4. Immigration and independence
Another key point of interest is how the issue of immigration relates to the politics of the debate and eventual referendum on Scottish independence. Issues such as the economy, currency, welfare state and national identities have dominated much of the independence debate thus far, but immigration policy would certainly be affected by a ‘Yes’ vote. A vote for independence would lead to the implementation an independent set of immigration policies formulated by the Scottish government. At present, immigration policy is reserved for Westminster, and the SNP’s White Paper argues that current British policies are not well suited for Scotland’s needs. In particular, the White Paper suggests that an independent Scotland would pursue a policy that is more open to immigration, particularly toward highly-skilled workers. It also promises an improved asylum policy that will be both 'robust and humane'.
This raises several questions for Scotland’s public. First, there is the question of whether people prefer Holyrood to Westminster as the location for decision-making on immigration and asylum policy. Further, in an independence scenario, what do people believe immigration policy would look like? And what should it look like? Would it differ from the rest of the UK, and if so how?
One basic question relating to independence—or indeed to devolution—is at what level of government people think decisions should be taken, in various areas of policy. Prior studies have shown that majorities, often over 60%, of people in Scotland think that the Scottish Parliament rather than UK Parliament should make decisions in many areas matters of domestic policy: health, schools, welfare benefits, taxation, economic policy, energy policy, environmental policy, sport and culture policy, and employment law (Curtice and Ormston 2012). But on international issues, such as defence, foreign affairs, and international development, majorities prefer Westminster control.
Where does immigration fit in? Despite its international dimensions, these survey results show that a majority of the Scottish public would prefer decision-making on immigration to take place at Holyrood rather than Westminster, as shown in Figure 14. Similar proportions favour Scottish rather than UK decision-making on policies toward refugees and asylum seekers. (Note that these questions were asked only in Scotland, not in the rest of Britain.)
When offered a choice of local councils in Scotland, the Scottish Government, the UK Government, and the EU (and ‘don’t know’), 60% said that the Scottish Government should make the most important decisions about immigration policy, and 58% said the same regarding asylum and refugees. The UK government was the choice for less than a third, while less than 5% chose either local councils or the EU. Notably, this contrasts somewhat with recent polling that found an even split on the question of whether immigration should be ‘run by the Scottish government’ or ‘run by the UK government’ (YouGov/Times 2013). These results may be an artifact of asking the question in a different way from the British Social Attitudes survey wording (which the Migration Observatory survey was based upon), or it may indicate significant uncertainty in public attitudes on this question, or both. Nonetheless, the findings in the Observatory survey showed the Scottish Government as the clear cut choice of a majority of people in Scotland.
So a large majority would prefer for the Scottish government to make the important decisions on immigration and asylum. But what do people expect would happen in that case? And what would they like to see happen?
On immigration policy, respondents were asked if they thought an independent Scotland should have different policies from the rest of the UK on immigration and on asylum, and if so whether these different policies would be more or less open to immigration and welcoming to asylum seekers and refugees. Next, they were asked the same question about what will happen in an independent Scotland, as opposed to what should happen. The answers to these sets of questions are particularly curious in light of the widespread preference for Scottish control of immigration policy shown in Figure 14 above.
On what should happen—in other words, respondents’ preferences—the most frequent choice (45%) was that immigration policy should be less open than the rest of the UK, while 28% preferred the same as UK policy, 14% said it should become more open, and 13% (higher than for most questions on the survey) said they did not know, as Figure 15 shows. So, there is relatively little support for a more open policy for Scotland than the UK, at least when thinking about immigration in general. On the other hand, there is not a majority preferring a less open policy compared to the rest of the UK, when the 45% preferring a less open policy to the 42% who think Scotland should have the same policy as the rest of the UK or a more open policy.
It is important to note that these questions about openness relative to the rest of the UK were not asked about high-skilled immigration in particular, where support for more immigration is strongest. The position staked out in the White Paper emphasises encouraging migration on the basis of skills. As seen in Figure 11 above, there is some support for increasing immigration to Scotland among high-skilled workers. However, even this support (32%) is outweighed by those who prefer either the status quo (34%) or reduced immigration (23%) in this group. (This can be seen in the YouGov summary of responses.)
Meanwhile, when asked what will happen in an independent Scotland as opposed to what they think should happen, the most frequent response was that immigration policy will be the same as UK policy. However, despite being most frequent this response was chosen by just 30%. Another 25% chose ‘more open’, while 22% chose ‘less open,’ and a comparatively high figure of 23% said that they did not know.
Since the independence debate has focused on other issues such as fiscal and economic prospects, it is not surprising to find a high level of uncertainty about what an independent Scotland’s immigration policy would look like. Further, this survey was undertaken before the release of the Scottish government’s White Paper on independence, which provided a general outline of the SNP’s plans on immigration in the case of independence, so information was less readily available to the public on this point at the time of the survey compared with the present.
Regarding asylum policy, results were similar. Again, as Figure 16 shows, the most frequent choice was that policy should be less welcoming to refugees and asylum seekers (43%) than in the UK, while 29% preferred to stay the same as the UK and 16% would choose a more welcoming set of policies. As in the case of immigration policy, a relatively high percentage (12%) said they did not know rather than express a preference for asylum policy.
And on the question of what asylum policy would in fact look like in an independent Scotland, again the status quo was the most common choice, but reflected less than a third of respondents. Here, ‘more welcoming’ and ‘less welcoming’ were virtually identical at 23%, while again a large percentage (22%) said they did not know.
Overall, then, there remains a high level of uncertainty around preferences and especially expectations for immigration and asylum policy in an independent Scotland. However, these results show a gap between expectations and preferences for an independent Scotland, in both immigration policy and asylum policy. In each case, the proportion who prefer a less open policy than the rest of the UK exceeds the proportion who expect this will happen. Likewise, the proportion who expect a more open or welcoming policy outnumber exceeds the proportion who would prefer a more open or welcoming policy in an independent Scotland than in the rest of the UK.
Do expectations and preferences on immigration policy have anything to do with the way people are planning to vote on the independence referendum? As noted above, most discussion of the independence referendum has focused on issues other than immigration. Therefore, it may seem unlikely that immigration attitudes will have any impact on the referendum. And considerable uncertainty remains about what immigration and asylum policy would look like in an independent Scotland. Nonetheless, there is a clear statistical relationship between immigration attitudes and planned vote on the referendum, in which negative views of immigration occur more often among ‘No’ voters than ‘Yes’ voters This finding does not show that immigration attitudes are contributing to people’s decision on the referendum, but they do show that Yes voters and No voters hold different views on immigration.
Simply put, people in Scotland who would like to see immigration reduced are more likely to say they will vote ‘No’ on the referendum, compared with those who would prefer to increase immigration or keep it the same, or those who don’t express a preference on immigration policy.
Figure 17 summarises this information. It shows that among ‘non-reducers’, the ‘No’ side leads by only 45% to 40% (with 15% unsure). By contrast, among ‘reducers’ (those who want less immigration to Scotland), 58% said they would vote ‘No’ against only 27.5% for ‘Yes’ (with 14.5% undecided). Again, this is not evidence that immigration attitudes have an impact on how people will vote; it simply shows that people who want less immigration to Scotland are disproportionately found in the ‘No’ camp. (On a technical note, for this chart, people who said ‘don’t know’ on the question of increasing or reducing immigration to Scotland are included with the non-reducers, just as in Figure 13 above. An alternative version that excludes these respondents shows the same basic pattern, with the percentages shifting to show an even closer race between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ among the non-reducers.)
But how important is the issue of immigration in shaping the referendum vote? The most we can conclude from the data is an affinity or association between immigration views and referendum voting plans. The debate has generally focused on other issues, and other studies have shown stronger correlations between other issues and referendum voting plans. In particular, beliefs about the economy under independence are the most potent predictor of voting plans, and that beliefs about how benefits in Scotland should be funded are also a strong dividing line between Yes and No voters. For example, people who believe that independence will make the economy better in Scotland are very likely to say they will vote ‘Yes’ (67% for those expecting the economy to be ‘a little better’ in an independent Scotland; 86% for those expecting ‘a lot better). Those expecting the economy to be worse under independence, however, are very unlikely to vote ‘Yes’ (5% for those expecting ‘a little worse,’ 2% for ‘a lot worse). Relative to these divisions, the relationship between immigration preferences and independence vote seems much smaller.
However, it is notable that other potentially divisive issues do not actually divide the Yes and No camps, such as views on EU membership for Scotland and Britain (Curtice 2014b). Moreover, Curtice also finds that although 47% of No supporters agree that the arrival of more migrants from Eastern Europe could pose a threat to Scotland’s identity, so also do 48% of Yes supporters. Yet, in contrast with attitudes to Europe or to Eastern Europeans in particular, attitudes to immigration policy cannot be easily dismissed as statistically unrelated to referendum voting plans. These data confirm that views on immigration and asylum policy, taken together, bear some relationship to view on the referendum, but (like other issues) pale in comparison to the economy.
Some additional evidence comes from a further question on the Migration Observatory/YouGov survey, asking respondents in Scotland to choose the three most important issues in considering how to vote in the independence referendum. (This question was the second question asked to our respondents, immediately following the question about the most important issues facing Scotland, so that again respondents were able to approach this question before being prompted specifically to think about immigration.)
On this measure, immigration and asylum ranks joint fifth place (with pensions) among the list of issues considered important to the referendum vote. These issues were chosen among the top three by 22% of respondents in Scotland, as shown in Figure 18. The economy, chosen by 60%, was the only issue to be named by a majority of respondents. Tax, welfare benefits, and health also were rated above immigration and asylum, while education, Europe, housing, family life and childcare, crime, the environment, and transport all were rated lower.
It is worth noting the overall results on the referendum question in this survey were broadly consistent with concurrent polling, with 52.5% saying ‘No’, 33% saying ‘Yes’, and 14.5% choosing ‘don’t know’. Polling on the referendum has shown considerable short-term fluctuation even as long-term trends have not shifted much; these results are close to results obtained in September 2013 . Between September and December 2013, ‘No’ responses ranged between 41% and 59%.
One result of a ‘Yes’ vote on the independence referendum would be questions about the new international border between Scotland and England. This report has already shown that a small but detectable percentage of Scotland residents already think of British people coming from England to Scotland when they think about immigrants. Independence might make this a more common perception.
In addition, as discussed in our policy primer "Citizenship, Border and Migration in and Independent Scotland", independence might create a need for a system of immigration controls at the border between Scotland and England. This issue has been debated and is addressed in the White Paper, but to what extent do people in Scotland worry about the possibility of border checks? And what do they expect will happen at the borders?
It turns out that people in Scotland do not expect that there will be passport checks at the England/Scotland border in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote, as shown in Figure 19. Rating the likelihood of passport checks on a 0 to 10 scale, with 0 meaning no chance and 10 meaning a certainty, people in Scotland were easily more likely to choose 0 (no chance) than any other option. Almost a third (31%) said that there was no chance of passport controls, while 64% placed themselves below the midpoint of the scale, suggesting that they believe that the more likely outcome of Scottish independence will be a border without passport checks. In England and Wales, the corresponding figures are 26% (no chance of passport controls) and 60% (more unlikely than likely). So, despite some discussion from with the UK Government of the possible need for border controls, most of the public on either side of that potential border do not see it as likely to occur.
But how much would passport checks affect people in Scotland and England? In Scotland, results show an unusual level of extreme responses. About 29% place themselves at either extreme end of the scale, either saying they will be bothered a great deal or that they will not be bothered at all by passport checks. On balance, the public in Scotland divides fairly evenly: 48% place themselves closer to the ‘bothered a great deal’ end of the scale, with 44% toward the other side and 8% in the middle. In England and Wales, on the other hand, there is less concern about the personal impact of passport cheks: only 18% say they would be bothered a great deal, while 33% are not bothered at all and 54% rate themselves closer to the ‘not bothered’ end of the scale.