CHRISTMAS is but weeks away but there is little reason to be cheerful. The outlook for the economy and for public spending is positively wintry.

Interest rates have risen to their highest levels in more than a decade, in an attempt to bring down inflation. Nationally, output has started to fall. Joblessness looks set to double. Tax rises may be in the pipeline, related to the £50bn black hole.

In Scotland, cuts and savings amounting to nearly £1.2bn have been announced.

If only we could all follow Matt Hancock’s example and escape reality for a blessed while by flying to Australia to take part in a television show.

Amidst all of this, the issue of immigration has once again taken centre-stage.

The focus in recent days has been on the Manston processing centre in Kent, where 4,000 people are being kept, in hazardous conditions, originally intended to house 1,500 on a temporary basis. Food is inadequate, there is insufficient bedding, there has been an outbreak of diptheria.

Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, congenitally incapable of showing any empathy but instead content to play to the gallery, has spoken of an “invasion” of the UK’s southern shores by migrants: this was inflammatory language, quite unjustified by the actual scale of the migrant crisis.

Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, did the decent thing by asserting that words have to be chosen very carefully and that he would “never demonise people coming to this country in pursuit of a better life”.

But the damage had been done by then. The word ‘invasion’ had taken hold, as Ms Braverman had calculated.

So much, as the SNP pointed out, for Mr Sunak’s “so-called compassionate conservatism”.

Ms Braverman’s attitude recalls not just Theresa May’s intention, while Home Secretary, to create a “hostile environment” for illegal migrants in Britain (which the UN later said amounted to “stoking xenophobia”) but also Priti Patel’s plan to fly asylum-seekers to Rwanda while their applications were processed (a policy that even Mrs May declined to support).

It has to be acknowledged that many people share Ms Braverman’s view and that immigration has long been a controversial issue – ‘toxic’ might be an more fitting description – for British politicians, given that so many overseas people want to live here.

Successive administrations have wrestled with the problem. The Blair government saw an “explosion” in asylum claims in 1998 and 1999. Worldwide immigration flows were on the increase, and suddenly there were 100,000 claims for asylum each year.

With the backlog reaching epic proportions, Blair realised that the system was “utterly incapable” of processing the claims.

Most asylum claims, he wrote later, were “not genuine”; disproving them, however, was almost impossible.

As our columnist Rebecca McQuillan noted recently, the manner in which immigration was discussed during the Brexit campaign rendered the discussion of measured solutions all but impossible.

Remain-minded politicians found it hard to defend free movement, in spite of business enthusiasm for it, against the shameless anti-immigrant innuendo (McQuillan’s words) of certain Leave campaigners.

The vote to leave Europe was seen in part as a desire to impose strict limits on immigration.

Scotland has for decades generally been seen as a more welcoming country for immigrants, and though one authoritative study last year found that such a perception may be exaggerated, there seems little reason to doubt its fundamental truth. More Scots say that immigration is good for the British economy than believe it is bad; more think it enriches British culture than undercuts it.

In the SNP, of course, we have a government that has long been intent on a more liberal approach to immigration.

It criticises the Conservatives’ “draconian” approach to migration as being inimical to the values of Scotland’s society and the needs of its economy.

There is strong evidence to suggest that Scotland, a nation shaped by migration, has a compelling need for immigration, as its population (with the exception of the elderly) is expected to decline over the next 25 years.

More immediately, Scotland has serious shortages of workers in such fields as hospitality, care homes, and within the NHS, shortages exacerbated by post-Brexit immigration rules and the pandemic. Many employers are sorely challenged by the difficulties in finding staff, as our stories on the postal staff shortages on Islay this week show. Depopulation in Scotland’s rural areas is expected to hasten.

Scotland’s needs, then, are very different from England’s. Nicola Sturgeon made a sensible move when she said that Scotland should have its own visa and immigration strategy.

Nearly three years ago she called on the UK government to begin talks on devolving immigration powers to Holyrood.

“A common UK-wide approach to immigration”, she declared then, “simply hasn’t worked in Scotland’s interests for some time now. Brexit will undoubtedly exacerbate what is already a significant challenge”.

As the SNP government’s 2020 paper, Migration: Helping Scotland Prosper, pointed out, migration to Scotland supported economic growth and the delivery of public services.

All of Scotland’s future population growth, it added, was projected to come from migration; and any reduction in migration – whether from the rest of the UK, the European Union, or internationally – would impact on the size of the country’s working-age population.

The SNP government now talks of an independent Scotland developing a more open and welcoming immigration system, with freedom of movement and more flexibility for people and business.

The party’s intelligent suggestion of a tailored Scottish approach to visas, involving the devolution of some new powers over migration policy within a UK framework, deserves to be considered.

It would not be a free-for-all; sensible safeguards would be in place.

Holders of a Scottish visa would be required to live and work in Scotland and could not live elsewhere in the UK. It seems clear that the current UK visas system is not doing much for Scotland. But even limited devolution within a UK framework would be better than nothing at all.

Will Westminster pay any heed, though?



Bottom of the class

IT defies belief that a new primary school in Renfrewshire is, thanks to officials’ errors, too small. It ought to have accommodated 1,100 pupils but can hold only 430. Taxpayers could now face a £17m bill to extend the school. What is worse, parents have warned for some time that the school was too small. It is an embarrassing mistake that does Renfrewshire Council’s reputation for competence very few favours.