If it comes to it, Sturgeon should refuse to hand over the Brain family

I’d have to check to be sure but I don’t believe I’ve ever used the STV News website to recommend law-breaking.

I am the epitome of Very British Problems: You can only push me so far before I snap and mutter something peevish under my breath. Otherwise, I greet the injustices of the world with a wry smile, for what else is to be done — except brew a nice cup of tea.

But when it comes to the treatment of the Brain family, I have neither the time nor the temperament for reserve. The stiff upper lip can shove it.

The Brains — Gregg, Kathryn, and seven-year-old Lachlan — came to live in Scotland five years ago, attracted from their native Australia by the post-study work visa programme. They settled in Dingwall in the Highlands, where their son is being educated in a Gaelic-medium school. A year later, however, the UK Government pulled the plug on the visa programme, revoking the family’s right to remain in the UK in the process. They are now applying for a tier two visa, a long and costly process by which non-European citizens can seek leave to stay if they have secured skilled employment.

The Home Office has granted two extensions but the latter of these expires on Tuesday, meaning the family faces the prospect of being deported back to Brisbane. As if the trauma of being removed from their home and sent to the other side of the world isn’t enough, their son Lachlan cannot read or write in English, such is the nature of intensive Gaelic education.

Their plight has won the support of local MP Ian Blackford and their story has been taken up by the National. Under questioning from Blackford on Thursday, immigration minister James Brokenshire insisted there was no “imminent” threat of deportation. That, of course, is not the same thing as confirming the Brains can stay.

Nicola Sturgeon has already raised the case with Home Secretary Theresa May — who did not even deign to respond to the First Minister’s letter — and has now sent a follow-up correspondence.

The SNP leader told the Cabinet minister: “I fear this is another example of the inflexibilities of the UK immigration system resulting in Scotland losing talented individuals who have studied at our universities and contributed to our economy.

“We need an immigration system in Scotland that meets our own needs and our continuous calls for the reinstatement of the post-study work route in Scotland would help to address these needs.”

Amen to that.

It will come as cold comfort to the Brains but they might end up symbolising the failings of Britain’s immigration regime and the unworkability of the current approach, which retains all say over Scotland’s population growth at Westminster. Instead of a system designed for our needs, we have grafted onto our economy a system designed for the needs of the Tories’ electoral fortunes.

There is much to commend in the UK Government’s record. It has sought to restore order to the public finances, lifted the tax burden on the lowest paid, and dispersed power to individuals, communities and the regions. But when it comes to immigration it is hell-bent on drowning all the good it has done in a wave of craven, grubby populism.

UK ministers champion a view of migration that I’d wager most of them don’t actually share. It is a small, narrow, miserable affair of fear and stasis and each-to-their-own; a spasm of caveman conservatism that impedes the confident society and flexible economy a centre-right government should aspire to. It is a government participating in — volunteering for — a Brain drain on growth and innovation.

And it is particularly harmful to Scotland, where our rural communities are withering without people and jobs. The Scottish Parliament just elected is tasked with knuckling down to kitchen table politics — improving standards in schools, reining in hospital waiting times. After four years of constitutional obsession, Scotland will finally come off pause and most voters will be glad to see that. But the Brain case resides in that grey area where the constitution abuts the devolved responsibilities of Holyrood. It’s true, immigration is a reserved matter but it is close kin with economics and no responsible government can ignore the impact of UK-level policymaking on local economies.

The Brain case should restart the debate about who holds the keys to Scotland’s front door. The status quo serves no one well, punishing migrants and pitting St Andrews House against 2 Marsham Street. To point this out is not to counsel a return to debates over powers for the sake of it; it is simply to state the obvious. A new accommodation between Holyrood and Westminster, one that gives the Scottish Government greater say over who can come to Scotland, for what purpose, and for how long, should be pursued as a priority. A pragmatic immigration policy is a building block for a strong economy. It is not another constitutional stand-off but one of those bread-and-butter issues the Nationalists are being told to get back to.

Cynics accuse the SNP of playing politics with the case, stirring up yet more antagonism between the Scottish and UK governments.

And you know what? I don’t care. If a bit of grandstanding keeps Lachlan and his mother and father in their home, fire on in. (Does anyone think they’d even still be here if not for MPs causing a stooshie?)

Venture into the darker recesses of Unionist Twitterland and you will find wretches censuring the Brains for having their child educated in Gaelic rather than English. (I have my issues with Gaelic schooling but either I believe in parental choice or I don’t — and I do.)

This isn’t about SNP politicking or the merits of Gaelic schools. It is about the worth of our word. We invited the Brains to come here, gave undertakings about their leave to remain, then tore up the contract at a later date. The family took a chance on us, flew 10,000 miles, and plunged their treasure into making a life in Scotland. They chose the Highlands, where we desperately need skilled workers, and have been by all accounts exemplary members of the community ever since. The Brains have invested in us; we are in arrears to them.

If anything, I’d like the Scottish Government to get a bit bolder. The strength of feeling over this case, the manifest injustice of what the family is being put through, the disrespect Theresa May has shown a fellow minister of the Crown, provokes a thought. If it comes to it, and the UK authorities tell the Brains they must leave, why must the First Minister go along with it? Yes, it is the law and, yes, the government at Westminster has the final say, but sometimes following the law to its last meticulous letter allows for the commission of a much graver offence, one against moral justice and common decency. In short, Sturgeon should say No.

What exactly could the Home Office do? Send officers north of the border to seize a family expressly invited to remain in Scotland by the First Minister, a first minister re-elected mere weeks ago with a robust mandate? That would be the stuff of East German Stasi raids and would rend relations between Edinburgh and London beyond all obvious repair.

In the end, there would be no need to get into questions of judicial authority or political interference in Police Scotland operational decisions. In the end, the threat would be enough. It would safeguard the Brains’ family life in Dingwall and put the UK Government on notice that patience is wearing thin with its callous and dismissive attitude towards Scotland’s immigration needs.

“Stronger for Scotland” runs the SNP slogan. Time to show some muscle.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

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