Progressive British patriotism is squeezed out by jingoism in England and a shrill Scottish nationalism - Euan McColm

Twenty years go, when the Conservatives seemed a spent force at Westminster, the party went low in search of votes.

With then Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair riding high (the Iraq war, which would so badly tarnish his reputation, was yet come), the Tories desperately tried to stoke fears over immigration.

One memorably grim campaign event that year was a trip on a cross-channel ferry by shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe, who invited television cameras to film her as she painted a picture of the English Channel as an open door to illegal immigrants.

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Back then, it seemed the Tories - then led by William Hague - had run out of ideas. This hardline stuff might have played well with the right-wing of the Conservative Party but it didn’t do much to impregnate the fortress built by Blair on the centre ground of British politics.

Border Force officers help a young child brought in to Dover, Kent, with a group of people thought to be migrants following a small boat incident in the Channel, September 8, 2021. Picture: Press Association

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Widdecombe’s stunt lingers in the mind because of its unpleasantness. Her approach to refugees was dark and cruel. It seemed of another, less enlightened time.

Priti Patel makes Ann Widdecombe look like a bleeding heart liberal.

The Home Secretary has just authorised a plan to force migrant boats in the English Channel to turn away from the UK. Having made it to Great Britain’s shores, refugees face being forced back into dangerous waters. The French say Patel’s plan breaks maritime law and accuse the UK of blackmail over the issue.

It’s not entirely remarkable that a member of this current UK Government should be in favour of a plan that risks the safety of desperate refugees. After all, what could send a clearer message that one is tough on illegal immigration than a policy that says f*** the lot of ’em?

The Brexiteers who populate the government got where they are with the help of a narrative that said the UK had been taken advantage of for too long. The people Patel wants to force back across the English channel are the enemy, undeserving of compassion.

The Home Secretary’s latest cruel wheeze throws into focus the stark differences in attitudes towards immigration among senior politicians at Westminster and Holyrood.

While Prime Minister Boris Johnson talks tough on immigration, promising to keep numbers down, there is cross-party consensus in the Scottish Parliament that more liberal immigration policies are needed to ensure there’s enough new blood in the work-force to support an expanding elderly population.

Before anyone makes the mistake of thinking the difference in political approaches to the issue of immigration means a difference in public opinions, we should look at recent social attitudes surveys which show Scots’ views about the impact of immigration on the economy and on British culture are remarkably similar to those held by the English and the Welsh. While more than 40 per cent of Scots surveyed thought immigration was good for both the economy and for culture, 17 per cent thought it bad for the economy and 20 per cent said they believed it undermined culture.

A pair of YouGov polls held in the aftermath of the EU referendum showed that while 40 per cent of Scots reckoned immigration numbers were “about right”, 37 per cent said too many had been allowed to settle.

So we Scots are far from immune from the sort of anti-immigrant sentiment that we see south of the border.

Victory in the 2016 referedum with a campaign wrapped in Union flags means English Brexiteers currently enjoy the privilege of describing patriotism. Theirs is a petty little vision of a British nation that looks inwards rather than out, that sees co-operation as weakness.

Another version of Britishness exists but, right now, no senior politician seems willing or able to describe it.

Labour’s leaders north and south of the border, Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar, must - if they are ever to have a hope of seeing off both the Tories and the SNP - articulate a progressive patriotism that stands in contrast to Johnson’s.

During the 2014 independence referendum campaign, the Scottish nationalist side wrapped themselves in flags and presumed to speak on behalf of all Scots, The unionists may have won the day but, throughout the campaign, they struggled to present a vision of Britishness that could compete on an emotional level with the SNP's story of Scottishness.

While the Yes campaign wrapped themselves in romantic tales of Scottish greatness, the No campaign preferred prose to poetry. The Union was saved by a campaign that focussed more on the downsides on separation than the positives of cooperation.

There is a version of Great British patriotism that makes a virtue of compassion towards those in need, that doesn’t view every international intervention as an exercise in colonialist muscle-flexing, and that believes the UK should play a leading role in the international community. That version of British patriotism doesn’t view the rest of the EU as rivals but great allies in the creation of peace and prosperity.

Right now, that open, progressive and compassionate British patriotism is squeezed out by a new era of jingoism in England and a shrill Scottish nationalism that crudely caricatures every act of the UK as, at best, misguided, and, at worst, malign.

While polls show a large chunk of voters - enough in certain parts of England to affect the outcome of elections - hold strongly anti-immigration views, it’s hardly surprising that opposition politicians struggle with the issue.

But while politicians like Priti Patel continue to demonise people fleeing persecution, we need others who will make a patriotic case for providing sanctuary to the desperate and afraid.

Euan McColm is a columnist with Scotland on Sunday

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