Immigration has been co-opted into a battle of virtue signalling by both Right and Left: the Right claim the virtuous mantle of protecting the nation from a flood of immigrants, while the Left claim the liberal virtue of welcome to the poor and desperate. The Right point to the downsides: strain on the public services, gang crime, closed communities with illiberal attitudes and downward pressure on wages at the lower end of the labour market. The Left, to the need for compassion and aid to some of the wretched of the earth, to the boost to the population in European states where the natural birth-rate is falling, the entry of skilled workers and the highly educated unable to find a place in their home labour markets, and to the evidence of entrepreneurial vigour among many of the new citizens.
The ruling nationalist party is solidly on the Left side of this argument: so solid, that no opposing view is allowed to be uttered. More, the issue is pressed into service as a further proof that Scotland is a more virtuous nation than England: SNP rhetoric on attitudes to immigration stresses the openness of Scotland and the grudging, even hostile attitudes said to be those of the English. In fact, a confident statement of long-term, deeply embedded difference between the English and the Scots in character, habits and outlook is rarely possible, though the nationalists attempt to encourage it. And in this case, to argue greater virtue in the matter of immigration is wholly wrong.
England is far more multinational and diverse than Scotland. Professor John Curtice, the pollster of reference at Strathclyde University, says that in aggregate there is little difference between the way in which the two populations view immigrants. He also warns that these views can and do change quite rapidly and substantially, depending on circumstances. Welcome can turn into resentment – immigration is a complex phenomenon, for the immigrants naturally, but for the hosts as well.
The benefits cited above are real: immigration tends to raise national GDP, and in London and elsewhere, in spite of linguistic difficulties, immigrant children tend to raise, not lower, educational attainment. But at the micro level – allocation of housing, access to medical and other services, inabilities to make friendly contact, increased competition for jobs and in some cases pressure on wages – all cause frustration and enmity. To deny these is to worsen matters: and England's authorities at every level have much more experience in coping with both – often well, at times badly – than do Scotland's.
Scotland's population – 5,062,000 in 2001, and 5,295,000 in 2011 (the census years) – remains overwhelmingly white: it is changing slowly, though change will tend to accelerate. On the census figures, Scots and other white British accounted for 95.47% of the population in 2001, declining to 91.15% in 2011. Other whites brought the 2001 total to 97.99%, the 2011 total to 96.02%.
England had a population of 49,138,831 in 2001, rising to 53,012,456 in 2011. White British made up 88.3% in 2001; 80.8% in 2011. All whites were 91% in 2001; 84.4% in 2011. England, too, has a large white majority: but it is changing more rapidly than Scotland, and some cities have, or are about to have, a minority white British population.
In Glasgow, Scotland's largest city – at 577,869 in 2001, 593,245 in 2011 – white Scots and other British made up 90.77% in 2001, with all whites at 94.55%; in 2011, the figures for White Scots and other British were 82.66%, while all whites came out at 88.42%. The Asian population – including Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Chinese – grew from 4.44% of the population in 2001 to 8.05% in 2011.
In Bradford, slightly smaller than Glasgow at 522,452 in 2011, white British accounted for 76.06% of the city's people in 2001; 63.86% in 2011. The Asian communities came out at 19.09% in 200; 26.83% in 2011. Birmingham, England's second city, had a similar percentage of ethnically Asian citizens in 2011 – 26.6%.. The White British, 53.1% in 2011, will be a minority by 2021, as they already were in London in 2011.
As if to rub the point home, a new prime minister hailed in most quarters as privileged, reactionary and obviously very white, crafted a cabinet with more representatives from ethnic minorities than ever before. Politicians from ethnic minorities are much more visible in the Westminster parliament than in the Scots one: and between the two cabinets, there is all but no comparison.
Boris Johnson's three most senior colleagues are children of ethnic minorities who came to the UK: Sajid Javid, chancellor, son of Pakistani immigrants; Priti Patel, home secretary, daughter of Gujurati Indians who moved to the UK from Uganda; and Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, whose Jewish father came to the UK from Czechoslovakia in 1938 (not a moment too soon), aged six. Ashok Sharma, the international development secretary, was born in India and moved to the UK with his family when he was five: James Cleverly, the Conservative party chairman, was born to a Sierra Leone mother and a British father.
In the Scottish cabinet, Humza Yousaf is the son of a Nigerian mother and a Pakistani father, who came to the UK in the 1960s. He is the sole member of a minority ethnic group in the cabinet: among non-cabinet ministers, Scotland's lord advocate, James Wolffe, has Jewish grandparents but, like his father, does not identify as Jewish.
Is England thus more virtuous than Scotland? No, for in spite of the nationalists, the comparison has no meaning. Both nations are liberal-democratic in politics, with public authorities at all levels strongly anti-racist. In both nations, the ethnic minority groups are small, with no prospect of political power at any level. Britain's experience with immigration is generally positive: the UK continues to accept many tens of thousands of immigrants each year – net immigration was 258,000 in 2018 – most of whom settle in England.
The SNP is clearly sincere in seeking to attract immigrants: Scotland's population has been falling, with labour shortages in some parts. But – even acknowledging the large differential in population size between the two nations – it has a way to go before it can properly signal greater virtue.