Attitudes and narratives on immigration: is Scotland really different?

Scotland Europe Initiative, Blog
Publication Date
28/03/2024
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Attitudes and narratives on immigration: is Scotland really different?
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March 28 2024, by Dr Saskia Smellie

It is often observed that Scotland is an outlier in the UK in terms of the politics of migration. While immigration is not a devolved competence, the main political parties have embraced the case for increasing migration to Scotland due to ongoing concerns about a declining population and labour market shortages.

Migration is not a salient and contentious issue in the Scottish media or political debate in the way it is at the UK level. Moreover, surveys have suggested that the Scottish public is generally more welcoming of migrants than their counterparts in the rest of the UK. These factors raise important questions about how different Scotland really is and what explains this divergence. Two recent studies shed light on how we might address these questions.

Assessing the production and impact of migration narratives

The Horizon2020 project BRIDGES suggests a significant part of attitudes towards migrants and political debate on immigration can be traced back to ‘migration narratives’ – the stories we tell about migration and its causes and effects. These narratives circulate in media and public political debate, such as in parliaments and in policy-making venues – and can be hugely influential on how immigration is framed, the definition of challenges and the available solutions. The BRIDGES project looked at key narratives in six European countries (UK, Germany, France, Hungary, Italy, and Spain), the role of the media and of political leaders in establishing and disseminating narratives on migration, and crucially, what happens when populist narratives dominate the debate and how mainstream parties respond.

A key finding of the project, across all six country case studies, and particularly the UK, is the centrality of politicians in media coverage of migration issues (Maneri 2023). Whilst migrants are represented as ambiguous groups with little agency or voice, politicians feature as the main protagonists of coverage. Moreover, the most divisive and populist narratives emerged in political debate and were frequently reflected in policy documentation (Smellie & Boswell 2024a).

This suggests that since immigration is not a devolved policy area and Scottish politicians do not instrumentalise and politicise immigration to mobilise voters and galvanise support for their political parties, immigration is not a prominent issue in the Scottish media and, more generally, is not a contentious issue in public political debate.

Moreover, despite increased politicisation and polarisation in public debate at the UK level in recent years, notably in relation to net migration and ‘small boat’ arrivals, a longitudinal view of public opinion that draws on established opinion polling data, such as Eurobarometer and the European Social Survey, reveals unexpectedly positive attitudes (see Smellie 2023b, Smellie & Boswell 2024b). Immigration is not as salient in the UK as it once was, and public opinion on immigration has become more positive in the last decade.

Attitudes to immigration: a view from Scotland

Moving from the UK level to Scotland, new research conducted by Migration Policy Scotland provides valuable data and insights into Scottish public attitudes to migration. A new report presenting findings from the first representative survey of attitudes towards immigration in Scotland since 2014, provides insight into people’s perspectives on a range of migration and integration issues and finds that Scottish attitudes have warmed considerably in recent years. The report sets out the findings of an online survey of 1,162 adults across Scotland between 17-19 January 2023.

Key findings include that a greater proportion of the Scottish public would like immigration to increase (38%) rather than decrease (28%) (Kyambi & Kay 2023). However, those wanting an increase mainly support a modest increase, while those wanting immigration to decrease want it to be reduced ‘a lot’. A sizeable proportion wants immigration to ‘remain the same as it is’ (34%). The impact of immigration at both the Scottish and local levels is seen as mostly positive (59% and 48%, respectively). Moreover, the Scottish public surveyed expressed a strong preference for labour migrants to be able to settle in Scotland long-term (66%).

Conclusions

Taken together, what do these two new pieces of research tell us about Scotland?

When considering potential differences in attitudes, it is important to acknowledge that Scotland has not experienced the same levels of immigration as other nations and regions in the UK, suggesting little engagement on contentious issues such as downward pressure on wages. Moreover, since immigration is not a devolved policy area, it has not been instrumentalised within the context of party competition as it has at the UK level. Similarly, the apparent pro-immigration consensus among Scottish political elites appears to provide little ‘newsworthy’ content for Scottish news outlets. Given the apparent centrality of politicians as the protagonists and drivers of media narratives on migration, it is simply not as salient in the Scottish media and public debate.

Finally, the new Migration Policy Scotland survey suggests positive attitudes towards immigration and multiculturalism. The extent to which this reflects wider trends in the UK in recent years or specific differences in perceptions towards immigration in Scotland remains to be seen. We await Migration Policy Scotland’s findings from the next survey on attitudes to immigration in Scotland with interest.

Citations and further reading:

Kyambi, S. and Kay, R. 2023. “Attitudes to Immigration: A view from Scotland.” Migration Policy Scotland. https://migrationpolicyscotland.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Attitudes_Scotland_Sept23.pdf

Maneri, Marcello. 2023. “A comparative analysis of migration narratives in traditional and social media”. BRIDGES Working Papers 11. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.8192076

Smellie, Saskia. 2023a. “Migration narratives in media and social media. The case of the United Kingdom.” BRIDGES Working Papers 10. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7937160

Smellie, Saskia. 2023b. “The impact of narratives on policy-making at the national level. The case of United Kingdom”. BRIDGES Working Papers 25. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.10259906

Smellie, Saskia, and Christina Boswell. 2024a. “Comparative analysis of migration narratives in political debate and policymaking: Cross-national report’.” BRIDGES Working Papers 26. Doi: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.10590198

Smellie, Saskia and Christina Boswell. 2024b. “Policy brief on the impact of narratives on policymaking at the national level”. BRIDGES Policy Briefs 2. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.10591072

Dr Saskia Smellie, a Research Fellow in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, was a speaker at the RSE’s public debate on migration on February 29 this year. She specialises in comparative immigration policy and politics in Europe and has experience advising the Scottish Government on immigration policy. Most recently, she led research on migration narratives in political debate and policy-making on the Horison2020 project BRIDGES: assessing the production and impact of migration narratives.   

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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Scotland Europe Initiative, Blog
Publication Date
28/03/2024
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