Now here’s a funny thing. Ask Scottish MPs and MSPs what issue is most on the minds of their constituents right now and a surprising number will say immigration. Yes, race is right up there with drugs and hospital closures. Many Scots believe there are too many incomers and that they are taking our jobs.
We pride ourselves on our Scottish enlightenment and tolerance. Yet, race is the great subterranean issue in Scottish politics. The only reason we don’t hear more about it is that there is a well-meaning conspiracy by the Scottish political parties to playdown the immigration issue.
The reason the parties don’t want to play the race card is pretty obvious. No one wants to foment the kind of communal tensions evident in many English cities. There is no far Right in Scotland making capital out of Scotland’s latent suspicion of foreigners. The SNP, unlike some nationalist parties in continental Europe, is avowedly pro-immigration, and is celebrating the fact that it is likely to have the first Asian MSP after the May elections, Bashir Ahmad.
The other reason immigration isn’t a political issue here, of course, is that there’s been relatively little immigration over the last five decades. Scotland is, as GregDyke might have put it, “appallingly white” . There is a small but vigourous Asian community but virtually no Afro-caribbeans at all. Get off the train at King’s Cross and it’s like being in a different continent, not just another country.
Now, on the Holloway Road, where non-Asian shops are a rarity, or in London’s East End, where white working class residents feel like an excluded minority, you might expect a little communal friction to occur. Similarly, in northern English cities like Leeds, where the London suicide bombers were born and bred, it would be surprising not to hear of resentment at Muslim communities allegedly refusing to adopt British culture.
But how many veiled women do you see on the Byres Road? Or fundamentalist Imams at the Bristo St moque in Edinburgh? Scotland’s silent resentment has no obvious focus.
When asylum seekers were dispersed to Glasgow some five years ago, there was some racial tension, and even one death in Springburn. But that was very much the exception that proved the rule.
Until now. For some reason, the influx of some 20,000 white and mainly Polish workers since EU enlargement in 2004 seems to have ignited antagonism in the most unlikely places. One MP told me of his bemusement at being berated by voters in Falkirk over jobs and houses being “stolen” by immigrants, when there was no immigration to speak of in the Falkirk area.
In Edinburgh, there is a significant and growing Polish presence. But there always has been and they have always been valued members of the community – many dental practices were run by Poles. The only way you can tell they are here in greater numbers now is the number of Polish newspapers on city centre new stands.
The economic reality, as we know, is that with a faltering population, Scotland needs more not fewer immigrants. They pose no economic threat to the indigenous population and bring valuable skills and a committed work ethic. With fewer young workers, we need immigrant workers to meet the cost of an ageing population.
Jack McConnell has been desperately trying to prevent the home Secretary, John Reid, from choking off the flow of as part of his latest crack down on immigration. The government has decided that immigration is too sensitive an issue to be left to the market, and has decided to introduce a points system to control the influx from Bulgaria and Romania.
Now, the Scottish Executive has, for some time, been trying to secure a Scottish ‘opt out’ from UK policy, allowing higher points for immigrants wanting to come to Scotland. There have been some minor concessions. Yesterday, the Home Office agreed that asylum applications should be processed in Scotland.
But so far the Home Office has drawn the line at allowing any significant departure from UK immigration policy for fear that immigrants would enter the UK by Scotland and immediately move south. Well, that’s what Scots do.
But to return to the original question: why, given this lack of immigration, is immigration such a problem for so many Scottish voters? Well, one reason might be that they keep being told that there is an problem.
One of the paradoxes of devolution is that while Scotland has become more Scottish in the last decade, the press has become more English. Scots are reading more copies of Scottish editions of UK papers, like the Sun and the Daily Mail, and fewer indigenous titles, like the Record.
While these papers are not necessarily anti Scottish – the Sun even supports the SNP, sometimes – they do tend to reflect the preoccupations of Middle England in their pages. Hence the endless banging on about illegal asylum seekers, Muslim terrorists and lately the invasion of workers from the new accession states of the EU.
Hardly surprising that people worry about foreign incomers when they read, day after day, that immigration is adding the equivalent of the population of Birmingham every five years; that Muslims are creating no-go areas in Britain; and that pay rates are being driven down by Eastern Europeans prepared to work for less than the minimum wage.
Or when they read that asylum seekers are jumping the queue for hospital operations; raising large families on benefits; and creating bomb factories in suburban houses. Most MSPs are pretty confident that press coverage fuels their constituents’ anxieties.
The recent row over the veil has added another dimension to the problem. I don’t think I have ever actually seen a veil in Scotland. However, I do find that I have opinions about it, because, like everyone else, I get caught up in the controversies that dominate UK programmes like Question Time and Newsnight. You rarely hear any qualifications about there being a rather different situation in Scotland.
And because immigration isn’t an issue for the Scottish parliament, you don’t find the matter being raised much on Newsnight Scotland or other Scottish news outlets. The coverage here is dominated by the raging controversy that has afflicted urban England, and particularly London over the last five years.
Should we be worried about this? Well, I am. Four years ago, a System Three poll revealed that nearly a quarter of Scots were quite happy to be called “racist” and that that half felt it was acceptable to use racist abuse like Chink and Paki. These attitudes need to be exposed and challenged.
Ignorance breeds suspicion. Paradoxically, the fact that there are proportionately fewer non-whites in Scotland may actually make Scots more likely to be casually racist. If you don’t meet many people from another culture, it is easier to be prejudiced, and you are more likely to believe scare stories about them.
This is why I have come to the conclusion that immigration needs to become a responsibility of the Scottish parliament, even though this could create problems with London. The only way that immigration can be debated realistically in Scotland is if we repatriate the debate itself. We cannot allow Scotland to become racist by default.