Why Scotland’s independence would be good for migrants

There are strong socialist arguments against Scottish independence but “no borders” isn’t one of them, writes Taimour Lay.

Here lies our land: every airt
Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun,
Belonging to none but itself.
We are mere transients, who sing
Its westlin’ winds and fernie braes,
Northern lights and siller tides,
Small folk playing our part.
‘Come all ye’, the country says
You win me, who take me most to heart.

Kathleen Jamie

In a recent thought-provoking post against Scottish independence, a Chambers colleague argued that “we can all hope that a new Hadrian’s Wall will not be built by politicians present or future, but any strengthening of the current border will inevitably discourage free movement across it and divides rather than unites.” In doing so, he warned against a narrative which ignores the dangers of nationalism and a “new hard border”.

But an independent state of Scotland is, though it might appear paradoxical, very likely to lead to more, not less, free movement; and any fear on the left of strengthened borders in the wake of independence is misplaced.

While a new state would be born following the referendum on 18 September, and any such sovereign and democratic polity would inevitably define the reaches of its territory (on and offshore), the reality is that an independent Scotland would raise no higher bar to migrants from outside – indeed, as a new country committed to welcoming migrants and operating a fairer and freer border, it could undermine the toxic politics of “immigration” in the rUK (residue/rest of the UK) and is likely to contribute to higher net migration across, and into, our “islands” as a whole.

First, as regards free movement within the current UK, the white paper on Independence makes clear that “there are no circumstances in which the Scottish Government would countenance any measure being taken that jeopardised the ability of citizens across the rest of the UK and Ireland to move freely across our borders as they are presently able to do. It is for this reason that following independence Scotland will remain part of the Common Travel Area (CTA), which dates back to the 1920s.” In short, the new state of Scotland will not be building a wall to run the length of Hadrian’s.

Secondly, Scotland will almost certainly continue to be a member of the European Union and therefore European citizens with existing (qualified) free movement rights will be as free as today to live and work here. Again, Scottish independence is likely to increase the freedom of that movement. It remains the express policy of Westminster to add more and more qualifications to European free movement, most recently by undermining social welfare protections and family rights. The Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006 move ever further away from genuine compatibility with the UK’s Treaty obligations.

Scotland is likely to pay more than lip service to Treaty rights and the principle of European citizenship. (While a commitment to the Common Travel Area is likely to mean Scotland, like the rUK and Ireland, opts out of the Schengen Agreement, under which there is passport-free travel across 26 European countries, this would preserve the status quo within the CTA rather than raise a new border post.)

Finally, Scotland and extra-European immigration. There is a growing political consensus in Scotland strikingly at odds with that in rUK; namely, that the country needs foreign students and economic migrants from outside Europe to develop the economy and fund future pension liabilities; and at the same time takes seriously its moral obligation to welcome refugees and those seeking international protection. But, trapped within the borders of the UK, progressive forces in Scotland have no power to loosen and remove the existing border restrictions imposed by London.

Post-independence it is perfectly plausible that at a time when the UK will continue to put up its barricades (and may even leave the EU), and maintain its attempt to limit refugee numbers, our immediate neighbour to the north will be operating a freer and more humane immigration system to its own benefit. It may even lead by political example, taking the sting out of Tory and UKIP scaremongering.

True it is that Scotland, as a new country, will have borders and a system of immigration control. But the political endgame of “no borders”, a position shared by many at the radical bar, should not blind us to other competing values and how borders can be minimised and ameliorated in the medium term. Nor can it bind (Scottish) citizens into a contigent and dysfunctional construct (“the UK”) in perpetuity. By voting “yes”, Scots will not be creating or strengthening borders in any real sense. But they will be making a democratic choice to self-determine their own affairs (though the hard political work of challenging class power, land ownership and concentration of wealth will remain). There are compelling socialist/internationalist arguments against Scottish independence but “no borders” isn’t one of them.

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