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What is the attitude of Scotland’s migrant community towards independence?

Many of Scotland's newest residents feel every bit as Scottish as any born-and-bred Highlander. What's less certain is whether that's how the Highlander sees it.

By David Graves

One of Poland’s leading social media networks may seem an unlikely battleground in the Scottish independence debate. Yet as activists seek to convince Scotland’s Polish community to vote Tak or Nie on 18 September, Nasza Klasa – Poland’s answer to Facebook with its 13m users – has become just that.

Roughly 7 per cent of Scotland’s population were born abroad, around 370,000 people. With all EU citizens resident in Scotland – as well as those born in qualifying Commonwealth countries – eligible to vote, the foreign born population is a clear target group for both sides of the campaign.

Numbering more than 50,000, the Poles are the single largest group of migrants in the country. “Every single person is important, it doesn’t matter about their nationality or their background. We need to win the referendum by just one vote, so yeah the Polish vote will make a huge difference,” says Maciej Wiczynski, founder of Poles for an Independent Scotland.

As well as running pro-Yes pages on both Nasza Klasa and Facebook, care worker Maciej has spent much of the last year out canvassing and organising meetings – Polish bakeries and churches transformed into makeshift debating chambers play host to prominent politicians. When canvassers come across a house where the occupant doesn’t speak English, campaign literature translated by Maciej is distributed instead.

Experience of political upheaval in their homeland colours many Eastern European migrant’s perspective on the current debate. The fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a series of national separations and these historical antecedents inform attitudes today. The lack of consensus as to how well many of these separations worked out, even decades on, offers little hope to those who believe the coming referendum will resolve the Scottish question for good.

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Take for example Vladimir Prochazka, a Slovakian physicist based at the University of Edinburgh. Witnessing the effects of Czechoslovakia’s break-up first hand has set him firmly against the idea of independence. “So we split up in two, and I can tell you that it’s not good for, usually not good for one of them, which is the smaller one, because then the smaller one has to create the new government, new army, new infrastructure. Everything, from more or less scratch,” he says.

“And that costs money. Also there is a lot of. . . there is a lot of disorder when things like that happen. It’s not going to contribute very positively,” he concludes.

From the other side of that separation comes a very different point of view. Tamara Stupalova grew up in the Czech Republic: “So it was really Slovakia wanting to split despite the fact that Slovakia is smaller and a little economically less well off, but I guess that’s where the nationalist spirit played out more of a role.”

Asked if Slovakia’s experience offers a cautionary tale for those tempted to vote Yes, she says: “I don’t think that’s necessarily true, I think small nations can do equally well, that sometimes they can do even better. I think in terms of Scotland, disconnecting from Westminster could be a lot better.”

Tamara now lives in Edinburgh’s leafy Marchmont neighbourhood. With its dense student population, trendy coffee shops and bicycle co-operatives, the prevalence of Yes sentiment in the area is unsurprising. The flat windows down Marchmont Road boast 10 Yes posters to two No.

Whether it’s Tamara’s experience from home or her experience in Scotland that has informed her opinion is impossible to say, but she clearly feels she has a stake in the decision. “I’ve lived here for a while so I definitely have an opinion, and I think I’ve been able to connect with the issues that are relevant to Scotland,” she says.

For Maciej, the transformation of Poland within his lifetime offers a taste of the success that he believes Scotland would enjoy if it were to embrace independence: “I was only six or seven years old when the communist regime fell apart. When there was a transitional system in Poland in the beginning of the 90s we were politically and financially bankrupt. We didn’t have a few percent of inflation, we had hyper-inflation of hundreds of percent.

“25 years later, look where we are. Scotland won’t get that because Scotland’s a fully developed country, has got all the necessary tools to run it’s own affairs. Not only has its own resources [and is] rich with talented people, but also all the necessary infrastructure,” he says.

According to Professor John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University, despite Yes Scotland’s proactive campaign, neither side has yet made decisive ground persuading Scotland’s migrant community. “Their [the migrant community’s] views are pretty much similar to those of all of Scotland as a whole, and so they are probably unlikely to tilt the balance because they will divide in roughly the same proportions,” he says.

But beyond the obvious desire to secure as many votes as possible, the nationalist campaign may also be seeking a symbolic victory when targeting migrant voters – to dispel any notion the movement is based on the so-called Braveheart mentality, burdened by the insidious tendencies frequently associated with nationalism.

Professor Curtice says: “If you move on very slightly from migration to ethnic origin. . . we certainly know that the SNP do reasonably well on the south side of Glasgow which is where the ethnic population is concentrated. And, yes, the SNP of course espouse a civic nationalism and are always very, very keen to argue that people who live in Scotland and are committed to Scotland have the right to regard themselves as Scottish and to be regarded as Scottish.”

This is a struggle the SNP have essentially won. None of the migrants I spoke to felt the independence movement has been spurred on by xenophobia. Indeed, mentioning the SNP name in the same breath as Nazism is enough to lose one’s job, as one Labour candidate in Angus recently discovered following a poorly judged tweet. But to those who haven’t grown up familiar with the SNP and their policies, this is not necessarily obvious.

“When I heard the word ‘national’, I was thinking about the British National Party just like that, or about the Polish national movement, which is also quite bad. And I was wrong, I was too lazy to open the manifesto,” says Maciej.

Dr Ima Jackson, an expert in migration policy at Glasgow Caledonian Univeristy, says that while such concerns are understandable, the Scottish government’s actions don’t suggest this is the case: “I guess that’s kind of the fear with these sort of nationalist driven campaigns, that there is that element within it. As far as I can say, policy wise, politically and socially, Scotland has been more progressive than anywhere I know of.”

However she adds that Scotland’s tolerance towards migrants has so far gone largely gone untested given the relatively small foreign born population. “I think we’re too young, to be honest, in [terms of] migration. [Scotland] has a long, long emigration history, and a really, really young immigration history, and I don’t think we yet know how it really is.”

Despite this note of uncertainty, of far more concern to most migrant voters is the growing Euro-scepticism south of the border. Dr Jackson says that the Better Together campaign is often seen as being synonymous with a Westminster status quo that is frequently hostile towards immigrants. The perception could prove problematic when trying to persuade migrants to stick with the UK.

On the other hand, the confusion over what independence would mean for migrants – often borne out of uncertainty regarding Scotland’s place in the EU – can be readily seen on the various online forums for migrant communities, where the issue is being hotly contested.

The European movement is certainly close to Maciej’s heart – in Poland he worked for an MEP and campaigned for EU accession. He is adamant that Cameron will not be able to renegotiate the UK’s terms of membership, and firmly believes an independent Scotland’s future in Europe is more secure than the UK’s. The tone of debate, he says, is clearly having an influence on fellow migrants.

“I know people who used to live in Scotland, Polish people, they moved down south because of the better weather, and they really really regret that. They said it’s much more difficult for them over there,” he says.

Until relatively recently the Polish community were not particularly engaged with the debate, says Maciej, concerned instead with the practicalities of becoming established in a new country such as getting a job and securing finances. But after 10 years of residence things have started to change, and despite the undeniable importance of the European question for migrants, the issues that will decide their vote are on the whole the same as for everyone else..

“Our children are born here, we have to take them to school, to the nursery, so if you want it or not, you have to engage with the society. And the truth is that we are an integral part of the tissue of Scottish society.”

One of the most telling moments with Maciej comes when he trips over his words, before correcting himself: “You have already got your parliament . . . Why am I saying you? It’s my country as well. We already have our parliament and our government, we just don’t have the full powers to transform Scotland.”

Whether the migrant vote goes mainly to Yes, No or – as Professor Curtice predicts – splits down the middle, one thing is clear: the SNP has already won the battle to persuade many of Scotland’s newest residents they are every bit as Scottish as any born-and-bred Highlander. What’s less certain perhaps is whether that’s how the Highlander sees it.

David Graves is a freelance journalist currently studying for his Masters in Multimedia Journalism at Glasgow Caledonian University

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