scotland “urgently needs the powers to implement a migration policy tailored to (its) needs.”
She said: ” All of the increase in Scotland’s population over the next 25 years is predicted to come from migration.
“We need to keep attracting people to Scotland, and to keep providing opportunities for people born here, in order to grow our economy, provide staffing for our public services and to raise the tax revenue needed for the NHS and other services.”
Two recent talks at the David Hume Institute have highlighted how Scotland has changed dramatically in terms of population make-up over past decades but how this could change even more – and unfavourably – in the ones to come.
Portes, Senior Fellow of the Economic and Social Research Council’s “UK in a Changing Europe” initiative at King’s College, London, and Graeme Roy, director of the Fraser of Allander Institute at Strathclyde University, agree that the Scottish population would be significantly bigger if the country remains within the single market and customs union (at the very least).
Portes said that, with EU migration retained constantly, the population could reach 5.85 million in 2041 but fall from the current 5.43m to 5.3m without it. Using the latest National Records of Scotland assessment, Roy calculated that “whilst Scotland’s population is projected to grow over the next 25 years from around 5.4 to 5.6 million, the pace of growth is projected to slow and then level off.”
What’s more, our population is ageing, with the median average age up from 39 in 2001 to 42 in 2017 and likely to be 45 by 2040 and the number of deaths already exceeding births (by 8000 in 2018 and heading for 20,000). Though raising the age of retirement/state pension will preserve the working age population for some time this effect will diminish. And, at the same time, as the economy is digitalised, skills shortages will increase and may already have done so.
Two key messages
Portes: The Scottish Government’s demand for full devolution of powers over migration will continue to go unanswered and the Migration Advisory Committee will continue to insist that the Scottish economy is not sufficiently different to merit a very different system to that of the rest of the UK. However, he suggested even a re-elected Conservative government might be prepared to countenance “geographical preferences” for Scotland, say, if coupled with Wales and North-east England.
Roy: a 50% decline in EU net migration – reducing the steady state level of international net migration from 10,000 per year to 7,000 per year – would see Scotland’s working age population fall by nearly 2% over the next 25 years, rising to nearly 4% if there was to be zero net EU migration. The effect will be a squeeze on growth (-2%), domestic demand and tax revenues as well as fewer jobs (-1.6%). Yet, paradoxically, as there will be fewer employed persons below 30 (whom pay less tax), the Scottish Budget may not badly impacted.
Further reading/listening: The Portes talk, including slides, can be accessed here and here; the Roy presentation, given with Prof Michael Anderson, and complete with slides, is here and in audio form here. A migration specialist wrote this for The Conversation, with four key graphs on UK trends.