Edinburgh: Devolved immigration policy? All parts of the UK need to feel that the Government acts in the interests of its local population

Our last Scottish citizens’ panel was held in Edinburgh. In all our visits north of the border, we have asked participants if the Scottish Government should be given control over immigration policy. This last weekend, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has called for Scotland to be given powers over immigration. So we thought it would be timely to reflect on views on the devolution of immigration powers among our Edinburgh participants and our other Scottish citizens’ panels.

Until relatively recently, Edinburgh has had a proportionally smaller migrant population than many other big cities. Despite this, the city has been outward looking – the port, as well as the universities and the Edinburgh Festival have contributed to its open and international feel. The citizens’ panel had some hesitations about immigration, but reflected this view and felt the city was welcoming. Participants mostly felt that the benefits of migration outweighed its disadvantages:

If you just look at the basics, in the ‘70s all you could eat was Indian or Chinese, and now you can just about eat any food and that’s what’s coming in. They’re [migrants are] bringing their food and their ideas and obviously we’re not going to agree with all their ideas but I think it does benefit us.”

The group had some concerns, mostly about the added pressures that migration put on Edinburgh’s housing. Participants were sympathetic to the needs of refugees and felt that Scotland was more welcoming than England.

We have asked all our citizens’ panels in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland whether their respective governments should be given more powers over immigration policy. In Edinburgh, the citizens’ panel was divided on this issue, seeing many practical difficulties in such a policy:

“If we had an immigration policy for Scotland that would mean we would have to have a border between England and Scotland.”

Looking back to our Edinburgh citizens’ panel, and our other four visits to Scotland – to Aberdeen, Dumfries, Lerwick and Paisley – participants’ views about the devolution of immigration powers are complex. Broadly, opinions fall into one of four different groups. First, there are those who want immigration powers to be devolved because they strongly support Scottish Independence.

But there is a second group who want the Scottish government to have more of a say over immigration policy. While they may not have voted for independence in the 2014 referendum, this group wants more immigration powers to be devolved because they think that the Westminster government only acts in the interests of London and the City. In Edinburgh we were told:

All they are really concerned with is…preserving the stakes of London rather than every other community up and down the country. We saw that with the fishermen this week. So if they’re trying to bargain away certain things to keep the status quo in regards to business in London…You’ve got to have an agreement that benefits everybody rather than the social and political elite in London.

There are also those who oppose the devolution of immigration powers. They include a third group those who strongly support the Union.

But we have found that there is a group who want the Scottish to have more powers, but nevertheless don’t want these to include immigration. This fourth group comprises those who think a Scottish immigration system would be impractical and difficult to enforce.

These are lessons that Scottish politicians need to heed. But there are also lessons for Westminster. The belief that the UK Government only acts in the interests of the “London elite” is not confined to those living north of the border. Such views were articulated in Wales and Northern Ireland, too, but also in many citizens’ panels in locations far from London. Our citizens’ panels in places such as Berwick, Grimsby, Kidderminster and Yeovil had a sense that their needs were ignored and the Brexit vote was a reflection of this opinion.

This week the media has focussed on the merits of Scottish independence, and given little thought to the conditions that drive the desire for it. It is not healthy when there is so much resentment of London elites. All parts of the UK need to feel that the Government acts in the interests of its local population. Whatever our politicians’ view on independence, surely everyone must agree to address this geographic polarisation.

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