Perspectives: New Data on Attitudes to Immigration in Scotland: What Does Scotland Really Think?


Blogpost by Saskia Smellie, BRIDGES Project, University of Edinburgh

It is often observed that Scotland is an outlier in the UK in terms of the politics of migration, with the Scottish public generally perceived as more welcoming of migrants than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK. In a blog for the Royal Society of Edinburgh earlier this year, I delved into new research on attitudes toward immigration in Scotland, using data from the first representative survey conducted since 2014 by Migration Policy Scotland. This research indicated generally positive views on immigration and multiculturalism within the context of a policy area that is neither devolved to Scotland nor particularly politicised in Scottish political debate or the media. However, I noted the limitations of relying too heavily on data from a single survey. Now, with the publication of a second survey by Migration Policy Scotland, we gain a deeper and more nuanced insight into the evolving attitudes towards immigration in Scotland.

The latest findings from the Migration Policy Scotland Attitudes to Immigration Survey reveal that the Scottish public’s views on immigration are not homogeneous. The full report explores differences in attitudes based on gender, age, urban/rural location, social grade, voting preferences, social contact with migrants, and broader attitudes toward diversity. Significant differences emerge along political lines, with the largest disparities between those who voted Conservative in the 2019 UK general election and those who voted for the other main parties, with views and preferences generally more positive among non-Conservative voters.

Nevertheless, half of the survey respondents view immigration as having a positive impact on Scotland, with only 26% seeing it negatively. A significant majority, 69%, agree that immigration helps fill labour shortages, 55% believe it enriches Scottish cultural life, and 51% think it brings people to areas of Scotland that need them. When asked about the impact of immigration on their local area, 38% view immigration positively, although there is a higher level of ‘undecided’ respondents at the local level than at the national level. This may reflect the relatively low levels and uneven distribution of migration within Scotland, as 51% report no regular interaction with immigrants in their community.

The survey also suggests that the Scottish public holds highly pragmatic views on immigration. The data indicates widespread acceptance among the Scottish public for recruiting labour from overseas. The majority of respondents agree that employers should be able to recruit from abroad to fill vacancies, with 61% in favour. This agreement rises to 79% for sectors experiencing critical shortages, such as health and social care. Similarly, the survey shows strong support for maintaining or increasing the numbers of migrant workers across all major visa routes. For skilled workers, 59% support an increase, 26% support maintaining current levels, and only 9% favour a reduction. Correspondingly, for health and social care workers, 48% support an increase, 25% support maintaining current levels, and 18% support a reduction.

This finding is particularly pertinent for researchers and policymakers assessing whether Scotland’s distinctive demographic and labour market requirements justify a tailored approach to immigration. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that this perspective is counterbalanced by support for initiatives aimed at protecting wages and enhancing skills among UK workers. Support for temporary and seasonal workers follows a similar pattern, with 48% supporting an increase and 29% supporting maintaining current levels. This robust support also extends to specified humanitarian visas, such as for Ukrainians, and student visas, with 45% and 37% supporting increases, respectively. Remarkably, there is significant support (60%) for the post-study graduate visa, with only 18% opposing the scheme. Notably, the highest levels of support for both the post-study graduate visa and the increase in student visas are found among the youngest generation, specifically individuals aged 16-34.

There is also strong support for long-term immigration, with 55% preferring migrants to have the opportunity to settle permanently. This is contrasted with 25% who favour short-term visas requiring migrants to leave after a period of work. Moreover, 55% support welcoming programmes to enhance migrant integration. Attitudes toward welfare rights for migrants, however, are divided, but 62% believe that working migrants should become eligible for benefits and social housing within five years, and 38% believe eligibility should come within two years. In contrast, 1 in 5 (20%) believe only UK citizens should be eligible for such benefits.

Considering geographic variations, views on immigration vary, and preferences often correlate with geographic location. Urban areas are typically thought to hold more positive views of immigration, but the survey found that rural areas show greater support for immigration for seasonal and temporary work, with fewer respondents supporting reductions in these routes (13% in rural areas compared to 19% in urban areas). Additionally, support for programmes linking British people with newly arrived migrants, such as the Homes for Ukraine scheme, is strong across regions, with 63% support in the Highlands and Islands as well as in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

As I discussed in my previous blog, when interpreting data on preferred immigration levels, it is important to acknowledge that Scotland has not experienced the same levels of immigration as other regions in the UK, suggesting less engagement on contentious issues such as downward pressure on wages. Moreover, 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. This notwithstanding, the tendency to overestimate immigration levels was also reflected in the findings. While migrants make up around 10% of the Scottish population, 43% of survey participants believe the current levels to be over 15%. This overestimation could influence public attitudes and policy preferences.

The insights from the Migration Policy Scotland Attitudes to Immigration Survey underscore the complexity and variability of public opinion on immigration in Scotland. This newly available data source, which encompasses a wide array of socio-economic and geographical variables, serves as a significant resource for researchers, academics and policymakers studying immigration issues in Scotland, the UK, and beyond. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for fostering informed debate and developing effective immigration policies. Finally, not only is Migration Policy Scotland providing an important service by filling this gap in the empirical data, but their messaging on the survey, which has garnered significant media interest, helps drive the debate in Scotland beyond the usual headlines and the divisiveness of the rhetoric on immigration we see more commonly in British political debate and the media. I would highly recommend more academics, researchers and policy experts explore this new and growing data set, with the raw data available on request.

Dr Saskia Smellie is a Research Fellow in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. She specialises in comparative immigration policy and politics 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 Horizon 2020 project BRIDGES: assessing the production and impact of migration narratives.  

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Migration Policy Scotland.