Diaspora Disengagement

ascotlandMy son, for example, who went to university in England, I think I’d be uncomfortable with the thought that he’s now a foreigner – Margaret Curran

A few years ago I was commissioned to do a study on the demographic distribution and occupational characteristics of the Scots in Canada using the Canadian census. Censuses are interesting things. Sometimes they are set up in such a way as to confirm the view a country already has of itself. Canada, for instance, prides itself on its multiculturalism and the ‘ethnic’ question on the census was clearly designed to reflect that. The question allowed you to pick up to four ‘ethnic or cultural origins’ and reported more than 200 ethnic groups living in Canada.

‘Scottish’ was, and is, a favoured response to the point that it was subsequently used by Statistics Canada as an example of how the ethnic question is supposed to work. 568,510 people stated that their only ethnic origin was Scottish. 4,151, 340 gave a response which included Scottish with one or more other ethnic origins. I liked the flexibility of Canada’s ethnic question. It made room for people born in Scotland, those with some form of Scottish descent and even those who imagined themselves to be Scottish: all equally weighted and all equally welcome.

The census showed that the Scots were distributed across Canada with the highest provincial percentages in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia and the highest raw number in heavily populated Ontario. Concentrations of Scots could be traced by a mapping device which used shades of red – the darker the red, the heavier the concentration of Scots in that area. It is commonly said that Scots don’t form ghettos when they emigrate but the mapping exercise showed that they tend to cluster in areas with high average incomes – a kind of reverse ghetto if you like. Occupational analysis revealed that some Scots got their big houses in much the same way as they might have at home – from highly paid professions like law or medicine. But there were other ways too: a Highland carpenter forming a successful construction company when he discovered that houses in British Columbia were framed in wood; the descendents of an Aberdeen blacksmith becoming a major supplier of steel.

The last two examples weren’t actually from the census. They were people I knew and interviewed in an oral history programme called ‘The Scots in British Columbia’ which was conducted at the same time as the census study and put human faces to the bare stats. Subjects included the Lieutenant Governor of the province, a former premier, a head of pacific fisheries, CEOs of various companies, teachers, broadcasters, joiners, lawyers, small business people, firemen, sailors: too many occupations to list. The one question we asked all of them was: ‘Why did you leave Scotland?

The answers to this were as varied as the respondents. They cited aspiration, glass ceilings, adventure, curiosity, family (as in getting away from), sectarianism, Canadian Government inducements, sexuality, weather, and so on. The curator of the local golf museum told me that she didn’t really know why she left though she did recall sitting in a packed Canadian Consulate in the early 70s when two young men came in. Drink had been taken and one scanned the waiting crowd before saying to the other: ‘Aw fuck it, let’s just go tae South Africa’.

When I happened (belatedly) on Margaret Curran’s ‘Good Morning Scotland’ interview on the subject of the Scots in England, I had high hopes for it. She came on air armed – if that is the right word – with statistics cribbed from the 2011 UK Census which sounded broadly similar to the ones that initially revealed the complex story of Scots in Canada. Her Scots in England were all Scots by birth rather than descent or affinity, but I anticipated some kind of nuanced analysis. She pointed out that the census now allows you to discover how many Scots live in Southend (where I once lived) and Milton Keynes (where my sister lives now). Sadly, that was about it.

In fact, the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland only had two things that she really wanted to say. One, there are a lot of Scots living in England. Two, if Scotland becomes independent these Scots will be living in a foreign country. Her son, she added, went to university in England and ‘he’s now a foreigner’. The interview degenerated from there with Curran reduced to a prolonged haver by clarifying questions that almost anyone could have anticipated – including one about the role played by her own party in deepening the inequality that is generally seen as a driver of out-migration. There was a late intervention by Professor Tom Devine to the effect that this ‘new’ information had been around for centuries, family would not be disrupted by what was essentially a legal change, and the ‘foreigner’ argument was ‘badly misplaced’. Devine’s authority seemed to uncouple the last carriage from Curran’s train of thought and she was reduced to calling him ‘great’ and saying that she had a copy of his book.

All of which could simply be written off as seventeen minutes that neither Margaret Curran nor anybody listening to her will ever get back. However, the interview left a bad aftertaste. The words ‘foreign’ or ‘foreigner’ are in the wrong hands in Britain just now and have taken on the quality of swear words. It ill-behoves the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland to contribute to that. Further, the same definition that makes the Scots in England the foreigners of a possible future makes the Scots in Canada the foreigners of the present.

The one area of consistency in the interviews I conducted was that interviewees often referred to Scotland as ‘home’. This was true of those who were born in Scotland and have never returned even to visit and those who visit regularly. It was true of those who expressed reservations about their new life in Canada and those who seemed most settled there. It was true of those who were descended from Scots and those who lived in the Scotland of the imagination. Safe to say that none of them will welcome the news that the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland now regards them as foreigners.

‘Diaspora engagement’ has been transformed since Devolution: there wasn’t even a term for it before the Scottish Parliament was restored. It is now moving into another phase made possible by the internet with social networks for Scots and ‘affinity’ Scots springing up everywhere. An application has been submitted – I’ll declare an interest here – for a .scot domain name which, if successful, will be available to ‘the worldwide family of Scots’. Family was never defined so broadly, foreigner never less applicable.

Comments (8)

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  1. Doug Daniel says:

    Nice article. One of my cousins went to Canada on a work placement as part of her degree, and as soon as she came back to Scotland, her mind was made up to get enough money together to return to Canada and live there permanently – which she now does.

    I sometimes consider spending a while in another country like Germany, Austria or one of the Scandinavian nations; but if I did so, I would still regard Scotland as my home. The idea that I’d become some kind of unworthy “other” just because I no longer lived in Scotland is absolutely abhorrent. Labour need to stop this ridiculous language – and they can stop trying to stoke up sectarian resentment as well while they’re at it.

  2. Jim says:

    Great article and good luck with your .sco application given that Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man have their own domain names.

    Of course its ludicrous to call Scots that live outside Scotland “foreigners”. My sister and her family in Torquay would be greatly offended by the words of Margaret Curran.

    I dislike the word foreigner but I’m not surprised that Margaret Curran uses it as if she were the Scottish equivalent of Nigel Farage. She uses the word as a political weapon and that is extremely distasteful.

    It would be interesting also to hear her view on whether she considers Irish people in the UK to be “foreigners” given that despite being an independent country the Irish are present in all aspects of Scottish and British life not least on our TV screens.

  3. Rob says:

    I’m originally from Fife but now live in Jamaica. I’m a strong supporter of Scottish Independence and it pains ma heart to be away from home. I’m here because ma wife is Jamaican and thanks to a Tory-driven policy implemented to appease middle-England I now need to find a job paying £18,600 to come home with ma wife. I’m a reasonably well-qualified person and I want to make a contribution to ma country but cannot find a permanent job in Scotland paying the required amount and I apply for several jobs each week. Ma wife is intelligent and talented and would make an equal contribution to Scotland. The last thing I would have either of us do is ‘sponge’ off the state. In fact I would sign away any rights to benefits on a legally-binding document. If I was from anywhere else in Europe I could be working in the UK and bring my non-EEA wife as well as any number of other dependant family members to live with me permanently no matter what I was earning. I’m not living on a beach here drinking club sodas: I’m struggling to get by and provide for me and ma wife because I love her and I want us to be together.
    It’s one of these ‘impossible to answer at the moment’ questions but I wonder if an Independent Scottish Government would change the existing immigration rules so that they were more progressive and allowed me and my wife (and many others like us) to return and settle in Scotland? There are a lot of talented expats abroad who are in my position and would like to return but are unable to.
    I miss ma country and want to come back and do something to help to rebuild it but I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance. There are many members of the Scottish Diaspora who would return if given the opportunity- Scotland should be making provisions for them right now.

    Saor Alba

  4. James Coleman says:

    I don’t see what the problem is. I have travelled worked and lived in many countries including England, Ireland Germany and France and I have always been happy to consider myself a foreigner in those places. I always lived according to the axiom … ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’ … learning the language and respecting the local customs and being a foreigner did not change my interactions with anyone.

  5. James Coleman says:

    As a further comment to my last … in my experience the Scots have always thought that the English and Irish are foreigners and vice versa for English and Irish and Scots. So Independence will change nothing apart from the legal position.

  6. Dmyers says:

    I lived in England a few years ago (Ipswich), and while it isn’t (and will never be) a ‘foreign’ country, I did notice subtle differences in culture and attitude. I missed Scotland very much and was delighted when I returned to Edinburgh after six months.

    After independence happens, I imagine that the subtle differences between our cultures and attitudes will remain largely the same, in the same way that there are subtle differences between ourselves and our friends in Ireland. But it will never make England or Ireland or Wales ‘foreign’. I don’t even think of Canada, New Zealand or Australia as ‘foreign’; nor do I think that way of any other nation on the planet. ‘Different’, yes, but not ‘foreign’. And as we progress (hopefully) as a species, we are learning that being different isn’t actually such a bad thing, aren’t we?

    Of course, this argument is a massive distraction on the part of the Labour party, because they still haven’t come up with their much-vaunted ‘positive case’ for the Union. They are clutching at whatever emotionally-loaded straws they can find. Sooner or later people will realise that the straws are loaded with little more than hot air.

  7. g4rve says:

    The problem mentioned by Rob in Jamaica is one we should be making more of a fuss about. An English woman recently moved into our village in the Highlands with her American husband, but found it impossible to stay due to the UK’s immigration requirements. She told me, as Rob says, that they can legally live in any other EU country, just not the UK. They’ve now moved abroad.

    My son has recently married and lives in Colorado with his American wife. If he decided to bring her to live here he’d also come up against this problem.

    This immigration policy has absolutely nothing to do with Scotland’s situation – it’s entirely created to suit the politics and perhaps the economy of the south-east of England. It’s one extremely clear example of what would improve after independence.

  8. Fay Kennedy says:

    I live in Australia and have always identified as a Scot. My extended family are all foreigners to me and I’m no joking for they can never understand what enrages me about the subjucation of my country Scotland.

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