Only mongrels here: independence and an open country


Commentary by Christopher Silver

The saying of something remarkable in politics – the conjuring up of those rare phrases that ring more true with repetition – is a notoriously elusive trick.

Millions are poured into the alchemy of making a political statement transform itself into something more than just another affirmation.

Inevitably, a great deal of political communication is locked into the quest for a winning formula. But the pseudo-science exists only because the object in question is genuinely precious, its pursuit fraught with risk.

In truth the most resonant speech relies on some kind of act of bravery on the part of the speaker.

A landmark statement must signal a new departure, a willingness to shift the terms of a debate and to create a new paradigm. It must also be authentic. A truth will resonate, a lie must be constantly drip-fed on a diet of thin messaging.

Scotland isn’t full up

That’s a daunting prospect, so it’s little wonder that a whole industry exists to pretend that it needn’t be so.

When Nicola Sturgeon told the SNP’s Spring Conference that “Scotland isn’t full up,” there could be no ambiguity about the salience of her point, nor that she was sticking her neck on an issue that countless centre-left politicians are now reluctant to confront.

Cynical takes were not in short supply. The First Minister has no control over immigration so the issue can be exploited to maximum advantage with little consequence.

This open-heartedness, so we are told, actually speaks to the values of a small Scottish elite doesn’t have to grapple with the responsibilities of controlling the movement of people in a complex globalised world.

Meanwhile, to the millions of Scots who struggle with meagre pay, to the one in five who live in poverty due to exorbitant housing costs, such rhetoric can easily be framed as an indulgence.

The logic of this case is well known. There is no difference between the rise of UKIP in former Labour heartlands, or the National Front in the former Socialist strongholds of north-east France, and the struggling people of central Scotland, other than the scale of immigration they have witnessed.

The SNP’s liberalism is simply a diversion from the deeper seated dilemma of inequality and social exclusion linking up with right wing ethnic nationalism.

All of these realities demonstrate the statement itself to be all the more remarkable. The SNP are about to fight a seminal local election campaign in Glasgow: a city with the highest concentration of child poverty in the country.

Already, the party’s fresh, outward-looking campaign to take the City Chambers has been lambasted by Scottish Labour for referencing Barcelona as a city the Dear Green Place might learn from.

Call it freedom

Scotland may not be full up, but to suggest it already does well by its current inhabitants is to look away from reality. The instinct in opposing the SNP, perhaps inevitably, is to revert to the insular. The stands in stark contrast to the invitation was sent out from the conference hall:

“If you are as appalled as we are at the path this Westminster government is taking, come and join us. Come here to live, work, invest or study. Come to Scotland – and be part of building a modern, progressive, outward-looking, compassionate country.”

It would have been perfectly possible for the First Minister to elide the immigration question as part of the next bid for Scottish statehood, yet it is now front and centre.

This choice stems from a realisation that it has fallen upon Scotland to point out that there is another route. Sticking with the current path would mean fidelity to the great falsehood that is now deeply embedded in British politics: that closing the borders will mean prosperity for the natives.

Immigration haunted the Prime Minister during her exceptionally long tenure as Home Secretary. Even a radical Labour leadership has found the issue too contentious to grapple with. Freedom of movement, according to the Shadow Secretary of State for Brexit, “has to go”.

This is a remarkable state of affairs: a cast-iron cross party consensus that a freedom long desired, long held, and hard won, must be scrapped as a matter of urgency.

A country that casts off the freedoms its citizens enjoy so willingly is a weak country: it is closing in on itself out of fear. A decades-long experiment in British openness is ending and the country will be fundamentally altered as a result.

Worse still, Britain is currently governed by a political consensus oblivious to the longer-term divisions now being staked out by contemporary politics. Sturgeon’s pro-immigrant stance flies in the face of a prevailing political logic because it speaks to the values of the young over the old.

It has been noted that the UK’s confidently European youth, though they face dire prospects when it comes to housing and employment, at least had the liberating prospect of travel and opportunity through freedom of movement.

Now that this is about to be taken away, even a chink of light – such as a credible politician in these isles pointing to another route – changes the whole scene.

Take it to heart 

An invitation, in a world of dwindling solidarity and ever-higher walls, is a radical act. But it also puts more on the line: there are greater risks than yet more tabloid shrieking about fifth columnists getting council houses. Tell people that there’s room: that resources will not be an issue, that their nation (their ‘home’ their ‘birthplace’) is actually open to all is a major political gamble in any circumstance.

But saying that Scotland isn’t full up has the advantage of being true. Scotland has one of the lowest population densities in Europe, an ageing population and an economic profile that demands soft borders.

In addition to being true, it also forms part of a decent story: Scotland is a country whose history has been predominantly defined by emigration, not immigration.

The First Minister name-checked Winnie Ewing’s definitive call to ‘stop the world,’ but her statement owed as much of a debt to William McIlvanney’s ‘mongrel tradition’.

Less seminal, but still more poignant, Kathleen Jamie offered up her own lyrical invite: “Come all ye’, the country says, You win me, who take me most to heart.”

It’s an emotional ask. But then again, could the question, ‘would you be at home here?’ ever be anything else?

An open movement for an open nation

Twitter demands the instant take: but many political realities only become clear over time. In the moment, a certain policy or statement can seem absurd, suicidal even, only to reveal its salience as it travels further.

Division, we are told, is the great ill that stalks contemporary politics. To seek to turn it on its head: to respond to populism with a popular statement of openness and internationalism, is a palpable demonstration of the kind of leadership and the kind of rhetoric that can transcend day-to-day politics by pushing against the grain.

A new Yes campaign will need a new dynamic. It should be a more poised campaign, but it can draw upon a rich vein of inspiration by making the offer of an open country central to the entire project of independence.

We should all begin to ask each other whether what we’re saying matches the ideal of an open country: a place where people are born, where people stay, depart, but that fundamentally sees a stranger as welcome.

The great choice of our times is freedom or isolation, to pursue either a shared future of connection, or a rising tide of fear, isolation and exclusion.

Faced with such a grim choice, the smaller states in this world have one great advantage. Their ideas of greatness of exceptionalism seem inherently daft: the fantasy of isolation can only take them so far.

A bold statement of openness is only possibly because we have already established that there is no neatly arranged essential Scotland, no definitive Scot, and that there never will be.

You’ll find only mongrels here: because there is no place for purity in an open country in the twenty-first century.


  1. Great stuff, Christopher. I seem to remember that Nicola Surgeon framed her invite to come and join us after referencing the numerous emails she had received from England where many are appalled at the rise of isolationism. I am sure she was also inviting EU nationals to come while they still can. As you point out, we do need them, such is the current demographic.

    You emphasised the nobility and the symbolic nature of her invite and said less about the practical side. But I feel Nicola Surgeon was also ‘getting on with the day job’ as her opponents urge her constantly to do. We really need Europe to notice that we are still a welcoming part of the UK. We need entrepreneurs, professionals and workers to still come here. We need the budget airlines to still be flying in and out with their cargo of young and old alike. We need our economy to grow as much as possible during the uncertainty of Brexit.

    The Brexiteers have a slightly different perspective. While they presumably also want growth on a UK wide basis during the Brexit negotiations, if Scotland doesn’t happen to grow as much as the rest of the UK over those couple of years, then they will blame indyref2 and use fear again to win it.

    It’s probably not to dramatic to state that Scotland is in a race for survival as a proper democratic country. The political philosophy of England will prevail in Scotland and our parliament will resemble one of the old regional councils, abandoned in the 1990s, writ large. That is unless we vote yes next time.

    The struggle for Scottish indepndence begins anew today as the letter of resignation from the EU is hand delivered in Brussels. It’s the opposite of the long walk to freedom. And there is a lot of walking and talking ahead for us Scots and the newer residents here who desire to remain an integral part of Europe.

    • One needs perhaps a deeper analysis than this. As England (and hence Scotland as part of the UK) closes its door on international migrants, the fact remains that the largest immigrant group to Scotland today and indeed over the last 100 years and more comprises people coming from rest-UK/England. This makes Scotland very different from England. This phenomenon looks like it will continue irrespective of Brexit and it will certainly increase further post Brexit. We also know from census data that this group take a disproportionate share of professional posts in Scotland, and hence rather less of the lower wage jobs. There is also evidence that many more people from rest UK have come to Scotland to retire, boosting our ageing population, to take advantage of better/free public services here (especially since devolution) which are not on offer in England. Lower house prices offer a further incentive. Importantly, during Indyref1, voting intention surveys indicated this group of rest-UK immigrants as being the least likely to vote for Scottish independence (i.e. 80%+ voting No, about twice the level for Scots). Now forming possibly as much as 20% of the Scottish population, this significant group alone could account for 30-40% of all No voters in Ref2. Any analysis of immigration to Scotland therefore needs to consider intra-UK migration and its economic, social and political consequences.

      • A point well made. There can hardly be a street in Scotland where everyone speaks with the one accent, and that’s a very good thing.

        • Mebbe in muckle touns, whaur fowk comin tae Scotlan dinnae bather tae lairn the Scots tung, an cultur forbye. Peety, its thaim that’s missin oot, fi oor doon-hauden langage an cultur.

          • Please desist from perpetrating the facile liberal elite conspiracy of there being one Scots language, and use the plural in future. Refer to the Scots Language Center if you don’t understand what Scots Language is.

            It is ‘Scots tung’ (or ‘tongue’ in Doric), it is NOT ‘the Scots tongue’ (or tung if you can’t be bothered typing). You are implying regimented singularity for something that is very diverse.

          • Hey Jolly chiel, tho ye’re nae sae jolly! A wid bi content if juist the ane Scots langage wis taucht in oor scuils and uni’s (wi a regional ‘gust’ aye), raither than nane at aw. Thon wid be movin forder fi whit wi hae the noo – i.e. naething? A ‘Scots Language Center’, aw fine an guid, yet is nae substitute fer a Scots Language Act tae dae whit wis duin for Gaelic, e.g.:
            – Scots language taught in schools to Nat5/Higher5
            – university degree in Scots Language
            – Scots Language TV channel
            – Scots Language Board
            – and pro-rata budget for Scots Langage (if Gaelic gets £50m/year, hou muckle siller is Scots langage wuirth?)
            Dae ye no ettle at screedin in Scots?

  2. My Granddads where Irish and English but my family are strong supporters of independence & the European Union , yes we do need a deeper analysis but lets look beyond first generations and if they are coming from the rest of the uk because of our system of government then don’t you think they will twig that’s down to the nationalist Government we have rather than what they are leaving behind

    • No, they’ll think it’s down to the generosity of the English taxpayer throwing subsidies to the spongers north of the border because that’s what their media has programmed into them. They’ll then wonder why they shouldn’t take advantage of same when they paid for it.


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