AS FAR as I am aware I have yet to meet an ethnic Scot. If you bump into one could you tell me what they look like? We inhabit a jumble of rocks on the north-west fringe of a largely warm and lovely continent. So it’s odd that the wind-blown, rain-strewn soil of Caledonia has had such a magnetic pull for migrants since time began.
If you believe the Declaration of Arbroath, our tribe marched here from somewhere around the South Caucasus. In truth we have no tribe. There is no such thing as an ethnic Scot. We can define our identity by outlook, attitude and choice more accurately than by where we or our families happen to have been born.
This little nation is home to peoples from all over the world who still largely manage to adopt the same accent, outlook and behaviours that truly make us, weaving their own strand into the national fabric. Turns out tartan is a good emblem for a good reason.
As Ed Miliband commented on Friday, we need to do more to ensure new peoples are “connected not segregated”. But integration needn’t mean sameness. Each wave of incomers has brought its own pain and trouble, but each problem has been hugely outweighed by the benefits.
Think of our Pakistani community, many of whom are from families chucked out of Uganda by Idi Amin in 1972. The majority of them now living here were born here. They are one-third as likely to be pensioners than the average Scot, which has to be positive for an ever ageing population in need of youthful economic endeavour to support a dignified retirement.
They are much more likely to own their own home and much less likely to need publicly subsidised accommodation. And in a nation in desperate need of entrepreneurs they are three times as likely to run their own business. Ponder on that. Do we want more of those attributes or less?
“The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources – because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.” The words spoken by President Lyndon Johnson at the signing of the 1965 US Immigration Bill could have been written for Scotland’s story over 2000 years. He gave that speech on Liberty Island, home to the remarkable statue overlooking Ellis Island’s immigration centre. If you can visit I recommend it as one of the most emotionally pulling experiences you will have in any museum anywhere.
Part of our own debate on how to get our economy flourishing should include a strong element of the Scotland we seek in respect of immigration policy. Irrespective of the constitutional position, any immigration stance we want to take will need to be discussed with the other countries in our islands. But we should go into those discussions seeking a more open door than we have at present because our need is greater for the benefits of entrepreneurial migration.
Is it really beyond our wit to design a system that allows the areas that would benefit most to make themselves more attractive to migrant labour? We should start from the question “what do we want Scotland to be like?” Too often do we tie ourselves in knots with centralist assertions that all must be the same. It needn’t be.
As this column rehearsed last week, it is not good enough for us to wait for trickle down from London. The England and Wales census set the debate alight last week when it revealed that 13 per cent or 7.5 million people there were born outside the UK. Remarkably the number for Londoners is 37 per cent.
The reason so many want to live in London is that its economy is so strong. Immigration is an indicator of the health of an area, much as life expectancy is a fundamental measure of its success.
Multiculturalism is not an easy phenomenon or process for many. But I believe the societies that grasp the reality of it quicker and embrace it will be the most successful and the most peaceful longer term.
The intermingling of the peoples is a modern inevitability given the transformation of our world. The challenge will be to retain and adapt our distinct culture and differences while welcoming new strands to the tartan. And it’s not just about economics. There is a tonal point for us to strike in our message to the world about the sort of Scotland we all want to make for future generations to inherit. For me the same open heart we exhibited on our own mass emigrations would do us good.
You cannot experience America without a sense of wonderment at what migrants built from scratch. Scotland is an older nation of migrants that would benefit from younger ones now. Emma Lazarus’s words at the foot of the “Mother of Exiles” must moisten the hardest of eyes:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
America opened its golden door and flourished on it. We should too. We have so little to lose and so, so much to gain. «