‘Would the UKBA turn Mary and Joseph away?’: Notes from the Scottish Parliament Debate

Political discourse on immigration in Scotland is very different to England. But, moreover, from my position in the public gallery watching the debate on the discontinuation of the ‘Go Home’ campaign it becomes obvious that this distinction is also being drawn upon to make claims about Scottishness and the possibilities of independence. The debate I am observing concerns the use of posters in the Brand Street reporting centre in Glasgow which used the words ‘Is life here hard, why not go home?’ alongside pictures of destitute people. These posters prompted a demonstration at the Brand Street centre and some negative press responses with The Herald concluding in an editorial that ‘The Scottish parliament should make clear that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable in Scotland. Perhaps it is time to tell UKBA to go home?’ This is just one example of the posters being cast as an imposition from Westminster on a more tolerant land.

I arrive in Parliament just as First Minister’s Questions are finishing. The public gallery and the chamber are near full as Alex Salmond answers questions about welfare and shale gas. Both the public gallery and the chamber empty out after this. Christmas hangs in the air and is referenced by many in the ensuing debate.

The bill is introduced by Labour’s Jackie Baillie who starts out by saying ‘I am an immigrant’ and detailing how she was born in Hong Kong to Scottish and Portuguese parents. She moves on to talk about the ‘Go Home’ campaign and draws parallels between the language used by the National Front in the 1970s saying it is ‘beyond belief that Westminster would borrow this language’. She says the campaign was ‘cruel and insensitive’ and ‘a personal error of judgement by Theresa May’ before moving on to talk about the Immigration Bill, particularly the housing aspect. She goes on to do some ‘myth busting’ (her words) around immigration about benefit tourism, immigrants as an economic burden and the idea that immigrants are unskilled. She stresses that it is appropriate to tackle illegal immigration but not in this way.

The next speaker is Christian Allard (SNP) who is French-born and who also stresses his Portuguese heritage. He is the first SNP speaker, but by no means the last, to make the link between an idea of Scotland as a welcoming country and a history of inward and outward migration. He points out that the ‘Go Home’ posters did not originate in Scotland. He proposes an alternative van campaign: ‘Welcome to Scotland, we want you to stay, we need you to stay’. In his discussion of anti-immigration rhetoric he says that he doesn’t blame the English media, it is only reflecting Westminster but that he wants the Scottish Press to use the facts as presented in a recent Scottish Refugee Council Report. His speech introduces a separation between England and Scotland and a demarcating of Scotland as different. Later on James Dornan (SNP) picks up this thread, arguing that the campaign was not designed for Scotland, it was designed for the South of England.

The first (and only) Conservative to speak in the debate, Alex Johnstone started by saying he was not opposed to immigration, that it was needed for Scottish business and that Scotland had a proud record of asylum. He went on to say that the motion confuses and conflates a number of issues. He is also the first (and only) person in the debate to use the term ‘bogus asylum seekers’. He does say of ‘Go Home’ that some of the words used could fuel a comparison with National Front rhetoric.

Liam McArthur (Liberal Democrats) talks of how the campaign triggered protest. Overall his response is more mixed than that of the Labour and SNP MSPs. He condemns the campaign for breaching public sector equality duty but states that there are people who should go back to their country of origin and that while ‘wider publicity could play a role’ it should not be an inflammatory campaign such as this one. Like other speakers he emphasises the links with the 1970s talking of ‘uncomfortable echoes of the NF’. He also says that illegal immigration is a problem ‘bogus colleges, employers need to be addressed’.

These positions of the four major parties continue to echo through the debate. However, the language and expression of feeling intensify throughout. Christina McKelvie (SNP) referred to Go Home as a ‘disgusting exercise, absolutely abhorrent’. She speaks of the positive contribution of ‘new Scots’ and repeatedly uses the word “disgusting”. She asks ‘Would the UKBA turn Mary and Joseph away?’ then brings it back to Scottish Independence ‘The only way to move away from this is to vote ‘Yes’ next year’.

Hanzala Malik (Labour) condemns the campaign as ‘crude, out of touch’. His voice is loaded with emotion as he talks about feeling ‘shamed, disappointed and shocked’, ‘I couldn’t believe we had stooped to these levels … it does not represent our people, our nation, our humanity.’ He says that he doesn’t need evidence that this campaign hurts people’s feelings. He has lived this evidence. This is a very powerful speech and I’m struck by how emotionally charged some of these statements are and how the language of emotion is used within the speeches. He goes on to say it was ‘ill-designed, ill-felt. Laws did not protect us against this.’

‘I remember when I was young, people used to say ‘why don’t you go home?’ but home was Glasgow. They would ask ‘No, where are you actually from?’

Summing up the debate is Humza Yousaf (SNP). Firstly he points that a number of MSPs have put forward a motion on this subject (this is to acknowledge that the SNP also proposed a similar motion). He says the ‘Go Home’ campaign was ‘iniquitous’ and ‘derailed progress’. He echoed previous speakers by referring to Scotland having a long history of welcoming people. He goes on to say:

‘I’ve been called everything under the sun but the one that hurts the most is when you are told to ‘Go Home’ when you’re just as Glaswegian, just as Scottish as everyone else.’
He says that these campaigns hurt but that the campaign shouldn’t be taken in isolation but is part of a trajectory where the UK is becoming more aggressive. He makes an appeal to colleagues in the Labour Party saying he is genuinely worried that parties in the UK are going on the wrong trajectory and pandering to UKIP.

At this point Liam McArthur jumps in to say that there are too many distinctions being made between Scotland and the UK and that the outrage against the campaign has been across the UK.

Yousaf continues ‘Many members of the public have an irrational fear of immigration. Language from the UK Government is not helping.’

He refers to the united front in the chamber ‘We need to translate this tone to parties in the UK. He ends by referring back to the white paper and its pledges to close Dungavel [detention centre], to end destitution of asylum seekers and to end dawn raids. It is our moral duty to do so.’

The widespread consensus of opposition to the ‘Go Home’ campaign in the Scottish Parliament is not surprising. But there are key distinctions between party discourses and the positioning of Scotland within the debate – all SNP MSPs end their contributions by referring to the White Paper on Independence. Labour are more mixed in their responses, although all virulently oppose the campaign and some, like Malik, speak passionately and with emotion against it – but, as might be expected, they are not drawing on ideas about Scottishness in the same way in their accounts. Liam McArthur, the only Liberal Democrat to speak was very active in challenging other speakers in the debate with the lone Conservative speaker keeping quiet after the initial speech.

Migration is set to be a major issue in the run up to the Independence Referendum and beyond. I am left wondering about the relationship between political discourse and opinions outside of the chamber. Is Scotland so different to England in terms of attitudes to migration? Indeed MSPs’ personal accounts of experiences of racism and of being told to ‘go home’ serve as a check to any over-romanticised version of Scotland’s attitudes to migration and ethnicity. As our research unfolds, I hope we can probe how these discourses of Scottishness and immigration further and explore how these debates about campaigns such as ‘Go Home’ play out beyond Holyrood.


Herald poster

Immigration: Good for whom? BBC4 debate in Birmingham, 17 December 2013

I attended the BBC Radio 4 Debate on immigration, which took place at the Birmingham City University Conservatoire on 17 December 2013. The debate included Paul Collier (economist), David Goodhart (director of the DEMOS think tank and the former editor of Prospect); Nazek Ramadan (founder of the Migrant Voice newspaper) and Suzie Symes (director of the Immigration Museum on Princelet Street in London.

Before starting the debate, the host (Ritula Shah) did a straw poll of the audience (who seemed quite mixed in terms of race, gender and age), asking them if they thought immigration should be reduced; a quarter of the room raised their hands. Then she asked how many people thought that the level of immigration was fine as it was. Slightly more people raised their hands, but most did not. She then asked how many people didn’t care, and a few people raised their hands.  So this was an audience where some people felt immigration should be reduced,  but the majority of the audience did not hold a strong opinion.

Shah introduced the debate in relation to the lifting of the restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians, but also in terms of recent change of attitude on the liberal left, in which a previous pro-immigration orthodoxy was now being challenged – with Collier and Goodhart in particular as representatives of this changing perspective. Using the rhetoric of “brain drain”, Collier argued that skilled professionals in developing countries have a duty to stay at home and build their national economies, rather than emigrating for a better life. He called for restrictions on immigration from poorer countries, a restriction that should not exist for wealthier countries (which Nazek Ramadan argued created an unfair double standard in terms of mobility). Collier also pointed out that when societies become too diverse, it becomes difficult for people to integrate or cooperate socially – and so too much diversity would lead to a loss of common life. Goodhart made very similar arguments to Collier, saying that it is not possible to have a functioning welfare state in a diverse society (and evoking  Milton Friedman’s quote about how the US can have open borders or a welfare state but not both).  Robert Putnam’s  E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century (2007) was cited as proving that immigration was bad for social cohesion; Putnam’s thinking generally seemed to be influential on both Goodhart and Collier, particularly the decline narrative around public disengagement, weakening social bonds and atrophying civic institutions outlined in Bowling Alone (2000).

Nazek Ramadan and Suzie Symes argued that, despite the pessimistic tone of much media coverage on immigration, most people in fact get on with each other, and communities are much more integrated than politicians and the media often admit (it is a truism that stories of successful integration sell fewer newspapers than moral panics). Suzie Symes also made the point that migrants benefit the economy and contribute more to the public purse than they receive – a point that was disputed by Goodhart.  She also argued that immigration is intrinsic to contemporary society, and said that we should be able to welcome accept this rather than perceiving it as a threat.

The audience response to the panel was mixed, although, arguably, more positive than negative. For example, there was an anecdote about a parent being told by a headteacher that there were no more places at the school because they were being reserved for Romanians and Bulgarians, who had extra language needs (which provoked a response from another audience member, who said there is no official policy about saving school places for migrants). Another audience member introduced himself as a member of the Polish community (which has existed in the West Midlands since the Second World War), and how, from his perspective the most recent wave of Polish immigration seems to  have struck the right balance of maintaining British and Polish cultural identities, which had proven more difficult for previous generations of Polish immigrants.

In response, Goodhart claimed several times throughout the evening that the audience was unrepresentative of British society. This raises questions about what Goodhart might see a representative audience to be: more homogeneously white, or anti-immigrant, for example? Does a representative British public exist, and how much is this in fact a media construct (the anxious, resentful “silent majority” who feels aggrieved at immigration, cynical about politics, and in danger of voting for UKIP instead of one of the mainstream political parties)?  Furthermore, what does this mean in a multicultural city such as Birmingham?  As the 2015 election approaches, questions about who the public is, and who is seen to belong to it, will only become more important.

“Go Home”: Mapping the unfolding controversy of Home Office immigration campaigns

Book cover

Detailed Findings Report Cover

This is the project website for “Go Home”: Mapping the unfolding controversy of Home Office immigration campaigns, an 18  month research project that explores the impacts on local communities and national debate of current publicity campaigns about migration by the UK Home Office.

Our detailed project findings were published in June 2015 at the end of the funded part of the project, and a book based on the project was published in March 2017 by Manchester University Press. We continue to write on findings from the project, and the website will continue to be updated to reflect this.

The project was supported by funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and by support in kind from four national civil society partners. The research was conducted by academic researchers from seven UK universities, in conjunction with local community organisations.

The research project set out to:

  • document and describe the current wave of high-profile Home Office campaigns against irregular immigration, in six local areas of the UK and at a national level
  • identify the impacts of government migration policy and its communication, and their real-time interaction with public debate and civic mobilisations, in six local areas of the UK and at a national level
  • produce real-time analysis and findings that intervene in debates and inform community action and policy formation
  • evaluate the impact of our own interventions, in real time
  • produce research that is of value to civil society organisations, both in terms of outputs (evidence, analysis and a toolkit for urgent activist research) and participation in the research process (enhancing networks and skills)
  • develop new methodologies that enable a specific focus on the links between digital, face-to-face and ‘traditional’ communications and policy channels
  • evaluate the effectiveness of the research and dissemination methodologies used in the project, in real time
  • explore longer term collaborative outputs and funding which enhance the impact of this urgent research intervention.

This website will be updated as the project progresses, with information on emerging findings and the process of the research. You can also follow the project’s Twitter account, @micresearch