Whose Country?

About this time last year I attended a lecture given by a US academic. His theme was, broadly speaking, a review of the various recent experiences of the splitting up of states. The idea was to identify any learning which might inform the debate on the referendum on Scottish independence.

I wasn’t happy with his talk. He seemed unable to see beyond ethnic divisions, violence and economic ruin. He floated the possibility of English-born people in Scotland feeling isolated in the way, for example, ethnic Russians do in Moldova, Ukraine and other spin-offs from the former Soviet Union. It conjured up visions of Cameron moving to annex Dumfries, Arran or some suburbs of Edinburgh.

In the Q&A session I tried to make the point that the Scottish referendum campaign had so far been free of ethnic considerations, any talk of exchanges of populations and any claim by either side on territory. The franchise was to be granted to all residents in Scotland, no matter their origins. The border had been settled for several hundred years. In my view, it was the most impressive part of the whole debate, very satisfying to behold, and seemed to bode well for the future.

The phrase “blood and soil nationalism” is one usually associated with rise of Nazism in Germany.[1] Earlier this year the term was used in connection with the Yes campaign by a journalist from New Statesman during an interview with Alistair Darling. It is a matter of some dispute as to exactly what Darling said in response. He denies agreeing with there being a linkage.[2]

During this past year the matter of who was entitled to vote was raised a great many times, particularly by some of the 800,000 or so Scots living in other parts of the UK. In the comments sections of websites of the London newspapers, I’ve seen recently calls to make sure that the same mistake isn’t made again: any future referendum would have to include allowing these ex-pat Scots to have their say as well. That’s the wizard wheeze to ensure the answer is always No.

I’ve debated this point elsewhere. I’ve no problem with allowing anyone, anywhere to have a say in the sense of offering an opinion. In fact, I was rather touched by the efforts of Dan History Man and messages from The Thin White Duke and Eddie Izzard (though less so with the Last Night Of The Proms spill-over into Trafalgar Square).

I do not agree, however, with allowing those living outside Scotland to have a say in the sense of a having a vote. Too many ex-pats seem to want to keep us where we are but not actually to have to endure that themselves or otherwise to contribute to our society.

Of course there will be hard cases; there always are. It seems rough to be excluding those who are currently elsewhere but genuinely intend to return to Scotland in due course. Equally, you can understand the querying of the position of a foreign student at a Scottish university who may move on in a few years’ time. The response is simple and applies to both of those: the world is full of emigrants who started off meaning to go home, but never actually did.

Yvette Cooper, Labour Shadow Home Secretary and also married to Ed Balls, was born in Inverness. She did not grow up in Scotland, however, and as far as I know doesn’t make any particular claim to Scottishness. Tony Blair was also born in Scotland, but I remember that he made it clear some years ago that he considers himself English and supports the England team on sporting occasions. Neither of them has displayed any intention of ever residing in Scotland. Is there really anyone suggesting there’s a case for giving either a vote in any Scottish referendum?

There have been those who have tried to make something of the number granted the vote who were born outside Scotland. Alistair Darling kept making the point during one of the TV debates that he was a “proud Scot”, which I do not doubt in any way. I note, however, that he was born in London.

The elephant in the room in all such discussions is the number of those living in Scotland who were born in England, some 400,000 or so. What I want to ask the “no vote for non-Scots” mob is whether they would have withheld the franchise from such people, one of whom happens to be the leader of Better Together.

And, of course, they would not have done that, because that’s not what they mean at all. What they are getting at is the presence in Scotland of people from outwith the UK: the Poles and other EU citizens, and those from further afield.

Put those factors together and what they mean is to include anyone in Scotland who is of British origin as well as those living elsewhere in the UK who are of Scottish origin and to exclude those in Scotland who have come from outside the UK. To make that work you need to define what are covered by “British origin” and “Scottish origin” and to construct tests to allow the vetting of people’s claims of entitlement on these grounds.

No matter how genuinely well-meaning you are, you have to recognise that this is where the problem arises. What this means is a test (or tests) of ethnicity. It’s not so much that these bring with them all kinds of practical issues to resolve (your birthplace, your father’s, your mother’s, all of these or what?), it’s more that the principle of the thing is completely objectionable. It would in fact be this kind of thinking that would bring “blood and soil” into play, which is ironic really in view of the fuss earlier this year.

We don’t need – or want – ethnicity brought into this debate in any shape or form.

Sometimes overlooked during the recent campaign was that more powers over income tax were due to come to Holyrood in 2016 in any case, opening up the possibility of income tax rates in Scotland that are different to the rest of the UK. (The HMRC computer system is already being enhanced to cater for this.) If the new Devo Max promises are kept (stop sniggering at the back, boy), then there could be even more of a difference soon enough thereafter.

So, I have a suggestion, addressed to all the Scots living elsewhere. If you’re so keen to be treated the same as the rest of us, then volunteer to pay Scottish tax rates even though you don’t currently live in Scotland. If you want a say, then be prepared to contribute: no representation without taxation.

No takers? Didn’t think so . . .




1. The phrase is now taboo in most circles because of this unwelcome association. That aside, all countries base their nationality laws on some combination of the two factors of birthplace and parentage. The underlying concepts aren’t controversial of themselves, therefore.

How you use them in trying to justify an ideology or worldview is a different matter, of course.

2. See this link for more on this.

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