Ian Swanson: Davidson is a voice in the wilderness on immigration

Ruth Davidson wants a rethink of Tory immigration policy
Ruth Davidson wants a rethink of Tory immigration policy
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RUTH Davidson may or may not be pleased with the label which thriller writer Jeffrey Archer conferred on her at the Festival as “the next Margaret Thatcher”.

No doubt the comment from the one-time deputy chairman of the Conservative Party was intended as a compliment and an acknowledgement of the Scottish Tory leader’s “star” quality.

But Ms Davidson is in many ways very different from the Iron Lady and her politics are not normally viewed as Thatcherite – as seen with her latest intervention, calling for a rethink of Tory immigration policy.

She wrote last week about the need to revisit the party’s pledge it would cut net migration below 100,000 and set out a “Conservative case for immigration”.

But Ms Davidson’s call has now been rebuffed by Theresa May’s most trusted minister, the First Secretary of State Damian Green, who agreed there was a need for “rational debate” about immigration but insisted it had to be “sustainable” and argued one of the forces behind the Brexit vote had been a feeling in some parts of the UK that immigration had been too high for too long.

There is broad agreement that Scotland’s needs in terms of immigration are different from the rest of the UK – and a cross-party Holyrood committee warned earlier this year about the risk to Scotland’s economy from a fall in migration from EU countries.

But it is worth noting that Ms Davidson was not restricting her comments to the situation north of the Border. She explicitly focused on the UK policy.

“The British Government,” she wrote “has failed to hit its self-imposed ‘tens of thousands’ target in any year. Brexit is a big reset button and should – in theory – make that much easier to do so. But we have to ask whether the target continues to be the right one?”

Mrs May has stuck with the controversial target despite missing it by a mile every year and in the face of warnings that it is almost impossible to reach.

Most politicians acknowledge that immigration brings benefits to this country in terms of skills, culture and also taxes. Is the answer to voters’ concerns about the impact on jobs, housing and public services not therefore to ensure adequate funding and provision in all these fields rather than to stop people coming into the country?

Ms Davidson also added her voice to the large number of people – including some other senior Tories – arguing that overseas students should not be included in the immigration numbers. Higher education is, after all, a huge export industry for the UK. A House of Commons education select committee said EU students alone generated an estimated £3.7 billionn for the UK economy and warned the international competitiveness and the long-term success of UK universities could be at risk. The MPs said overseas students should be recorded as temporary rather than permanent migrants and not included in the overall migration figures.

Ms Davidson was right to speak out and challenge the party line. In rebuffing her, the UK Government is not only refusing a much-needed change in policy, but also damaging Tory prospects north of the Border by demonstrating the Scottish leader does not carry the clout with the Westminster leadership which some have claimed.