Borders, ‘Foreigners’ and Wild Stereotypes

Image by Phoonam Whabi Design Action Collective

For many years I campaigned with the direct action group No Borders. We stood in opposition to the racist and often brutal system of deportation and detention in the UK and beyond, and worked to support all migrants and refugees. No Borders is exactly what it says on the tin – they believe in the freedom of movement for all, regardless of flags and national boundaries. 

It is a position I still hold. I also have come to support Scottish independence. I was never, obviously, one for flags and historical grievances, and talk of some unique ‘Scottishness’ makes me wary. But as the debate grew I began to see that independence would create the possibility (not the certainty) of achieving some of the things I believe in. The status quo does not offer these possibilities.

The yes movement has grown into something quite extraordinary – the breadth and diversity of groups is significant. On the No side, grassroots activism is rather lacking, so they have to buy it. You can imagine the surprise of the real No Borders activist when the no campaign rolled out ‘Vote No Borders’, a supposedly grassroots group making the ‘ordinary person’s’ case for the Union.

This was greeted with unconstrained glee by the BBC and others, and we were treated to endless footage of some lasses singing a rather schmaltzy ballad and enthusing about the strength of the UK. BBC coverage in particular was completely uncritical – but thankfully there’s some pretty sharp online journalism going on in the #indyref debate, and it was quickly pointed out that this ‘grassroots’ campaign was being run from London, by a Tory donor, starting out on an initial budget of £140,000 – since put to good use producing depressing video clips in which people talk about how feart they are about the risks of independence, of losing pensions and going back to a stone-age economy if King Alex gets his way. I don’t doubt the sincerity of these people. I feel for them, because I think they’ve been misled. Pensions, healthcare and stability are all at great risk in austerity-driven UK, with no indication of a change in tack any time soon. Things reached a new low when one of Vote No Borders’ cinema adverts claimed that Scottish parents seeking treatment for their sick children at Great Ormond Street Hospital would have to ‘join the long line of foreigners’. This was immediately refuted by Great Ormond Street and the advert was pulled.

Anyway. Beyond the questions of Vote No Border’s dubious grassroots credentials and gloomy message, there’s the rather glaring issue of their name. Unlike the real No Borders, they only object to one border – Scotland’s. The UK’s border, with its harsh and punitive controls, is not a problem for them.

You hear this argument a lot from unionist commentators. Scottish nationalism is their ideal bogeyman – the terrible “separatists” with their saltires and border posts, trying to split apart our harmonious Great Britain. The fact that this wild stereotype does not remotely reflect reality does not seem to bother them.

Even more frustrating, perhaps, is that while that nationalism is being decried and words like ‘balkanisation’ and ‘ethnic tension’ thrown around, the British nationalism that underlies their arguments is barely ever mentioned. But it’s always there. It’s a particularly common, but hypocritical, position found in left-wing arguments against independence. The strange claim is made that devolving power fully to the Scottish people would somehow prevent solidarity and collective action between the working people of each country. But this never seems to be followed up with a call to dissolve the UK’s borders in pursuit of greater solidarity with European workers. No, the British state & British border is fine – it’s just the Scottish one that’s such a threat. This is not logical.

Why on earth can’t solidarity cross borders? Is collective action immediately impossible if some people have their own government? Has the great ‘solidarity’ of the UK left been achieving much of late? National Collective point out that ‘It is not enough to suffer together. If a No vote is a vote for being ‘better together’ then we must know how we can be better.’ And that just isn’t on the cards.

Another recurring aspect of the argument against independence is that it abandons English voters to Tory rule forever. A fearful prospect indeed. But this ignores the fact that the relatively tiny (9%) Scottish electorate have only affected a UK General Election outcome twice in recent decades. George Eaton states unequivocally that ‘on no occasion since 1945 would independence have changed the identity of the winning party and on only two occasions would it have converted a Labour majority into a hung parliament’.

In the end, it comes down to the principle of self-determination. The broad aspirations in the yes movement are for Scotland to become a progressive, inclusive, outward-looking nation. No one is proposing that we build a wall (apart from Ed Miliband, in a bizarre piece of scaremongering last month). I have heard from family members in England and in Scotland that we mustn’t become foreigners, mustn’t split the nation apart. Are the Irish foreigners? No, they are our neighbours. We share history, music and culture as well as trade, and political independence doesn’t change that. The social union remains; Scotland and the rest of the UK are very closely bound together and that will not change with us having our own government.

Geographically, whatever the vote, no one’s going anywhere! Geographically, the British Isles remains just that. But it’s little wonder that otherwise sensible people come out with this foreigner stuff when it’s repeated ad nausem by all mainstream news outlets and major political parties. If we do win this referendum, it will be despite one of the biggest and most relentless campaigns of misinformation we’ve ever seen.


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