Cat HeadleyCat Headley, former Labour candidate in Edinburgh Western, says immigration is a key issue for many Scottish voters, and Labour needs to find a way to talk about it – or else others will.


My grandfather was from what was called at the time British Guyana.  He always called it that, even though the country stopped being ‘British’ in 1966.  Edwin Headley came to Scotland during the Second World War and served as part of the Royal Air Force.  After the war, he attended St Andrews University, married my grandmother from Fife and had children.  He became a teacher and moved his family to Orkney, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Immigration is part of my heritage, as I am sure it is for most people in Scotland to one degree or another.  I’m very proud of this part of my history, and it is something that I have had cause to refer to a lot in my time as a parliamentary candidate.  Because immigration comes up on the doorstep; frequently and increasingly.

Now that the election is out of the way it is clear to me that those of us involved in Scottish politics need to find a way to talk about immigration. If we don’t, this space will be taken up by those with the dog whistles who may, one day, be led by someone more competent than David Coburn.

In the last week of the Scottish parliamentary election I was struck by how often immigration was brought up by voters.  This happened in different areas, varying in terms of geography and prosperity; and it was different voters in terms of gender, age and party affiliation.  It was the the most frequently recurring issue of that week.

One was a man who didn’t even live in the street we were in; he was visiting a relative.  He had seen us out campaigning and, with hesitation and nervousness, he came out and asked if he could speak to us about immigration.

This was a man who was at pains to stress that he was not a racist (which I believe) and that he didn’t have a problem with people who came and worked here, just as he had worked abroad for a time.  His concern was that refugees were poorly integrated into our communities. That rather than a family or two being put in one street and absorbed by the community, they were put together in large numbers which was neither good for them, nor for the community in which they now lived.

By contrast, another man I spoke to the following day clearly did harbour racist views as he declared with absolute certainty that ‘60% of crimes committed in Glasgow are carried out by immigrants.” (Across Scotland in 2014, 9% of crimes involved a foreign national, only marginally higher than their share of the general population.)

There are currently two barriers to a proper discussion about immigration in Scotland.  The first is a mutually assured destruction pact that exists between the political parties.  Immigration is a reserved issue so why upset voters on either side of the issue by talking about it when we don’t have to?

The second is the myth that people in Scotland are automatically pro-immigration. This assumption is wrong. A study from 2014 found that 58% of Scots wanted reduced immigration.  While this is less than in England and Wales (75%), it is still a majority of the country.

The first man I mentioned obviously feared being labeled as a racist if he were even to mention the topic of immigration.  Some people who have problems with it are racists, but not all of them are.  We do a disservice to the latter by clumping them in with the former and, worse, we give them nowhere to go.

I am the first to admit a bold platform that immigration and immigrants are good for Scotland will be no easy task, just as it is no easy argument across the UK.  But this is a debate worth having, and capable of being won if we are armed with facts, compassion and understanding. And if we don’t try, then we leave the door open to those who will reach for more provocative weapons.

We must be positive, receptive and persuasive rather than merely dismissive.