ABERDEEN, Scotland (Reuters) – Nicola Sturgeon’s pro-independence Scottish National Party is leading a push to boost immigration to the sparsely populated northern tip of Britain, an opposite tack to the UK government which aims to limit the number of new arrivals after Brexit.
Sturgeon, who is also first minister, will close the SNP’s conference on Saturday with a plea to give Scotland more control over what her party argues is the key challenge facing the economy.
Scotland’s population, much of which is rural and dispersed unlike the rest of the UK, is aging more rapidly than other parts of the country. Boosting immigration is essential to keep providing the workforce needed to drive economic growth, as well as to shore up public services such as in health.
Immigration, however, is the thorniest political issue in the Brexit negotiations, and limiting the number of foreigners who enter the UK was a key element on which Britain’s overall 2016 vote to leave the European Union rested.
“Scotland is a welcoming country – our prosperity and our public services depend on it,” Sturgeon will tell delegates.
“If Westminster cannot or will not act in our best interests, it is time that our own parliament was able to do so …It’s time for powers over migration to come to Scotland,” Sturgeon will say.
The British government has said it will not devolve powers over immigration to Scotland, but pressure to abandon unrealistic targets to limit immigration has been coming from many sides, including British businesses and from the ruling Conservative party’s own ranks.
Ruth Davidson, leader of the Conservative party in Scotland, has criticized the government’s targets as impractical.
Scotland voted to stay in the EU but will be taken out as part of the UK, which overall voted to leave. Brexit has not been a catalyst for Scottish independence but it has not dampened separatist fervor either, polls find, meaning that Sturgeon has to continue to balance her political act carefully despite being the biggest single vote winner in Scottish politics.
Forecasts from the Scottish government show that over the next 25 years the working population of Scotland will grow by only one percent, compared with an increase of 25 percent in the pension age population.
Despite that, research by respected pollster John Curtice earlier this year found Scots overall do not support the idea of a different immigration policy from the rest of the UK, and most Scots want the same policy nationwide.
Reporting by Elisabeth O’Leary; Editing by Stephen Powell