To fully embrace its minorities, Scotland’s idea of itself will have to change

Alex Salmond on the campaign trail at the Grand Central Mosque in Glasgow. Andrew Milligan/PA

With all eyes fixed on the independence referendum, some important questions remain in the shade. Chief among these: where do Scotland’s ethnic and racial minorities, sometimes dubbed the “new Scots”, rest in discussions about nationalism? Or to put it another way, who really owns Scottish nationalism?

While the Yes coalition has a self-evident interest in nationhood, political actors of all hues are reaching for some ownership of nationalism. The unionist parties, after all, are named Scottish Labour, Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Liberal Democrats. And each – to misquote the political historian Tom Nairn – seeks to invite the masses into their version of Scottish history.

What is interesting is that there is also a strong and unambiguous trend not only among majorities, but among ethnic minorities, in identifying themselves with the nation (either as Scottish only, or Scottish-British, or Scottish plus something else). Scottish-Pakistanis, for example, are twice as likely to identify themselves as Scottish than their counterparts in England are likely to identify as English (who otherwise overwhelming identify as British).

Brand Scotland for everyone

Does this revise how Scottish identity is imagined by the majority too? Not necessarily, it would seem. Surveys suggest that “Scottish” for majority groups tends to equate to “being white” (more so than being “English” in England). This points to a gap between the official identity of Scotland as a nation and people’s Scottish national identities.

When authors such as Hanif Kureshi and Salman Rushdie, and politicians including Diane Abbott and Bernie Grant, tackled Britishness in the 1980s they held a mirror up to white British society and asked: “Who do you think you are?” Today it would be impossible to think of the identity of Britain without placing minorities at its core. Something similar is yet to happen to Scottish identity.

To some extent you can explain this by the numbers. The most recent census told us that nearly 4% or 200,000 of Scotland’s population of more than 5m consider themselves as minority ethnic. Scottish Asian populations constitute the largest visible minorities with just under 50,000 Pakistanis and more than 32,000 Indians.

This is quite different from England where in the same year the ethnic minority proportion was 14%. Yet the Scottish percentage is double what it was in 2001. By the middle of the century it is expected to be approaching 10%. So this question is only going to become more pressing in the coming decades.

Alex’s big tent

The prevailing assumption of commentators and political actors is that Scotland has achieved a broadly inclusive “big tent” national identity. In this view Scotland is comfortable with multicultural and multi-ethnic difference because it does not anchor itself in ideas of blood and soil. Of course there is an instrumental logic to recruiting minorities into projects of nation-building.

Both sides of the campaign have rising stars from minority backgrounds. Politicians love to be photographed next to ethnic minorities in kilts or to attend events like the Scottish Asian Business Awards. As the leading sociologist of nationalism Professor David McCrone put it some years ago: “Better in terms of realpolitik to draw the boundary around as many as possible; better to have them inside the tent than out of it if one was trying to govern the kingdom.”

But this is more than purely instrumental and other nations have shown a marked inability to overcome ethnic barriers. In Spain’s autonomous regions where a second official language is promoted, such as Catalonia, the Basque country and Galicia, immigration and ethnic minority diversity is deemed to present a particular challenge. Until recently the Basque Nationalist Party required four grandparents of Basque descent for membership of the party. In Canada, Québec separatist leader and premier Pauline Marois and others have emphasised the importance of “Quebecois de souche” (“old stock”).

Why Gaelic and not Scottish Urdu?

Scotland’s political nationalism therefore makes for a welcome contrast. All the same, its political pluralism is still more of an aspiration than a matter of fact. My research points to a number of ways in which political actors can be hesitant to remake Scottish nationhood. Take the issue of language. The national languages of Scotland include Scottish Gaelic, of which there are approximately 60,000 speakers. It has seen important advances in its recognition in recent years, such as the creation, in 2005, of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, a body charged with securing Gaelic as an official language that commands equal respect to English.

One rationale for setting it up was that Gaelic is an element of Scottishness because it’s not spoken anywhere else. Yet other languages such as Scottish Urdu and Scottish Punjabi are more frequently spoken and they appear to be taking on distinctive Scottish forms in terms of content and dialect. Nonetheless there is a consensus among political elites that they don’t warrant status as one of Scotland’s national languages.

Some churches more equal than others

Religious pluralism is a more charged example. Irish Catholics secured various gains down the years as part of the Catholic emancipation in Scotland, most clearly symbolised by the restoration in 1878 of the hierarchy of the Catholic church in Scotland. The typical response to bringing Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs into such settlements is that “it would be extremely depressing,” one MSP told me, “to think that in 50 or 60 years’ time we’d repeated the mistakes in terms of other ethnic groups and other religions”.

There are some good reasons to be cautious about seeking to mirror one religious settlement in the present with something from the past, but thinking that recognising other religions in Scotland would be complicated by the country’s sectarian issues is beside the point - how often does it occur to people that we are living in a country whose flag depicts a Christian cross?

It may be the case that, as the late Bashir Ahmed, Scotland’s first ethnic minority MSP, put it: “It isn’t important where you come from, what matters is where we are going together as a nation.” But this journey needs to occur within democratic and inclusive terms.

Scotland cannot rely on the view that in promoting itself as “impeccably civic”, it will secure a future in which ethnic and racial minorities are self-evidently included. Nation builders need to acknowledge ethnic hierarchies if they wish to pursue a genuinely pluralist project.

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