‘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


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

  1. Pingback: ‘That was in London, not here’: Talking anti-immigration campaigns and belonging with asylum seekers and refugees in Glasgow | Mapping Immigration Controversy

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