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Multicultural Scotland

Published: 12 October 2020

Ross Bond, University of Edinburgh, examines the demographic structure and history of Scotland, and the attitudes, identities and experiences of its people. 

In my chapter, ‘Multicultural Scotland’, I examine evidence concerning the demographic structure and history of Scotland, and the attitudes, identities and experiences of its people. How are these two bodies of evidence related to each other? And how might they inform, and be informed by elite policies and political discourse?

Focusing firstly on (self-described) ethnicity, data from the 2011 census show that the structure of Scotland’s population in this respect is more similar to Wales than it is England: only around 4% of the population in both Scotland and Wales did not describe themselves as White, compared to nearly 15% in England. Such data might offer us a partial explanation for the absence of racialization of Scottish politics and the generally positive elite political discourse (across parties) which predominates with regard to multicultural diversity and immigration. That is, one might argue that the immigration of ethnically and culturally distinct peoples to Scotland has been marginal compared especially with its larger southern neighbour, England, such that ‘race’ has not been problematized in the political arena.

But in addition to the overall preponderance of minority populations, it is also important to consider their distribution, structure and origins, as well as the broader historical context in which they have developed. Several factors are significant here. First, for much of its pre-21st century history Scotland has been characterised by net emigration, which has made it much more difficult to represent such immigration as has occurred, e.g., as contributing to overpopulation and placing a strain on various public services (as has been the case most obviously in some parts of England). Instead, a strong case may be (and has been) made that immigration is vital for the future social and economic health of Scotland.

Second, and not least when compared to a number of urban areas in England, the character of Scotland’s immigrant and minority population is distinctive. In the large-scale immigration to Britain from the so-called ‘New Commonwealth’ – mainly (former) British colonies in South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean – which took place in the decades following the second world war, differences in economic development and structure meant that Scotland attracted fewer immigrants (and very few indeed from some places, such as the Caribbean). Further, compared with many of England’s large cities, these immigrants were less likely to join a manual working class and more likely to be self-employed.

Third, and related to this historical feature, there is evidence to suggest that contemporary minority populations in Scotland often have a more middle-class character than their counterparts south of the border. Importantly, this means that the coincidence of diversity and disadvantage that has underpinned much racialized political discourse (and related disturbances) in England is much less evident north of the border. To give just one striking example, fewer than one in ten ethnic Pakistanis in Scotland (the nation’s largest non-white group) live in what are defined as the 10% most deprived areas, whereas the comparative figure in England is 30% (rising to around 45% in some regions of the North and Midlands).

Both these demographic factors and the wider political context are likely to influence popular attitudes, identities and experiences among the wider population of Scotland and more specifically among people in minority ethnic groups. Evidence from surveys of social attitudes indicates that attitudes to immigration and ethnic minorities are more positive in Scotland than in most other parts of Britain, but also shows that a substantial minority hold more negative attitudes, and hence the degree of elite consensus in support of multicultural diversity is not matched among the wider population of Scotland. Moreover, reported experiences of racism and discrimination among people in minority ethnic groups in Scotland are consistently evident across recent decades.

However, census and survey data also show that people in these minority groups do identify as Scottish much more readily than their counterparts in England express affinity with an English national identity, albeit that many such people on both sides of the border identify as British. It is also true that wider public attitudes emphasise the importance of birthplace as opposed to ethnic origins when assessing whether those who are (or might be) ‘newcomers’ to the nation should be able to describe themselves as Scottish.

Once more illustrating the likely association with the broader political context, this evidence concerning attitudes and identities is consistent with two key features of the political arena in Scotland. First, the essentially civic and liberal character of nationalism in Scotland, as evinced by the current governing party, the SNP, which stresses the importance of ‘belonging’ rather than ‘blood’. Secondly, and relatedly, the weakness (indeed near absence) of populist, anti-immigration parties of the far-right in Scotland, even when compared to other parts of Britain.

Overall then, to the (somewhat limited) degree that Scotland may be understood as multicultural, this feature of its social and political life is distinct in some respects from other parts of the UK. That this is true may be attributed to Scotland’s demographic structure and the particular migration histories that underpin it, which shape distinctive attitudes and identities. These in turn both inform and are informed by political structures and rhetoric promoting inclusive and welcoming attitudes towards minorities and immigrants to Scotland – although it is equally important to stress that such attitudes are not always evident among the broader population of Scotland, and that many people in minority groups here continue to experience racism and discrimination. This presents an ongoing challenge not least because of the increasing diversity of Scotland’s population (in the 1991 census only a little over 1% of the population did not describe themselves as White), but at the same time there are many aspects of social and political life in Scotland that suggest it is a challenge which can be successfully addressed.

Ross Bond is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. 

'Multicultural Scotland' was published in The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics in August 2020 in the UK and Europe by the Oxford University Press. 

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