Saturday 5 September 2015

The melting pot melts nationalism

One of the things I remember best about living in Cambridge was that it was busy. Sometimes I would watch cars queuing for an hour and more to get into a car park. When I went into London on the train I noticed that we passed villages and towns continually. There hardly seemed to be a gap. I never could quite bear to be in London for more than a few hours. The contrast for someone from rural Aberdeenshire was just too great. When I travel home from Aberdeen now I see emptiness all around me. Villages are relatively rare and separated by miles of fields. Whenever I’ve flown over Scotland and looked down, my immediate impression is that there’s nothing there but mountains. Only as the plane descends can I actually see examples of human habitation.

Why should it be that England is so densely populated, while Scotland is so sparsely populated? There are historical reasons for this. There are geographical reasons. There are reasons to do with climate. The vast majority of Scotland’s population lives along a line that extends from Glasgow to Edinburgh and then up the coast to Aberdeen. If that thin strip were to disappear Scotland would have almost no population at all. We’ve all chosen to live in the parts of Scotland that are most fertile and where there is the most in the way of natural resources. But compared to the world as a whole even the more remote parts of Scotland could sustain far more population than they do.

It is easy to find examples of countries which endure difficult climatic conditions with hugely more population than Scotland. Chad for example has over 12 million people. Israel has over 8 million. If a country made up largely of desert can sustain so many people, then clearly Scotland could. Each little Scottish island could have a large town. With hard work even the most marginal land in the Highlands could be made productive. After all, if they can grow plants in the Negev desert, there’s a hardly anywhere in Scotland that ought to be less productive.

There is an inequality in the UK whereby some people have to live where it is densely populated while others live where almost no-one else lives at all. What could we do to remedy this? We could start by encouraging people to move from those parts of the UK that feel full to those parts of the UK that feel empty. Unfortunately it obviously wouldn’t be easy to get people to move. They are free to do so at the moment and if anything more people tend to want to leave Scotland than arrive.

This is where the UK Government could play an important role. If people from the rest of the UK don’t want to live in Scotland, they could be encouraged. New towns could be built in the Highlands with tax breaks for businesses and people who chose to live there. Communications could be improved and made cheaper. If the UK Government set itself a goal of doubling Scotland’s population, it would both benefit Scotland and England. England would feel less full, while land that is barely used in Scotland would be made productive.  Scotland’s economy would benefit vastly from this new influx of people. An economy is really only the people working in it. Growth happens because these people have ideas, put them into practice and interact with each other.

The SNP have been keen to show that they are in favour of immigration. But why be so half hearted about it? There are millions of people already in the UK who could move almost immediately to Scotland given the right conditions. There is a great inequality in the UK that we have a duty to amend. England is densely populated while Scotland is sparsely populated. Scotland needs people and there is a ready supply of them right on our doorstep.

Let’s imagine if five million people moved to Scotland from other parts of the UK in the next few years. What affects would this have on Scotland? Well where I live in Aberdeenshire, we’ve already had quite a lot of people moving from other parts of Scotland, the UK and the rest of the world. These people have changed the nature of rural Aberdeenshire, from the place I remember from my youth. The Doric language is spoken less frequently, because the majority accent and language in schools is from elsewhere. In general, whereas before the oil came nearly everyone could trace their ancestors to the Vikings, now we are much more mixed and cosmopolitan. Many different accents are heard. It has involved the loss of something that was typically North East, but we have gained also. The benefits in terms of economy and jobs are obvious to anyone who comes here.

Imagine if we could move five million people from England to Scotland. Think of the benefits. We would of course have to adapt somewhat to their culture and attitudes. But we would rapidly find out that people everywhere are more or less the same. People born in England would marry people born in Scotland and soon we’d all be mixed together.

Such a large transfer of population would no doubt also have political effects. The people least likely to vote for independence are people from the other parts of the UK. The reason for this is obvious. Who wants to vote to turn themselves into a foreigner in the land of their birth or rather to turn the land of their birth into a foreign country? There are exceptions to every rule of course. There are English people who turn out to be more Scottish than the Scots. There are English wives who find it easier to agree with their nationalist husbands. There are people on the far left who think that breaking up the UK is a small price to pay if only we can introduce socialism in a part of it. But other things being equal people from the rest of the UK who come to live in Scotland are overwhelmingly liable to vote for the UK to remain together.

But the Scottish nationalists can hardly object to five million people from the rest of the UK coming to live in Scotland. After all if this were to happen the SNP would consider these people to be as Scottish as you or me. Civic nationalism does not allow us care about where someone is from, just where they are now. The downside for the Scottish nationalists of, course, is that if there were such a mass movement from the south it would tend to swamp Scottish nationalism. The most likely people to vote SNP are those who feel themselves to be exclusively Scottish. But as more and more people entered Scotland from the rest of the UK, this feeling of being Scottish and not British would be diluted and in time might cease altogether. Union Jacks might be flown all over the places that have been newly settled. God Save the Queen or King might once more be played even in Glasgow and Dundee. Everyone might stand up.

Here is one of the benefits of us all mixing together in the melting pot. It makes ideas like nationalism seem quaint and from a time when everyone in Scotland could trace their ancestry back to the Culloden or even Bannockburn. It wouldn't be long before those who sang about a "land that is lost now" would realise that it indeed was lost. At this point no doubt they would cease singing.