If we have learned anything in politics in the last four years, it’s that nothing is more counterproductive than dismissive and superior attitudes directed at the (otherwise persuadable) electorate. This is why Boris Johnson’s government ought to listen carefully to the concerns of Scotland.
Under the terms of the 1998 Scotland Act, certain powers are devolved by Westminster to Holyrood, the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh. These include education, health care, housing, law and order, farming and fishing, tourism and local governments. These do not include immigration or changes to the constitution.
This week, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, called for the introduction of a “Scottish visa,” a visa and immigration system designed to tackle Scotland’s demographic problems (i.e. a falling birthrate and aging population) as well as the fallout from Brexit. Between 2018 and 2043, Scotland’s working-age population is set to shrink by 2 percent, while the U.K. population is set to increase by 9 percent. Mere hours after Sturgeon’s remarks, the Home Office issued the following statement:
Immigration will remain a reserved matter. The UK Government will introduce a points-based immigration system that works in the interests of the whole of the United Kingdom, including Scotland.
We want to understand the specific needs of the whole of the UK, which is why we have engaged extensively with stakeholders across the UK, including the Scottish Government.
Writing in The Spectator, Alex Massie makes an important point:
At the very least, there is little lost — and perhaps something gained — from being polite. You may suspect that the SNP are always on manoeuvres but there is a difference between saying ‘no’ to the SNP and saying ‘no’ to Scotland. Just as it is wearisome when the nationalists conflate party and country, so it is a mistake for the UK government to do likewise. At present, Johnson’s administration appears to be in danger of doing just that.
Listening to Scottish concerns and, heavens, even on occasion engaging with them might not deliver the visceral thrill of an abrupt ‘No’ but it is more likely to pay a dividend than immediate, instinctive dismissal. Sure, some Scots, perhaps as many as one in three, will lap such stuff up. But the middle ground of Scottish politics – which is also, it should be said, the determining ground – finds that pose less appealing. Those questioning Scots have not yet been pulled to independence by Edinburgh, but they could be pushed towards it by London.
Earlier this month, Johnson wrote Sturgeon a letter in which he slapped down her demands for a second independence referendum. Justifying his bluntness, he cited a mandate that the Scots had settled this question already 2014 when the ‘No’ side won. Fair enough: But Johnson would do well to remember that ‘No’ to independence was a narrow victory, one which depended heavily on the allegiance of those in the center.
Despite Johnson’s refusal to grant legitimacy to IndyRef2, Sturgeon has said that she intends to hold a referendum anyway. Johnson has the power to ignore this, but doing so is a mistake. The larger political issue is not going away. And it is distinctly possible that a continually dismissive attitude toward Scotland could tilt the country toward ‘Yes.’ Such a build-up of resentment would then be difficult to dissuade.