No fan of a party trying to destroy my country – the UK – it's still impossible to deny that the SNP is consistently liberal on the issue of immigration. It is more so, at least rhetorically (important in this area, to be sure) than is evinced in the political rhetoric elsewhere in the UK, if with less effect on immigration numbers.
It's not purely benign: the demographics of Scotland are grim, with pensioners' numbers rising by nearly 30% over the next quarter of a century – while the working population, who must pay the taxes to support dignified old age, is expected to rise by just 1%. Though immigration into Scotland has increased the population in recent years, the rise has been much less than in England, in part because of the greater pull of London and the south-east for those looking for work.
But it looks benign. To witness the party's conference in Aberdeen last year was to see a parade of recent immigrants attest to their welcome in Scotland, especially by the SNP. Roza Salih, a young Kurdish woman whose family came to Scotland in 2001 – fleeing from an Iraqi regime which executed her grandfather and two uncles for resistance to Saddam Hussein – enthused that 'I love Glasgow, I love Scotland, it is my home.' Graduating in law and politics from Strathclyde University, she stood for Glasgow City Council last year, and narrowly failed to be elected. She isn't typical of the immigrant, or indeed the native, population – her activism and ambition are clearly formidable, and set her apart – but she is one who lends herself, not without self-interest, to the demonstration of nationalist inclusiveness.
The narrative of the conference, and of the party's leadership, is that Scotland has a warm heart, and England a stony one. In fact, in proportion to its population, Scotland takes a lower percentage of immigrants than England and Wales. The real pressures from immigration – they can be serious – are felt in England, not yet in Scotland.
Still, it's in the interest of a Scottish government to increase that number, and it may do so. The question is: what if it succeeds, and the pace of change in Scotland's cities and towns picks up? It has done so in England – in London, on the 2011 census, white people of all kinds made up just under 60% of the 8.1m population, with white British at only 45%. In Birmingham, on present trends, the non-white people in the 1.2m population city, now at over 40%, will be in the majority at the next census in 2021. White people are already the minority, or close to being so, in many North American cities – broadly uncontroversial in Canada, which seems for the present to have reconciled itself to being a country of minorities, much more controversially, at times murderously, in the US.
Scotland's greatest cities are much whiter – Glasgow at over 88%, Edinburgh at over 91%, both on the 2011 census. The non-white numbers are growing, as they are elsewhere: but not enough, yet, to excite serious concern from those who fear white people being outnumbered.
White fear is real – as two recent books – Eric Kaufmann's 'Whiteflight' (Allen Lane) and Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin's 'National Populism' (Pelican Books) reveal. Kaufmann, a Canadian political scientist at London's Birkbeck College, believes that white fear of being reduced to a minority in countries their ancestors – many of them Scots – had founded is now the largest political-emotional element in the shift to populism. 'No-one,' he writes, 'who has honestly analysed survey data on individuals…can deny that white majority concern over immigration is the main cause of the rise of the populist right in the West.'
This concern over immigration merges with the solidly-based perception that – as Eatwell and Goodwin put it – 'Western economies are rigged in favour of the rich and the powerful' – leading people to consider more radical alternatives to the market system. A 2017 poll showed that 'at least two thirds of people in Britain, France, Hungary, Italy, Spain and Belgium agreed that "a strong leader is needed to take the country back from the rich and the powerful".' This isn't fascism: but it is a mood of radical political rootlessness.
There's no reason why Scots would be immune from this, or that the Scottish government should too easily congratulate itself and its supporters for their tolerance. Though some polls show Scots are less concerned than the English about immigration, the difference is small and in other polls, the concern is as high. One recent poll showed that a majority of Scottish school children thought that immigration should be frozen at current levels, or cut.
The government is right to invite immigrants into Scotland: they can, as others before them (like Roza Talih) become active and fully engaged citizens, and bring much to the country. But it has to learn from the mistakes of other states, including the UK itself, which have permitted large-scale immigration, and done little or nothing to prepare the native population for the influx, provide extra housing, or set up structures to assist integration. That's essential if, in the longer-term, immigrants who will put down roots are to accept, and be accepted by, a society whose residents have a right to expect that Scottish/British traditions and customs should be preserved, respected, learned and continue to live.