The Scottish often say that their most valuable export is people. It’s accepted that the young, bright and adventurous leave their small nation for London or abroad, perhaps returning to their homeland only to settle down or retire.
This has resulted in a brain drain that sucks talent out of the country, leaving an ageing and static population behind. If Scotland votes for independence on 18 September, a priority will be to stop this trend. The Scottish government has laid out a raft of policy proposals to attract young people, students and skilled migrants into the country. Should the rest of Britain get ready for a loss of talent?
Scotland is now home to 5.2 million people, roughly the same as the English county of Yorkshire, but this number has barely grown since the 1960s, while its depopulation goes back for generations.
The two great rival cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow, have a more mixed population than the sleepy towns of rural Scotland, yet Glasgow, with its School of Art, club culture and dizzily rapid regeneration, has still to shake off its reputation as the jobless capital of the UK. Similarly, Edinburgh was recently voted the second-best place to live in Britain, but neither city has been able to compete with the allure of London. If Scotland breaks away from the rest of the UK, it would take significant steps to turn this around.
The Scottish National Party’s (SNP) roadmap to independence, the White Paper, is packed with policies to help keep and attract new skilled, educated and ambitious young people. Key to this goal is the commitment to shake up migration policy, a target miles away from the British government’s pledge to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’.
The SNP would introduce a points-based system to prioritize skilled and educated migrants coming into Scotland, providing incentives for moving to remoter areas like the highlands and islands. People from outside the EU wanting to move to Scotland would get points for degrees, languages spoken and other skills, with less emphasis given to having a job lined up in advance.
Should the UK choose to exit the European Union (EU) in 2017, Scotland’s pro-migration measures would prove all the more significant. Westminster’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and increasingly punitive policies give immigrants a reason to leave, or stay away from, England.
However, immigrants have a significant economic impact – since 2000, they have made a net contribution of around £25 billion ($42 billion) to the British economy, while EU immigrants are the most likely to make a positive contribution, paying more in taxes and receiving fewer benefits than the average person already in the country.
If its points system works, an independent Scotland might find itself in the enviable position of picking and choosing from skilled and well-qualified immigrants who are unwilling or unable to live in the rest of the UK.
Educating the next generation
Scotland already has independence over its education system, one of the most highly rated in Europe. Its universities are free, and Scotland has had to prevent students flooding across the border, which explains the bizarre current set-up, where EU citizens don’t pay, but those from the rest of the UK cough up what they would at home, up to £9,000 ($15,000) a year.
However, if Scotland gets its independence, this would be illegal under EU law as it would be considered ‘discriminating on grounds of nationality’. After marching in their thousands against higher tuition fees, what British student wouldn’t grab the chance of studying for free in a neighbouring country? Even if they find a way around this problem, an independent Scotland could be faced with a stampede of students.
After marching in their thousands against higher tuition fees, what British student wouldn’t grab the chance of studying for free in a neighbouring country?
The SNP has also pledged to reintroduce the student visas and post-study work visas scrapped by Westminster in 2012, which had allowed students to stay on in the country for 24 months after their degree had ended.
Graeme Sneddon, spokesperson for Generation Yes, a non-party group of young supporters of independence, believes a Yes vote would attract young people from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. He points to the current provision of free education, the retention of the Education Maintenance Allowance for disadvantaged students and the creation of a post unique to Scotland, the Cabinet Secretary for Training, Youth and Women’s Employment.
‘With independence we can go further,’ Sneddon says. ‘Remaining within the Union will mean further cuts which will damage job creation in Scotland, as well as attacking vital public services that young people rely on.’
The British government doesn’t seem too worried about the prospect of students flocking to Scotland. After all, losing a section of young immigrants to Scotland would aid the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in its aims to reduce net migration, while cutting education funds and welfare.
Since the financial crash, the average income for those in their twenties has fallen by more than 10 per cent. The jobless rate is highest amongst 16 to 24-year-olds. A demographic shift reducing the numbers of immigrants, increasingly scapegoated in Britain as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) sets the debate, along with young people who are more likely to be a financial burden, might not sound too bad to the powers-that-be at Westminster.
Scotland, on the other hand, knows it needs to keep its bright, skilled young people in order to thrive. It’s no accident that the Scottish government gave 16 and 17-year-olds the vote in preparation for the referendum.
Although this has been seen as a failure, given that the majority look likely to support staying in the Union, the government does benefit if young people feel they have a stake in the country’s future. Adam Ramsay, UK editor of current affairs website Open Democracy and active Green Party member, is one of the Scots who would return home: ‘I couldn’t resist the thrilling opportunity of being involved in the building of a new country,’ he says.
Acting on a promise
There’s no doubt an independent Scotland would enact policies designed to attract the young, bright and bold. However, the success of this strategy ultimately rests on the capacity for job creation and the health of the general economy.
With a would-be Scottish currency still up in the air, there is much uncertainty over Scotland’s prospects going it alone. As a small nation, Scotland can’t compete on equal terms with the size and diversity of the job market south of the border. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has dramatically called London the ‘dark star of the economy, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy’. He might like to think so, but independence won’t magically change this.
As long as it is at the apex of power, London has a trump card. Money follows, and private companies will always covet headquarters in a ‘global metropolis’, a centre for both finance and culture. As the capital of an independent Scotland, Edinburgh would attract some of this, but it would still be dwarfed.
An independent Scotland holds out the promise of investing in the next generation. On 18 September, we may get the chance to see if it can deliver. Whichever way the referendum goes, the Scottish have spent the run-up to the referendum soul-searching over what kind of country they want to pass on to young people.
The London government has neglected this question. While Westminster argues over the trade of whiskey and salmon, they are forgetting their most valuable asset: the best and brightest of the future generation.