Scottish Public Opinion

10th February 2014

Immigration and Independence: Public Opinion on Immigration in Scotland in the Context of the Referendum Debate

Executive summary

Generating a clearer understanding of Scotland’s attitudes to immigration is important to the independence debate.

At a UK level, immigration has for some time been one of the most salient issues in policy debates. The issue looms large over all political parties, often dominating media debates and stimulating impassioned exchanges in venues ranging from local pubs to Westminster. And numerous polls and surveys have documented Britain’s views of immigration as well.

Management of immigration and international borders is one of the key powers that a 'yes' vote on independence would grant to the Scottish government. Yet comparatively little is known about how members of the Scottish public view immigration. Surveys have consistently suggested that public opinion in Scotland differs, at least slightly, from other parts of the UK, and that the Scottish public appears to exhibit lower levels of concern about the issue (McCollum et al. 2013, Migration Observatory 2011a.), but these findings are based on few questions, small numbers of respondents, and usually based on questions about immigration to Britain rather than specifically to Scotland.

But the basic facts about immigration are quite different in Scotland, and it is important to see what people think about immigration in that context. Scotland saw, proportionally, a greater increase in its migrant population than any of the other nations of the UK between 2001 and 2011, but its migrant population remains relatively small and its population density low in comparison with many other parts of the UK (Migration Observatory 2013).
This report is the first major systematic analysis focusing specifically on Scottish public opinion about immigration to Scotland. It is the result of a survey of a representative sample of more than 2000 people in Scotland and a further 2000 people in England and Wales, who provided comparative data. The survey was undertaken online by the respected polling company YouGov in October 2013.

The report has three primary sets of findings. First, overall attitudes to immigration in Scotland are less negative than in the rest of Britain, although falling short of majority support for increasing or even keeping the the same level of immigration. Second, in Scotland as in the rest of Britain, public opinion differentiates between types of immigrants, with markedly different attitudes toward various sub-groups and categories. Third, there is a complex if not quite contradictory relationship between immigration attitudes and constitutional issues. Each of these sets of results is outlined further below.

Key data points are as follows:

Overall attitudes to immigration

  • A majority in Scotland (58%) support reduced immigration to Scotland, but more people in Scotland think immigration is good for Scotland (41%) than say it is bad for Scotland (31%).
  • Compared with the rest of Britain, there is less opposition to immigration (in England and Wales 75% support reduced immigration) and it ranks lower on the public’s list of priorities (fourth in Scotland, compared to second in England and Wales).

Perceptions and attitudes toward specific migrant groups

  • People in Scotland, like the rest of the Britain, are most likely to think of asylum seekers (70%) and labour migrants (62%) when thinking about immigration.
  • Less than one in four say they are thinking about students (24%).
  • Majorities in Scotland think of immigrants as coming from outside the EU or from the EU outside of Britain, but one in ten include British people coming from England.
  • Scotland shows widespread opposition to illegal immigration: even among those who do not wish to see immigration to Scotland reduced overall, a large majority (74%) still prefer less illegal immigration.
  • In both Scotland and England, perceptions of illegal immigration center on overstayers and failed asylum seekers more than clandestine entrants.
  • In Scotland, support for reductions is strongest for low-skilled immigration, with more than half of respondents supporting reductions to this group – though this is lower than England and Wales. Only a minority wish to reduce immigration of highly-skilled workers (23%) and university students (22%), areas of emphasis in the immigration policy outlined in the Scottish government’s White Paper.

Relationship to constitutional issues

  • Immigration attitudes are strongly associated with voting intentions on the referendum. Among respondents in Scotland who said they would prefer to see immigration reduced, a large majority plan to vote ‘no’ (58% vs 28%, with 14% undecided). The margin is much closer among those who do not support reductions to immigration (45% intend to vote ‘no’, 40% ‘yes’).
  • Immigration and asylum ranked joint fifth (with pensions) among the top issues that respondents said would influence their vote on independence, well behind the most chosen issue, which was the economy.
  • A majority of Scottish respondents would prefer to see the most important decisions about immigration made by the Scottish government, not the UK government.
  • Support for Scottish government control of immigration does not, however, seem to result from a belief among people in Scotland that policies will reflect their views: For example, 45% think that an independent Scotland should have a less open set of policies toward immigration than the rest of the UK, but only 22% think that an independent Scotland will have less open set of policies.
  • Some have argued that in the event of Scottish independence a hard border, with passport controls, may need to be introduced; however, most people both in Scotland and in the rest of Britain believe that if Scotland becomes independent, passport checks on the Scotland/England border are unlikely.
  • Attitudes toward passport checks are polarised: in Scotland, 29% would not be bothered by this at all, while a similar proportion would be bothered greatly. In England and Wales, the pattern was similar but with a smaller proportion saying they would be bothered greatly.

These, then, are nuanced results:

The overall picture in Scotland is still one of broad support for reductions to immigration. However, the issue is of less concern in Scotland than England and Wales, and Scotland shows relatively low levels of support for reducing immigration among highly-skilled workers, students, and immediate family members of citizens. 

In relation to independence, opposition to immigration is noticeably lower among those intending to vote ‘yes’ for independence, than for those who plan to vote ‘no’. And 22% choose immigration among the top three issues (from a list of thirteen) influencing their planned referendum vote. These findings show some relationship between attitudes toward independence and toward immigration, although in both cases other issues, notably the economy, are much more strongly linked to referendum voting plans.

Regardless of voting intentions, Scotland shows a strong preference for Holyrood over Westminster as the key decision-maker on immigration and asylum. There is also some sympathy for the Scottish government’s stance of encouraging international students and highly-skilled workers; relatively few support reducing levels of these types of immigration to Scotland, although more would prefer the status quo rather than an increase.

On the other hand, there is a considerable gap in preferences compared to expectations for immigration and asylum policy in an independent Scotland: many people expect that an independent Scotland would have more a open set of policies than the rest of the UK, but a smaller proportion actually would prefer to see more open policies enacted. By this indication, it seems that the preference for Holyrood as key decision-maker may be in spite of, rather than because of, the immigration policies that people expect a Scottish government to enact.

So, while the data do not present a simple picture of Scotland’s preferences for handling the issue of immigration to Scotland, they do show a complex series of attitudes and concerns that are specific to the needs and issues that Scotland faces.

Scottish Public Opinion

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