We need to talk about immigration

Cat HeadleyCat Headley, former Labour candidate in Edinburgh Western, says immigration is a key issue for many Scottish voters, and Labour needs to find a way to talk about it – or else others will.


My grandfather was from what was called at the time British Guyana.  He always called it that, even though the country stopped being ‘British’ in 1966.  Edwin Headley came to Scotland during the Second World War and served as part of the Royal Air Force.  After the war, he attended St Andrews University, married my grandmother from Fife and had children.  He became a teacher and moved his family to Orkney, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Immigration is part of my heritage, as I am sure it is for most people in Scotland to one degree or another.  I’m very proud of this part of my history, and it is something that I have had cause to refer to a lot in my time as a parliamentary candidate.  Because immigration comes up on the doorstep; frequently and increasingly.

Now that the election is out of the way it is clear to me that those of us involved in Scottish politics need to find a way to talk about immigration. If we don’t, this space will be taken up by those with the dog whistles who may, one day, be led by someone more competent than David Coburn.

In the last week of the Scottish parliamentary election I was struck by how often immigration was brought up by voters.  This happened in different areas, varying in terms of geography and prosperity; and it was different voters in terms of gender, age and party affiliation.  It was the the most frequently recurring issue of that week.

One was a man who didn’t even live in the street we were in; he was visiting a relative.  He had seen us out campaigning and, with hesitation and nervousness, he came out and asked if he could speak to us about immigration.

This was a man who was at pains to stress that he was not a racist (which I believe) and that he didn’t have a problem with people who came and worked here, just as he had worked abroad for a time.  His concern was that refugees were poorly integrated into our communities. That rather than a family or two being put in one street and absorbed by the community, they were put together in large numbers which was neither good for them, nor for the community in which they now lived.

By contrast, another man I spoke to the following day clearly did harbour racist views as he declared with absolute certainty that ‘60% of crimes committed in Glasgow are carried out by immigrants.” (Across Scotland in 2014, 9% of crimes involved a foreign national, only marginally higher than their share of the general population.)

There are currently two barriers to a proper discussion about immigration in Scotland.  The first is a mutually assured destruction pact that exists between the political parties.  Immigration is a reserved issue so why upset voters on either side of the issue by talking about it when we don’t have to?

The second is the myth that people in Scotland are automatically pro-immigration. This assumption is wrong. A study from 2014 found that 58% of Scots wanted reduced immigration.  While this is less than in England and Wales (75%), it is still a majority of the country.

The first man I mentioned obviously feared being labeled as a racist if he were even to mention the topic of immigration.  Some people who have problems with it are racists, but not all of them are.  We do a disservice to the latter by clumping them in with the former and, worse, we give them nowhere to go.

I am the first to admit a bold platform that immigration and immigrants are good for Scotland will be no easy task, just as it is no easy argument across the UK.  But this is a debate worth having, and capable of being won if we are armed with facts, compassion and understanding. And if we don’t try, then we leave the door open to those who will reach for more provocative weapons.

We must be positive, receptive and persuasive rather than merely dismissive.

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9 thoughts on “We need to talk about immigration

  1. Great article Cat, and I wholeheartedly agree.

    Immigration will also become more frequently raised in these coming weeks as we head towards the EU Referendum date so we need to address this swiftly and in the positive, receptive and persuasive and way you describe.

    Countless voters will be casting their votes by post before 23 June so this is an urgent, collective task for our movement.

  2. Not sure what the point here is? Scotlands immigration needs are different to England Wales and NIs. So where is the advantage to any of the UK Nations to have a single one size fits all border control?
    Surely it would be more advantageous to Scotland if immigration to Scotland was run from Hollyrood and not Westminster?

  3. Slab need to review their attitude to the working class generally, ever since they have become the champion of the workers. Better together my arse.

  4. There is a popular misconception, prevalent mostly amongst urban communities, that we live in a nation that is already overpopulated.
    This, though understandable, doesn’t take into consideration that Scotland has a fairly low population to land area ratio.
    For generations Scots have emigrated all over the World, adding much to the foreign communities in which they settled. One would hope that this historical and cultural experience would encourage us in the homeland to see the benefits of a worldwide immigration and emigration

  5. ‘Edwin Headley’ doesn’t sound like a traditional Arawak name. Was he by chance an imperialist?

  6. A question for any politicos who might be reading this: has the Scottish Government done any modelling into how the ‘Named Person’ legislation might affect the birthrate? [I would hazard a guess that the answer is, shamefully and completely unprofessionally, ‘No’.]

    The reason I raise this question in relation to Ms Headley’s post is that, if the NP legislation sticks, it is likely that in 20 years Scotland’s population decline will be acute, as many people, including myself and my partner, will simply choose not to have children, as we do not want to live under the constant fear of the police coming round to question us in the event of any imagined infraction in our children’s upbringing. The result will either be that we will have to have an open-door immigration policy in order to replenish the workforce (and thus continue to pay for public services and pensions); or that rUK subsidises Scotland to an even greater extent than it does today (although that subsidy would be temporary as communities wither and die due to lack of population renewal).

    1. I would hazard that the answer is no, not out of shame, but but because the answer is obviously that NP would have absolutely no impact on birth rate whatsoever. Very few people exist in a world of unfounded paranoia such as you describe…

  7. If alarms bells weren’t already ringing this article should be some sort of wake up call.
    Scotland is in the grip of nationalist fervour, although the clamour for independence is receding,and Cat Headley’s article illustrates the sharp swing to the right in Scotland.Immigration isn’t the problem or issue.
    Read through the article again and replace the term ‘immigrant’, ‘immigration’, ‘refugees’ with the term ‘women’ or ‘disability’ and the prejudice will become apparent.
    We’ve been here before, when Ed Miliband visited Blantyre during the referendum. he was met with ‘Scotland is for the Scottish’. Immigration isn’t the problem or issue although a Scottish brand of racism may be.
    Gordon Brown’s one mistake when caught open mic during the 2010 General Election was not to defend his ‘bigot’ remark.

    When the recent welfare bill was going through parliament radio 5live sent its team into Boston, Lincolnshire to investigate the impact on the town which has the highest concentration of eastern European migrants in the UK. No one they interviewed claimed any benefits at all and everyone was working and contributing to the local community.

    People who choose to come and live in this country or through circumstances find themselves in our communities, by and large want to make a positive contribution to their community.

    Cat Headley should carry a supply of mirrors to distribute to concerned nervous individuals who may approach her feigning reasonableness – give them a mirror and yes, ask them to hold it up and have a good look.

    1. I read Cat as saying that Labour need to discuss the issue openly allowing people to express their opinions safely – your opinion backed up with evidence will of course be more persuasive than someone else’s disquiet at sharing their space. Even though it is a Reserved Matter, and rightly so, I think that Scotland does need to start having the conversation for many reasons. For example, why can’t we attract enough immigrants? Why do so many Scots emigrate? And I agree with her that people who try to positively critique the immigration and refugee systems are shouted down within Labour (and elsewhere, but it is Labour she wants to chart a positive policy). And this should not be.

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