Why Scotland rose above the anti-immigrant mood that fuelled the Brexit vote

by Liam McIlvanney / 05 July, 2016
Cartoon/Chris Slane

In Scotland, where the vote was 2-1 for Remain, migration has been central to the national experience for centuries.

If it achieves nothing else, Brexit will have taught the world that England is not the same as the United Kingdom. On the results map of the EU referendum, the rising tide of Brexit was cut off rather crisply at the Scottish border. Scotland voted to remain in the EU by a convincing margin (62% to 38%) and with striking unanimity: all 32 of the country’s electoral areas returned a Remain majority.

How did this happen? More specifically, why were Scotland’s post-industrial wastelands (of which there are many) immune to the Brexit fever gripping their English counterparts? Why did the tower blocks of Paisley and the ex-mining villages of Ayrshire and Fife decline to join with Redcar and Cleveland in this revolt against distant, uncaring elites?

One answer is that Scotland’s revolt against distant, uncaring elites is already under way – only it’s aimed at Westminster rather than Brussels. The Scottish independence movement, galvanised by the referendum of 2014 and boosted by the Brexit fiasco, appeals to precisely those communities that voted for Brexit in England. It is Glasgow and Dundee, with their chronic unemployment and sink estates, that stand as the bastions of “indy”.

Crucially, Scotland’s independence movement blames neither the European Union nor the presence of immigrants for the country’s woes. Groups like Asian Scots for Independence and Polish Scots for Yes have lent welcome diversity to the indy cause, and the Yes camp spent the 2014 referendum campaign reassuring Europhile Scots that the country would still have a place in the EU after independence. Since the 1980s, when the Scottish National Party coined the slogan “Independence in Europe”, Scottish nationalism has viewed the EU as a means of securing rather than compromising Scotland’s sovereignty.

Fear and loathing of the EU just can’t get traction in Scotland. We might put this down to history – to Scotland’s trading links with the Low Countries and the “Auld Alliance” with France, but the truth is more prosaic. Scotland simply “gets” the concept of pooled sovereignty – the idea that you surrender some of your sovereignty in return for enhanced security and co-operation – in a way that England doesn’t. We get it because we’ve been doing it for over three centuries in the United Kingdom. If the English never viewed the Union in quite this light, that was because, as the larger partner, they simply carried on as if nothing had changed.

Scots want out

Well, things have changed now. With Brexit, the UK is completing its retreat into sullen Little Englandism and plenty of Scots want out. Put simply, the Scots are finding the European Union less claustrophobic than the British one. It’s the difference between sharing a flat with your mates and being in bed with an elephant.

One of the elephant’s problems is that it can’t forget the past. It can’t stop recalling the glories of Empire. Post-imperial England is still struggling to adjust to its diminished role in the world. Scotland has been all too successful in forgetting its complicity in Empire, but it is mercifully free of delusions of imperial grandeur. We know that we are a small, peripheral nation occupying the knuckle end of an Atlantic island – and we value the larger context of our European family.

All this makes it sound as though Scotland is inherently less racist and intolerant than England. It’s not. As my own Irish ancestors could testify, Scotland has its own legacy of hostility to incomers. But migration has been central to the Scottish experience for centuries and maybe we find it that bit harder to regard “migrant” as a dirty word. Historically, Scotland’s problem has been emigration and depopulation, not immigration. Persuading someone who lives in the Highlands or the Borders or the wilds of Aberdeenshire that his country is full up is not the easiest of tasks.

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of leadership. The tone of the Brexit debate in England and Wales – as set by the odious Nigel Farage and the blustering Boris Johnson – flirted shamefully with racism. In Scotland, leaders of all parties have eschewed such tactics. When the result was announced, the first concern of Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, was to reassure migrants that their contribution was valued. In the febrile aftermath of Brexit, Sturgeon spoke directly and graciously to “those who have done us the honour of choosing to make Scotland their home”. Can you imagine the current crop of English politicians – not to mention those of Australia and New Zealand – having the courage and humanity to set such a tone?

Liam McIlvanney is Stuart Professor of Scottish Studies at the University of Otago.

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