This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

If you want to point to a sliding doors moment in British politics, there’s a fairly good case to be made that it happened on April 28, 2010 on a street in Rochdale.

That is, of course, when the then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown was caught on a hot mic describing pensioner Gillian Duffy as a “bigoted woman”.

The then-65-year-old had brought up the subject of immigration, telling the Labour leader: “You can't say anything about the immigrants because you're saying that you're... but all these eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?"

When his comments were gleefully broadcast by Sky News, Mr Brown made a grovelling apology. Arguably he had no choice given the optics, but what if he hadn’t? Ms Duffy may or may not be a bigot at heart but her choice of language – ‘the immigrants’, ‘where are they flocking from?’ – certainly spoke to prejudice. What if the Prime Minister had simply said, “yeah, well, it’s unfortunate but I found what she was saying bigoted”?

The country’s attitude to immigration has only hardened since. His successor as Labour leader, Ed Miliband, inscribed his pledge for “controls on immigration” in stone while David Cameron, his replacement Prime Minister, called a referendum on leaving the EU to try and fend off the threat of UKIP, a move akin to slathering yourself in blood and fish guts to fend off the threat of sharks.

The Herald:
Since then we’ve had Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’, Brexit itself and more, with seemingly no-one making the case that, actually, immigration is a good thing – and policies designed to discourage it are actively harming the country, as two stories on Tuesday demonstrated.

First, it emerged that the University of Aberdeen faced “significant doubt” over its future as a going concern. While that can, in part, be put down to cuts to the sector the school’s accounts stated that a “lower than expected” intake of international students had hit income hard.

To reduce the question to paying fees though won’t cut it – senior Tories including David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt and James Cleverly have expressed concern about the financial impact of curbs to graduate visas on universities across the UK where domestic students already pay fees.

A 2023 report found that international students in the 2021/22 academic year contributed £41.9 billion to the UK economy, around 10 times more than their estimated impact on public services.

Glasgow was singled out as receiving the greatest economic benefit from international students, equivalent to £2,720 per member of the resident population. Discouraging students from overseas harms us all.

Read more:

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The second point of note was new data from the 2022 census. It found that there were more people in older age groups than ever previously recorded, with more than a million people aged 65 and over.

Of those 83.5% were born in Scotland, which prevents an obvious demographic problem – people of pension age need younger people contributing to national insurance to maintain pension funds, the NHS and other services. Thankfully, immigrants from overseas flatten the age distribution, reducing the age profile of the country overall.

You can look at any study and it will show that immigrants are far less likely to be unemployed,  to commit crime, or to use the NHS. Indeed, the latest data for NHS England shows that 27% of nurses are from outside the UK, and in June last year it was announced that NHS Scotland had recruited 800 nurses, midwives and allied health professionals from overseas. Those will be the people looking after that ageing population, not to mention those who work in other vital sectors of our economy.

Some may point to pressures on housing or transport, but you can’t blame immigrants for a chronic lack of infrastructure spending, and in Scotland many move to areas in dire need of population – more than half of our Polish community lives outside the four city council areas.

As for the canard about a lack of integration, the number of people who said on the census they could speak, read and write English well or very well actually rose from 93.8% to 94.2%.

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All of this is without getting into the cultural improvements immigration has made to our lives. Whether it’s Italian cheese, Czech beer, Indian curry or fish and chips – introduced by Jewish immigrants from Spain and Portugal – the influence of different cultures has put paid to “meat and two veg” culinary conservatism. Next time you pass a Polski sklep get a jar of Prymat Sarepska mustard, it’s excellent.

As The Proclaimers and the name of Nova Scotia will tell you, Scots have put down roots across the world – it’s why you’ll find surnames like Czochran or Szynkler in Poland, a “transplanted Scottish Presbyterian culture” in the east of Hungary and a Rue d'Écosse in Paris.

If only Gordon Brown had pointed some of that out as he stood on that Rochdale street.