Paisley: How does political and religious leadership influence attitudes to immigration

Paisley, Renfrewshire just outside of Glasgow, is a place where the 19th century textile boom has left its mark, with grand sandstone buildings and monuments on almost every corner. But the decline of industry has taken away wealth from the town and many people now commute into Glasgow for work. While median wages are above the Scottish average, some areas have seen growing decline. Although running to be UK City of Culture 2021 hopes to alleviate some of this, Paisley is home to Scotland’s poorest neighbourhood.

But while economic decline is closely linked to anxieties about migration, attitudes towards immigration in Paisley were quite different from those of many panels we have held in England and Wales. While there were some shared points, such as the importance of economic contribution, on one of our most liberal panels so far views were distinctly different from other post-industrial areas we have visited where the link between deprivation and migration scepticism have been stronger.

Where the majority of our citizens’ panels so far want to reduce rates of low skilled immigration, none of the Paisley panel did so, with everyone content for numbers to be increased or to remain the same. They panel showed strong sympathy with refugees, something that has been fragile in some other places.  Importantly, participants recognised the economic and labour market contribution of migrants, and felt that these benefits outweighed any negative impacts associated with migration:

“In most cases they are contributing, and it’s more coming in than is going out”  

So why were the attitudes of the Paisley panel different in a town which, at least on paper, resembles places where we have heard very different things?

Both our stakeholders and panel members felt that that national media and political discourses about immigration were more positive and welcoming in Scotland, compared with other parts of the UK. Both First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives open talk about the benefits of migration and back calls to take in child refugees. Paisley elected the UK’s youngest MP for 350 years, the SNP’s Mhairi Black in 2015, who has also been highly critical of more restrictive approaches to immigration.  These different political narratives in turn, may have some impact on the nature of everyday political discussion in public and private space.

Our citizens’ panel agreed that positive political leadership on migration issues had influenced their views, and several participants spoke about the “shame” they felt at immigration being used as a “political football”.

The labour movement is still strong in the town, and those we spoke to carried many of its internationalist values. Indeed, our panel in Paisley were predominantly employed in low and medium-skilled jobs agreed that migrants were often people “in similar positions to themselves”.

Lower population density, lower levels of international migration and media and political debates about future demographic needs may mean that narratives about numbers and ‘the crowded island’ also gain less traction in Scotland, compared with England.

There are also local factors that influence public attitudes in Paisley. Paisley has a young, visible and successful Polish community who are well-integrated into the local area.

It is not the poorest part of Scotland and this may have impacted on public views. Many people who live in Paisley are the descendants of Irish immigrants. Just as we found in Northern Ireland, some of our citizens’ panel made reference to their own family’s history of migration, and felt this meant that they could relate to the experiences of those who recently moved from overseas. The Roman Catholic church as a strong presence in Paisley, with an estimated 24% of Renfrewshire’s population identifying as Roman Catholic in Census 2011. The church has been at the forefront of Syrian refugee settlement and its moral leadership on this issue may have influenced local attitudes about refugees.

Our visit to Paisley was our second to Scotland. We have previously been to Aberdeen where different issues were raised in our meetings with local stakeholders and the citizens’ panel. Polling data, so often used by politicians to inform their positions, does not pick up on these local issues and nuances of opinion. Yet as we saw in Paisley, both local and national factors affect people’s views. It is essential that both are heard by decision-makers.

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