Great Britain

Will Scotland's population fall as a result of UK immigration reforms?

Scotland's population stands at a record high - but growth is already slowing. Picture: Greg Macvean
Scotland's population stands at a record high - but growth is already slowing. Picture: Greg Macvean

The UK Government's post-Brexit immigration plans are likely to slow Scotland's population growth - with consequences for the economy, writes Chris McCall

How quickly political priorities can change. Back in 2004, the Scottish Executive (as it was then called) was debating how best to attract more people to come and live in Scotland.

Skip to 2020, and critics of the UK Government are accusing it of doing the exact opposite.

Jack McConnell – who led a Labour-Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood until 2007 – was concerned that an ageing society would see the number of working-age adults in Scotland shrink, with dire consequences for the country’s tax base and ability to pay for public services.

Official projections from the time showed Scotland’s population falling below five million by 2009, with figures suggesting the speed of the decline was the fastest in the EU.

That didn't happen. Why? Several reasons - most of them nothing to do with Holyrood policies, as well-intentioned as Mr McConnell's "Fresh Talent" drive was.

An ageing society

One of them is Scots are generally living longer. Scotland, like most European nations, is an ageing society. The number of adults of working age living north of the Border is already falling year-on-year, while the number of people of pensionable is steadily increasing.

As the 2019 annual report from the National Records of Scotland noted: "Natural change (births minus deaths) is projected to fall to lower levels than have ever previously been recorded. Inward migration is projected to be the only source of population growth."

Economic migrants from eastern Europe - largely from Poland and Lithuania - helped offset that trend when many took advantage of their country's EU membership in the mid-2000s and began arriving in the UK in their thousands.

The majority of them arrived south of the Border and stayed there - but those who did venture north helped Scotland's population enter a rare period of continuous growth.

Today, Scotland's population stands at a record level. But there is already proof that growth is slowing. Current projections indicate Scotland's population could begin declining by 2043.

UK immigration plans

The Scottish Government has long been concerned that if migration to the UK is cut post-Brexit, Scotland’s population will drop in the long-term.

From a Holyrood perspective, those fears were realised this week when the UK Government announced it will end “low-skilled” immigration from the EU by ending free movement and not issuing visas to migrants who lack qualifications or a job offer in a “high-skilled” profession.

UK ministers said the government is delivering on a promise to reduce net migration with a policy that would encourage employers to provide better training and incentives to local and existing workers.

Westminster has rejected repeated demands for powers over immigration to be devolved, to allow the Scottish Government to develop its own policies to tackle Scotland’s particular challenge with an ageing population and struggling rural services.

A plan for a “Scottish visa” proposed by Nicola Sturgeon earlier this year was dismissed within hours by Downing Street.

Looking ahead

Scotland's population growth has been driven by a combination of inward migration from other parts of the UK as well as migration from overseas, with the country's birthrate dropping to record lows.

If the number of migrants to Scotland steadily decreases over the coming decade, current projections suggest that once again Scottish politicians could once again be debating the country's falling population.

This isn't just a numbers game. As the Federation of Small Businesses noted today, small and medium firms north of the Border have a greater reliance on EU workers than the UK average.

It remains to be seen if the rural economy - particularly argiculture and fisheries - will be able to attract the manpower it has become accustomed to under the UK Government's plans.