Migration data and attitudes in the context of the Scottish independence referendum

Published 28 May 2013 / By COMPAS Communications

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Earlier this month I had the good fortune to travel to Edinburgh for a conference centered on the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) project entitled The Future of the UK and Scotland. The ESRC project includes funding for research fellowships and additional grants to its existing investments such as COMPAS and the Centre on Population Change. The recipients of these grants have committed to conducting various research programmes that are relevant for the debate leading up to next year’s referendum on Scottish independence.

MigrationObservatoryLogoFor our part, the Migration Observatory will be creating a set of outputs similar to our materials for the UK, but with a particular focus on Scotland. We will write briefings summarising the data on international migration flows in and out of Scotland and on characteristics of migrants to Scotland and their social and economic impacts. I will also lead a public opinion survey that will examine attitudes to immigration and asylum in Scotland, in more detail than prior studies have been able to do.

How do basic attitudes to migration differ?
Among the elements of the investigation will be a look at the extent of differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK in basic attitudes toward immigration and immigrants. Many observers in Scotland believe that Scotland is more favourable toward immigration than the rest of the UK, or at least less strongly opposed.

Perhaps in keeping with this, the Scottish government has a population policy that encourages population growth, and explicitly includes migration as a means for achieving this target – quite the opposite of the UK government, which has been pursuing the Conservative party pledge to reduce net migration to below 100,000 per year.

Earlier analysis – based on a small amount of country-specific data from the Migration Observatory’s survey of public attitudes in September 2011 – showed a statistically significant difference between attitudes in Scotland and the rest of England (particularly outside London) on a common survey question about immigration levels. The results still showed majority support for reducing the number of immigrants coming to the UK, but this was a relatively narrow majority in Scotland and a wide majority in the rest of the UK. The follow-up will sample thousands in Scotland and in the rest of the UK, and will provide the best evidence yet on the extent of differences in attitudes. At this point, we can be reasonably confident that there is a difference, but there is considerable uncertainty about how large that difference is.

How do people in Scotland feel about immigration to Scotland?
Another key unknown in the existing public opinion data is how people in Scotland feel about immigration specifically to Scotland. Public opinion surveys have asked about immigration to the UK as a whole; it is quite possible that some people in Scotland might agree that immigration to the UK as a whole should be reduced, but that immigration to Scotland specifically should be kept the same or even increased. This is something that the Observatory study will examine.

More work on public attitudes in Scotland
The Observatory’s work will not be the only project on public attitudes from the ESRC project: John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde has a fellowship to research attitudes toward independence – clearly, the keynote issue for the debate. Curtice’s work will look at British and Scottish identities, among other factors that may determine how people in Scotland feel about independence, and how they will ultimately vote. It seems unlikely that migration will figure significantly in this work – perhaps not at all. In fact, for a migration scholar, it was a minor revelation to see how little space migration is so far taking up in the independence debate—and related research programmes. At the Edinburgh conference, the talk of the day had more to do with matters of economics—fiscal and monetary policy, currency issues—and of relations with the EU and with the rest of the world. Migration barely rated a mention.

Migration and Scottish independence
Still, the issue of migration is likely to come up at some point in the independence debate —and, even with a vote for continued Union, the Scottish government may look for ways to design a country-specific immigration policy even within the UK. This might seem implausible on its face—after all, immigration policy is inherently tied to control over physical borders and membership in the political community, which many view as necessary prerogatives of the nation-state. But, in a seminar I hosted last week at COMPAS Robert E. Wright showed us that there is at least the possibility of making region- or country-specific immigration policy within a given set of national boundaries.

Wright (also of Strathclyde, and also involved in the ESRC project through his membership in the CPC) explained that Canada has had such a policies for several years. Canada has operated a points-based immigration system for decades, to select migrants on the basis of skills, qualifications, and other forms of “human capital.” More recently it has added special, region-specific ways of earning points in order to attract particular types of migrants to particular regions—labour migrants to less-populated areas with high demand for workers; French-speaking migrants to Quebec to further cultural aims in that region. Wright’s analysis concluded that it is not clear that the policies have their desired effects. As we academics often conclude, further study and better data are needed!