Scotland, SNP and the Push for Independence: Ethnic Minorities and National Imagination

Image: By none known (http://kbolino.freeshell.org/svg/scotland.svg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday 17th May, 2017

Minna Liinpää

After the Scottish Parliament formally backed Nicola Sturgeon’s call for another Scottish independence referendum, a choice between yes or no is potentially on the horizon again – and prior to UK leaving the EU if things go according to SNP’s plans. Theresa May has argued that ‘now is not the time’ for a Scottish independence referendum as Brexit negotiations remain ongoing. Independence is, nonetheless, likely to be a key theme during the run up to the general election in June, though Sturgeon signalled that “the [general] election was ‘not about independence or about another referendum”, leading to suggestions about a split in views within the SNP regarding the relationship between the independence question and the general election. This post will consider the issue of Scottish independence and revisit the 2014 referendum in order to shed light on this key election theme. More specifically, it will focus on other current pervasive political themes within this context: immigration, nationalism, ‘race’ and ethnicity. That is, where do ethnic minorities stand in the Scottish national imagination?

As someone who studies the aforementioned topics, the 2014 independence referendum provided the perfect context – or a ‘breaching moment’ – for asking questions about national belonging, nationalist narratives and the edges and parameters of the nation. Therefore, prior to and following the 2014 vote, I conducted fieldwork with ethnic minority voters, Yes and No campaigners as well as representatives from third sector organisations that work in the field of ethnic minority representation and rights. I was interested in finding out how, on the one hand, Scottish nationalist narratives are constructed from above (mainly, but not solely, by the SNP) and how these narratives intersect with ideas around ethnicity, difference and belonging. On the other hand, I wanted to find out how ethnic minorities – both recent migrants as well as those who are the daughters, granddaughters and the great granddaughters of migrants – experience, make sense of, and potentially challenge nationalist narratives.

Scottish nationalism has been at the centre of attention recently following London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s comments that there is “no difference between nationalists trying to divide Scottish and English people and ‘those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion’”. This was followed by Claire Heuchan’s opinion piece in the Guardian after which she received a barrage of racist and misogynistic abuse on social media. Following Heuchan’s piece, the debate continued.

Putting Khan’s and Heuchan’s comments in context, the SNP has often been hailed as representing ‘civic’ as opposed to ‘ethnic’ nationalism by the party itself, political commentators and academics alike - though more critical viewpoints have also been expressed (see e.g. Mycock). Furthermore, this distinction has come to dominate public, political as well as academic debates about nationalism and national belonging more generally. While it remains important to understand the ways in which the concepts of ‘civic’ and ‘ethnic’ nationalism are used in public political discourses about the nation, the analytical usefulness of the concepts, to me, seems highly dubious – not least because of the normative connotations the distinction carries (see Brubaker for a good critical discussion).

However, the positive rhetoric emanating from the SNP regarding immigration has to be commended, especially when other mainstream parties and certain sections of the media have been expressing views that are deeply troubling at best, and outright racist at worst. As we witnessed a considerable rise in reported hate crimes in England and Wales following the Brexit vote, the SNP continued to signal their support for those who are often termed as the ‘new Scots’. The SNP have also condemned the ‘Go Home’ vans previously. Nonetheless, there is often a tendency to assume that Scots are – by nature – fairer, more egalitarian and more left-wing (the latter claim has been disputed based on social attitude survey data, for example, though YouGov suggest there are indeed more marked differences. In their independence referendum publication “Your Scotland, Your Future” (no longer available online), the SNP argued that “fairness runs through Scotland like a vein” – an analogy which, of course, conjures up a very organic, embodied idea of Scotland as an entity, and of the ‘Scottish character’ (see also Mooney & Scott's work).

Thus, the rhetoric from the SNP has, on the face of it, been welcoming of people from different backgrounds (though the inclusiveness has, importantly, been challenged especially with regard to the Homecoming franchise and how Scotland’s history has been selectively remembered – see e.g. Mullen). During the 2014 independence referendum campaign, (then) First Minister Alex Salmond and (then) Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon were often heard emphasising how the vote was for everyone living in Scotland. Salmond, speaking in Bruges, noted that

“Ours is a peaceful, inclusive, civic - and above all a democratic and constitutional independence movement…Our vision for our nation includes and welcomes all those who want to call Scotland their home. Of course, this inclusiveness extends to our elections.”

However, how did people from different ethnic backgrounds experience and make sense of the independence debate?

The people I interviewed came mainly from African, English, Indian, Pakistani and Polish backgrounds and, out of them, roughly an equal number voted for and against independence, with a couple of participants choosing not to vote at all. For many of the participants the independence referendum was an exciting time to live in Scotland: Agnieszka (25 years old, Polish) who voted yes said that,

“I felt it was brilliant, it was really amazing to see how passionate people were and how involved they became out of a sudden because I think before people weren’t as much, like, sort of involved in politics or even the debate about politics.”

Similarly, Chalwe (46 years old, Zambian) and Mary (46 years old, Kenyan), who both voted no, found it to be ‘exciting’ – Chalwe, on his part, was looking forward to the debates, results and reactions. Despite her excitement, Mary was also weary of potential disagreements and decided to take the day of the vote as well as the following day off work in order to avoid discussing the issue. Getting the chance to vote gave some of the participants a greater sense of belonging: Violet (40 years old, Zambian, voted no) explained that being able to vote made her “feel part of…the crowd” or “the nation”, and that she felt “I’m also included, I can also decide”. The chance to vote made Stefania (32 years old, Polish, voted no) “feel I am actually treated as a person”.

On the other hand, others experienced hostility when they tried to engage in the debate. Despite his excitement and political engagement, Chalwe encountered “animosity”, as he puts it, when discussing the vote with his colleagues. He said, “I think being a black person in Glasgow, showing an interest in a topic which was out of bounds for black folk” led to people’s negative reaction. He went on to recount an interaction he had had. Chalwe was asked whether he was going to vote, to which he said “yes” – the person went on to say “you’re not even Scottish” and that “you could even go back, you know, this is not really your home”. As a result, Chalwe said he “learned later on to…keep quiet” which, for him, “was really hard…because I love politics”.

In conclusion, while the rhetoric emanating from the SNP regarding immigration and ethnic minorities is positive and encouraging (albeit it is worth pointing out that migrants’ value is usually specifically linked to their economic contribution), there seems to be a disconnect between how belonging to Scotland is imagined and articulated from above and how it is experienced from below. What is more, what happened with Khan and Heuchan opened up a potential avenue for openly and critically discussing and addressing issues regarding the relationship between nationalism and ‘race’– an opportunity which the SNP did not seize. Importantly, the relationship between ‘race’, ethnicity and nation in Scotland – and beyond – is a complex one, and it needs to be carefully unpacked: continuing to uncritically reinforce the view that Scotland and Scots are inherently fairer is unhelpful at best and damaging at worst.

NB. All names of participants used in this post are pseudonyms.

Minna Liinpää is a PhD Candidate and a Research Assistant in Sociology at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on nationalism, race, ethnicity, belonging and postcolonialism, and she seeks to understand these within the context of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum specifically. Minna is currently writing up her thesis, and tweets from @MinnaKristina.

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