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Let's celebrate Polish plumbers...and remember Scots emigrants

Ed Miliband has now admitted that Labour got it wrong on immigration. 

The last Government's planning (or lack of) was certainly grossly incompetent.  They expected 15,000 arrivals when the East European countries joined the EU in 2004. The actual number was over half a million!

Labour’s refusal to put restrictions on the numbers - as most other EU countries did – was ideological.  It was yet another sad example of its adoption of Tory policies.

New Labour’s mantra under Blair, Brown and Darling was that globalisation, unhindered market forces and the free movement of workers benefit all.

Well, they don’t. The flood of skilled, educated and energetic workers from East Europe provided a source of cheap labour and once again enabled Britain to avoid tackling low wages, inadequate training and shoddy employment practices.

Why bothering investing in any of this when there’s a ready supply of skilled workers from what appear to be superior training programmes in places like Poland?

But there’s no doubt of the benefits these energetic young arrivals have brought to the UK economy. Parts of the tourist, catering and agricultural sectors in Scotland would certainly be in a parlous state without them. Let’s not forget too that Polish plumbers, Czech waiters and Hungarian factory hands spend their hard-earned wages here and the locals benefit from that.

Moreover, although the new immigrants have put pressure on housing, schools and the NHS in particular areas, all the evidence shows that generally they make far, far fewer demands on the welfare state than the locals.

It’s important to remember all these positives. The danger of Miliband playing the immigration card for political benefit is that it stirs up and seemingly makes legitimate all sorts of unwarranted grievances and prejudices against the newcomers.

Scots in particular should be keen to avoid such a response.  We should remember that there was a time when Scottish emigrants received a desperately needed welcome in Poland. 

It’s a little known aspect of our history that scores of thousands of Scots flooded into Poland in the 16th and 17th centuries. Our well-established links with the Baltic ports made Poland the main destination of Scottish emigrants at that time.

The attractions were considerable. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was one of the richest and most powerful states in Europe. It stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and it offered plenty of opportunities for likely laddies and lasses.

Poverty, wars, civil strife and religious persecution were some of the factors forcing them out.

Once they arrived, the Scots found work as soldiers, traders and pedlars. Many flourished and rose to become officers in the armed forces or rich merchants.  Alexander Chalmers was mayor of Warsaw four times. 

Too many Polish plumbers in 21st century UK?  In 17th century Poland, the problem was the hordes of Scottish pedlars.  They traded in even the most remote parts of the country.

Their industry and determination provoked some resentment from the locals but it was recognised that they provided an indispensable service – perhaps a bit like the open-all-hours shops now run by immigrants in the UK?

There was one very important factor which allowed the Scots migrants to flourish in their new country.  Poland was a remarkably tolerant state. For the times, it had an extraordinarily benign attitude to ethnic and religious minorities. Hard-working Scots were welcomed for the skills, ideas and energy they brought to Poland.

We do need a debate about how best to manage immigration – just as we need a debate about training, investment in skills, responsible employers, the minimum wage level etc.

But let’s make sure this doesn’t degenerate into bigotry and prejudice against immigrants.  Let’s not blame them for the shortcomings in our economy and society.

We Scots above all should appreciate the dilemma of the emigrant.  Who better than us to understand the search for a better life even at the cost of separation from loved ones?  

By and large, Poles and other migrants from East Europe have been received positively in Scotland. As the Tory cuts dig ever deeper and life becomes ever more desperate and as politicians sniff the wind for populist causes, let’s keep it that way.

If nothing else, we should repay the generosity and understanding poor Scottish emigrants received from Poland four centuries ago.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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