The choice of the UK electorate to choose to leave the EU has come as a shock, not only to those who voted to remain, but also to those who voted to leave. I think perhaps it is for this reason that a large number of Remain supporters have been questioning the motives of their fellow Brits. We have been called xenophobic, anti-European and racist. The reality of course is that there isn’t that much difference between a Remainer and a Brexiteer apart from different political beliefs and possibly personal circumstances. We would really be in trouble as a country if 52% of the population were so full of prejudice as some Remainers suggest. The truth however is that everyone, if they are honest with themselves, has a degree of prejudice, but we try our best to overcome it. Which of us has never had an intolerant thought? Come on Remainers why don’t you cast the first stone? But Britain remains a remarkably tolerant, welcoming country, where most people in their ordinary lives try to get on with each other. My guess is that the level of prejudice among Brexiteers is pretty much the same as among Remainers. I have seen rather a lot of prejudice expressed by these Remainers about people like me, so who knows what else they might be prejudiced about.
Britain is one of the few countries with an open and inclusive identity. We accept without question that British citizens are British, no matter where their parents came from. This might seem straightforward, but it is far from commonplace around the world. In Russia it is quite common to call someone a Tartar, or a Georgian even if they are a Russian citizen. The description Russian is frequently not applied to people who are not ethnic Russians. I think this sort of idea applies in quite a number of European countries. For example, Latvian citizens who speak Russian as their mother tongue are not considered to be Latvians. It is partly for this reason that the Hungarian and Polish Governments are so keen to keep out migrants. They do not think that these migrants could ever really become Polish or Hungarian.
Even in our own country the identity associated with the parts of the UK is not always as available to newcomers as it should be. Someone with an English accent in Scotland will not be considered to be Scottish even if he has lived here for decades, unless of course they join the SNP. Scottishness to a large extent is determined by where you were born and who your parents were. These things are fluid, but I imagine this is the case to an extent also in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is one reason why we should all value our British identity. It’s the only identity that unites all of us. Without it we’re liable to judge identity on the basis of where someone was born and whether they can trace their ancestry back to the Norman Conquest or the Battle of Bannockburn.
So let us be grateful that we live in a United Kingdom where we have been able to integrate millions of people from elsewhere and done so successfully. Britain is far less racist than it was when I was a child. Few indeed are the European countries who would have done as well as we have in remaining a cohesive society despite massive changes to our country’s demographics.
In 1945 nearly every British citizen's ancestors had lived on this island for centuries. Of course, we have always had immigration, whether it was from Angles, Saxons and Jutes or later from French Huguenots and Eastern European Jews. But the fact of the matter is that if you look at the crowds celebrating VE day you will find remarkable homogeneity. In the space of seventy years, look at the changes that have occurred.
In 1946 there were nearly 49 million people living in the UK. Now there are 64 million. If population growth were to proceed at the current rate, some people think we might reach 85 million in the next twenty years or so. This sort of increase is clearly untenable. It is not in the interest of any British citizen, wherever they are from, to see our rather small island end up so crowded. Brexit will not mean that immigration ceases. It certainly will not mean that anyone will be deported. The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties guarantees that anyone with the right to live here now will continue to have that right. But let’s also think a little practically. We know how difficult it has been to deport people who we know hate us. We know how it has proven impossible even to deport foreign criminals. Does anyone seriously think we could deport millions of Europeans even if we wanted to? What would we do, round them up and put them on trains? What would that do to our relations with other countries? The whole idea is completely ludicrous. No-one, but no-one is going to be deported.
Where I live in Scotland almost everyone is from Scotland. It’s very easy for Scottish Remainers therefore to be smug about how liberal and welcoming they are. There is almost no-one to welcome. When we talk about population growth in the UK we’re not talking about Scotland. The Scottish population grew by a bit over 200,000 between 2001 and 2011. The UK population grew by four million. The English population likewise grew by four million. So it’s pretty obvious where new arrivals go.
Imagine if 4 million people arrived in Scotland from elsewhere in the space of 10 years. Why not? Scotland is largely empty. There is lots of space to build new towns and expand the ones we already have. Imagine if four million English people decided to move to Scotland, because England is full. Who is to stop them? We all have the right to live and work where we please. Imagine if the UK Government decided to create some space in England. They could give tax breaks and grants to English people to move to Scotland. If suddenly Glasgow doubled in size and half of the population was from England, would the Glaswegians be happy? What if only half the population of Dundee had a Dundee accent and the rest had English accents. Would this make Scottish independence more or less likely? I’ve expressed this idea before. The reaction from Scottish nationalists was one of horror. I’ve been accused of putting forward the idea of cultural genocide. But why is it OK for 4 million people to move to England, but not OK for a similar number to move to Scotland?
But on reflection the Scots who would object to 4 million English people coming to Scotland have a point. What they are saying is that they want to retain the character of Scotland and that this means that the vast majority of the population of Scotland should be Scots. They think that if millions of English people moved to Scotland then they would lose Scotland. They would lose the Scottish accent, the distinctive Scottish culture and the chance to determine their political future. If millions of English people were set to move to Scotland, the majority of Scots would want to see this limited in some way. It wouldn’t mean that they’d be against the English people already living in Scotland, but they wouldn’t want to lose the unique character of their own country.
There is no danger whatsoever of millions of English people moving to Scotland. Fear not Scottish nationalists! Your worst nightmare won’t come true. But the character of vast chunks of England has been changed beyond all recognition in the past seventy years. Do English people not have the same rights as Scots to protect the character of their country?
No sensible person should oppose all immigration. We couldn’t stop it even if we tried. Moreover, it is massively to our advantage that people from Europe and elsewhere can continue to come to live and work here. It benefits us, it benefits them. People who supported Brexit did not do so because they hate their neighbours, but because they saw Brexit as the only way to even limit immigration. They were right in this.
Just as it is not racist for an Aberdonian to prefer to live in a city where the majority of the population are Scots, so neither is it racist for English people to want to protect the character of their towns and cities. Most people all around the world wish to live in towns and cities where the majority of the population are like them. This is true for Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Hungarians and Poles. This is something basic in human nature. It is the reason we have countries at all, rather than live in one great world state.
Brexit has not made Britain a more intolerant country. On the contrary by limiting immigration we may all be able to integrate further and get on better than before. But above all don’t sneer at people who saw uncontrolled immigration changing their world forever and who voted to take back control. Don’t sneer especially if that is not your world.
Scottish Remainers who have next to no experience of mass immigration should try to understand the legitimate concerns of those who do have that experience. It’s easy to be open, welcoming, tolerant and smug if you live in the average Scottish town where 99% of the population is Scottish. Would you really feel the same if only 49% had a Scottish accent? Which way would you have voted then?