Migration Experiences, New Scots, and the Limits of Civic Nationalism
Quan Nguyen finds that some wear the label ‘New Scots’ as a badge of honour, but for others it’s less appealing.
Last summer, at the ‘Progress to Yes’ conference in Aberdeen, I visited a workshop where a panellist introduced himself earnestly as a New Scot. A young white man, an EU immigrant from a Nordic nation, so seriously embraced being a new citizen in Scotland that he made it part of his introductory pitch at a conference on independence. I was puzzled. Not because I’ve never heard the word before, but because I’m an immigrant as well and would never describe myself as a New Scot, never mind introducing myself like this to an audience. What was going on in that New Scottish head?
‘New Scots’ is an umbrella term describing people from anywhere outwith Scotland who, for whatever reason, are newly living in Scotland. This includes Irish people, Pakistani people, Polish immigrants, EU citizens and international students, as well as asylum seekers and refugees fleeing poverty, persecution and war. Very different backgrounds are mashed together, from Americans who enjoy discovering their ‘Scottish Heritage’ at Edinburgh Castle to Ukrainian refugees trapped on a cruise ship just a few miles away. ‘New Scot’ is meant to be an inclusive concept, emphasising one key point: that citizenship and nationality are a matter of choice, not birth, blood or land. It links centrally to Scotland’s civic nationalism: a nationalism that bases self-determination not on ethnicity, but on choosing and identifying with Scotland as a national project. Civic nationalism is inherently tied to a universalist political culture that invites everyone to identify with and support it, regardless of their birthplace, skin colour and blood heritage. For Scottish nationalists wanting to assert self-determination against a hostile British state, this is useful, as it provides a sharp contrast to the anti-immigration sentiments deeply embedded into the UK’s obsession with sovereignty that culminated in Brexit’s empty shelves, and its racist border regime that becomes more absurdly inhuman every year. So, no wonder that a progressive participant at a grassroots independence conference describes himself as a New Scot, thereby voicing his commitment to an inclusive Scotland and its political culture as well as his dissent to the British state at the same time.
So, why am I puzzled? My scepticism of self-describing as a New Scot is difficult to grasp. It is partly about what Tom Devine describes in New Scots: Immigrant Communities in Scotland since 1945 as a narrative portraying Scotland as more welcoming to immigrants than it actually is. This ‘belief that Scotland has traditionally been a welcoming country to strangers is in conflict’, Devine says, ‘with some historical realities’ such as widespread anti-Irish sentiment until the 1970s and hostility towards Black and Asian people since then. My scepticism also stems from a discomfort with the construction of a universal experience that all migrants are supposed to share. Like my New Scot acquaintance, I’m an EU immigrant who had to apply for settled status and slowly fell out of love with the UK. But our similarities probably end there, and the reason is not (only) that he is white and I am not, but something personal: I felt like an immigrant before I moved across borders.
My home country, Germany, had similar discussions that saw ‘Neue Deutsche’ (New Germans) being used both by migrants to self-describe, as well as in academic circles to analyse Germany’s migrant populations. Like in Scotland, ‘Neue Deutsche’ is linked to a universalist conception of citizenship defined not by blood or soil, and supports the construction of a civic form of nationalism (Verfassungspatriotismus, or Constitutional Patriotism, most famously defended by philosopher Jürgen Habermas). Unlike Scotland and its need for civic nationalism as a form of resistance against the UK, Germany’s constitutional patriotism rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, which poisoned German culture so deeply that any attempt at a continued German cultural tradition grounding national identification was morally unacceptable. Unlike ‘New Scots’, ‘Neue Deutsche’ is not a concept used by the German state or governing party, but used as a self-description to build solidarity between different migrant experiences that, crucially, includes people who were born in Germany but not to white, ethnically German parents. I might feel differently about ‘New Scots’ as a term if it captured the experience of Black, Asian or Arab people born and raised in Scotland, wrestling with their identity and their sense of belonging to a country that is clearly their home, but at the same time reminds them of every time they have been rejected from Scottishness because of their skin colour, accent, clothing, food or religious practice. This feeling of being torn apart, being othered as a minority within a nation while also belonging to that nation, is something ‘Neue Deutsche’ as a term describes, but ‘New Scot’ does not (yet) capture. But just like New Scots, Neue Deutsche expresses a political commitment to inclusion and progressiveness. As Özlem Topçu, Alice Bota and Khuê Pham, the Turkish, Polish and Vietnamese authors of Wir Neuen Deutschen (We New Germans) write:
People like us, with hybrid identities, embody a new Germany and a new attitude towards the nation. […] They see Germany as a creative and lively nation, with a different perception of Migration. There are no parallel societies, only one society. The word ‘Migration Background’ is removed from vocabulary, as children born to immigrants will just be called Germans. […] We think that sounds like a pretty concrete Utopia. We will not be satisfied with less.
So, if we extend ‘New Scot’ in the same way and reclaim it for ourselves to articulate migrant experiences, our sense of belonging, and a new Scotland that we embody, does this lead us to a concrete Utopia? What are the possibilities of ‘New Scot’ not aiming at superficial inclusion but becoming a radical term that articulates the experience of immigrants and their descendants, their experiences of loss of their own culture, the denial of their old backgrounds, and the widening cultural, linguistic and spiritual gap between immigrants and their children that both generations have to process? Does ‘New Scot’ open up a conversation about this, and the different struggles migrants experience in their journey, in their learning, in their workplace? Or does ‘New Scot’, in its attempt to universalise the migration experience and signal inclusion into a progressive, welcoming Scotland, shut the doors on such topics that are difficult to articulate?
In my scepticism, I lean towards the latter: for now, the term ‘New Scot’ is firmly in the hands of academic researchers, Scottish Government strategists and SNP loyalists, and not in use by migrants and their descendants in Scotland. The term itself points towards an unhealthy drive to include all migrants under one banner, washing over differences in migration experiences when it comes to language, culture, gender and class. It should be obvious that an English immigrant who joins Scotland’s charity industry has a very different experience of migration than a hospitality worker from Poland, a Deliveroo driver from Tunisia, a nail polisher from Vietnam. But ‘New Scot’ encourages us to assume that all of them share something by the nature of their migration, being equally welcomed and included in an open and diverse Scotland, forgetting that different migrants from different backgrounds receive very different levels of welcome even in a comparably welcoming Scotland.
In the end, understanding the shortcomings of ‘New Scot’ is helpful to grasp the limited nature of the civic nationalism to which the concept is tied. Just as Scottish civic nationalism is obviously preferable to ethnic nationalism, ‘New Scot’ is not something to be condemned where it informs an inclusionary strategy that guides the work to welcome refugees done by government and charities like the Scottish Refugee Council. But just as ‘New Scot’ misses out on articulating crucial migrant experiences, civic nationalism in its universalist political culture cannot capture and articulate the vastly different cultural backgrounds of the Scottish nation, and drives us towards an artificial, abstract form of unity that has surprisingly little to say on the struggles both New and Old Scots face across the country.
Devine, T. M. (Ed.). (2018). New Scots: Scotland’s Immigrant Communities since 1945. Edinburgh University Press.
Topçu, Ö., Bota, A., & Pham, K. (2012). Wir neuen Deutschen. Wer wir sind, was wir wollen, Rowohlt, Hamburg.
Quan Nguyen is a philosophy currently teaching at Edinburgh University.