British ethnic nationalism – an ugly exclusiveness that encourages Scottish independence

One of the most welcome features of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 was the principle that (almost) anyone who lived in Scotland could have a vote in the referendum. This meant that those who identified as Scots but did not live in Scotland would not have a vote, but those who had decided to live in Scotland and wanted to play a part in its future could vote. This is called civic nationalism: it is based on who lives in the country and is contributing to it, and is not based upon origins or birth or parentage.

One of the side effects of this decision was that many people who had been born in Scotland or who had Scottish parents but who did not live in Scotland were not able to vote. Many of these people left Scotland because they felt it lacked the opportunities for a good career that other places offered: I heard this many times in the years we lived in London and my wife was the minister of one of the two Church of Scotland churches there.  In today’s judgemental environment we would probably call them ‘economic migrants’ even though many of them would be appalled to think of themselves like that (other people are economic migrants…).  Many left for love, or had to leave for work even thought they didn’t want to, and still others will have had other reasons for leaving Scotland.  I know that many of these people were disappointed not to be able to vote in the 2014 referendum – but the referendum was decided by those who had stayed in Scotland or who had moved here, and quite correctly in my view, they were the only ones determining Scotland’s future.

This approach also represented the starting point of many of the Yes campaign’s arguments: they/we took a civic nationalist standpoint, whereas the British nationalist/unionist position was very different – it took an ethnic nationalist standpoint for its arguments.  I explained this in a blog posting that was widely read at the time, and is available here (the original place of publication), and (republished by National Collective) here, and (archived on this blog) here.

United Kingdom EUNow we face another referendum in 2017, this time across the whole of the UK, to decide whether Britain should stay in the European Union or not. In this referendum, organised by the Conservative party, only people who have a British passport will be allowed to vote, according to a report in today’s Herald newspaper:

Members of the House of the Lords and Commonwealth citizens in Gibraltar will be given a vote, in addition to those on the Westminster voters’ roll.

Those entitled to vote in UK elections include British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens over 18 who are resident in the UK, plus UK nationals resident overseas for less than 15 years.

This means that all of those people who have moved to Britain and chosen to make their lives here (including other EU citizens – such as my wife!) are going to be denied a vote. However, those British passport-holders who have chosen to live elsewhere as (economic or other) migrants, or those who have chosen in the last 15 years to retire abroad (including my parents!) will have a vote – even though they no longer have as substantial an interest in what happens here compared to those who live here.

In doing so, the Conservatives are disenfranchising people who have chosen to contribute to this country – it is classic exclusive ethnic nationalism, rather than inclusive civic nationalism. There is a measure of hypocrisy here too, as David Leask of the Herald points out:

So let me state unequivocally, that this is the consequence of what people have voted for last year and this year:

When the No voters prevailed in last year’s Scottish referendum, this exclusive understanding of nationalism is what they were voting for (if you voted No you may say that you are not an ethnic nationalist, but that is the basis on which the No campaign argued the referendum and it has given the British nationalist/unionist parties the mandate to act as ethnic nationalists).

When people voted Conservative in this month’s general election, this exclusive understanding of nationalism is what they were voting for.

Ethnic nationalism invariably leads to chauvinism (I think that in theory it doesn’t necessarily do so, but in practice it always does), and in my view, is to be utterly condemned.  Westminster’s espousal of ethnic nationalism despite the good example of broad engagement set in the Scottish referendum affirms my view that Scotland and Westminster are still moving ever further apart, and this in turn encourages me – and no doubt others – to work harder towards the day when Scotland becomes independent and engages all those who live here and contribute to the country in whatever form.  I want a truly broad and inclusive body politic of all who live here, not one that excludes people on the basis of their birth and parentage.  We are clearly not getting that from Westminster.


9 thoughts on “British ethnic nationalism – an ugly exclusiveness that encourages Scottish independence

  1. No: petty little Englander yes, looking after establishment interests definitely, but not ethnic nationalist. There is an element of ethnic nationalism in public discourse in England, probably quite a lot more than in Scotland, but this decision isn’t a decision about making sure all the voters are white people descended from King Alfred or whatever, or not diluting the gene pool. I’ve lived in countries that have ethnic nationalists in positions of power, and that is very scary. This is something different – probably some politicians and civil servants trying to find a way forward that is more likely to be accepted by chauvinists to cause them less problems when they win the referendum and the UK stays in the European Union.


    • I too have experienced more extreme forms of ethnic nationalism, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in the UK.

      And I don’t think many Scottish politicians, with their clear and oft-repeated commitment to civic nationalism, would resort to ethnic nationalism for pragmatic/party political reasons as you suggest here.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t remember any senior British politician, apart from those in far right parties, resorting to invoking ethnic nationalism in England or Scotland since Enoch Powell in the 1960s and 1970s. In Northern Ireland it may be different. Even Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” wasn’t about ethnicity. I agree with raising the problem of petty bigotry and chauvinism in the English polity, but I just don’t think it’s helpful to call it ethnic nationalism.


    • If you read my piece from the referendum that I link to above (and follow the links there to the various sites), you’ll see that I argue that the basis of the British nationalist/unionist case for voting No was rooted in ethnic nationalism.

      I see the desire to exclude non-British passport holders from the EU referendum as having a similar basis.

      We may not find agreement here.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It is not reasonable to suggest that British citizens living abroad have a less substantial interest in this matter. For many British people living in other EU countries a no vote may remove their right to continue living there!


    • Yes, that’s a valid point, though since many of them have chosen not to live here and contribute to the life in these islands in the way that those who are here do, it might be incumbent upon them to seek passports from their new countries of residence.


  4. Nope. This is not what I voted for when I voted conservative this month. This is just one PART of their plans. I won’t change my entire vote in favour of a sensible government based on one particular segment in their manifesto, it ridiculous to suggest so. The Conservative party are a wise and calculated choice for government in this country, which is why more people voted for the conservatives than any other party in this election.


    • If you voted Tory for whatever reason, you voted for their manifesto, and that means for their racism, their xenophobia, their anti-environmentalism, their attacks on the poor, their pro-militarism and so on. It’s a package – that’s the point behind a manifesto. Voters don’t get to choose some parts of it and not others: “oh, I don’t like the policies on p7…”


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