Why do Ed Miliband, Tony Benn and George Galloway appear to have a problem with foreigners?

No, really, that’s how it seems.

For instance, read these words from Tony Benn, the great elder statesman of the Labour Party, this summer:

“If Scotland wants to be independent they have the absolute right to do so. But I think nationalism is a mistake. And I am half Scots and feel it would divide me in half with a knife.

“The thought that my mother would suddenly be a foreigner would upset me very much.”

When asked about Benn’s views in a recent Holyrood magazine interview, Labour leader Ed Miliband had this to say:

I am not the only person with family ties abroad and family is family, whatever the accent or postcode. But the Scottish people with family in England, or vice versa, will be living in a foreign country if Alex Salmond gets his way, that’s just a fact. We live in an increasingly interconnected world; we shouldn’t be building artificial barriers, we should be working out how to work more closely together.

And while I am struggling to find a written source, I remember seeing George Galloway in a television interview a few months ago, in which he was discussing the issue of Scottish independence with Yes Scotland chair Dennis Canavan. Galloway strongly opposes independence and talked of the concept of solidarity between working class people, which Scottish independence would damage. He felt just the same solidarity, he said, with bus drivers in Glasgow, Bradford and Belfast (there might have been other cities in his list, I can’t quite recall, but they were certainly all within the UK).

To which the obvious answer is what about bus drivers in Dublin, Oslo, Marseilles, Toronto or Lagos? Or indeed any other bus driver around the world. Does George Galloway not have the same sense of solidarity with them? Clearly not, if he feels that Scottish independence is somehow contrary to his solidarity with bus drivers either side of the border. If Scottish bus drivers somehow becoming citizens of a different country to bus drivers in his own Bradford constituency has any relevance to his ability to be in solidarity with them, you have to wonder about the nature of his socialism and his solidarity.

The same is true of the faintly sinister undertones in the above quotes from Benn and Miliband: that they regard family members becoming “foreigners” as something qualitatively worse than them not being foreigners. One of two things, then, is true: first, that they would find it hard to be as close to a “foreigner” as they would a fellow citizen, or they would reserve such a distinction only to Scottish people. Either way, there is more than a whiff of xenophobia.

Do I believe that Tony Benn, Ed Miliband or George Galloway are racist? Of course not. Given they are socialists and humanitarians (of varying shades), and that two of the three have strong Scottish connections, I am sure that their concerns about Scots becoming foreigners is not borne out of a distrust of foreigners but from a misguided adherence to the traditional Labour opposition to independence. But the thing is, it certainly sounds like racism. And that’s what makes their words all the more curious.

The solidarity of nations

I have family in Spain and Canada, for example. Are they “foreign” to me? Well, I suppose in a purely abstract, technical and administrative sense, yes they are. But it’s not a word I’d really use to describe them, because they’re… well, family. I might be a long way from them, but our distance is geographical, not national. I can – from a bureaucratic point of view – visit them very easily. And even if I couldn’t, they’d still be family.

How about people in other neighbouring countries? Do I regard the people of the Republic of Ireland as foreign? Again, on a very technical level, yes I suppose they are. They live in a different sovereign country from me, they hold a different passport to mine, and are subject to different laws and a different government to me. Do I think any worse of them as a result? If I describe them as “foreigners” do I do so in a derogatory or pejorative way? Is it a problem to me that they are in a different country? Am I less able as an individual to be friends or business partners with them? No of course not – there are cultural, linguistic, economic and historic links between Scotland and Ireland as long as the longest arm in the world, and the UK and Ireland are great allies bilaterally, in the European Union, and in many other arenas.

Take another example: Norway. Just over the water from Scotland, with strong historical ties, but a different language. Are they foreigners? Well, yes. But they’re lovely people and great neighbours.

How about the people of the USA, then, or Brazil, or Nigeria, or Burundi, or Laos, or Malta, or… well, I’m not going to name all the countries in the world. Look them up for yourself. They’re all foreigners. Is that a problem to me? No!

All the people of the world are human beings like me, and I have loads in common with them, even though I might occasionally distrust their governments, pity or envy their personal circumstances, or disagree with them on an individual level about the nicest beer or best film. We probably have a huge amount more in common as human beings in our daily travails than what divides us. Recognising and acting on that commonality is when the world is at its best, and when nations end up being friends rather than enemies.

And so why are Benn, Miliband and Galloway in that case implying a distrust of the concept of foreignness? Why is there a pejorative inference in their use of the word “foreign”? If they worry about the people of Scotland becoming foreigners, what does that tell us about how they regard the Irish? The Americans? Australians? The French, or Germans or Spanish or… there I go again, I’m just naming countries at random.

Countries at random, though, which we should not think of as worse for their being “foreign”.

An interconnected world

Let’s accept that the people of Scotland and the rest of the UK will, technically, be foreigners to each other upon independence. We may have different tax systems, different governments, different welfare policies or foreign policies.

But does that give us the right to think any less of each other? No.

Will we still be able to travel to, trade with and live or work in each others’ countries? Yes!

Will family across the border still be family? Yes!

Is this an unusual arrangement? Absolutely not.

There are about two hundred sovereign countries in the world (don’t worry, I’ll not start naming them again). All of them are populated by foreigners. The set up is not new. New countries become independent all the time. Scotland joining that list will be nothing particularly exceptional.

Let’s go back to Ed Miliband’s quote near the top of this article; in particular the last few words:

We live in an increasingly interconnected world; we shouldn’t be building artificial barriers, we should be working out how to work more closely together.

If Ed Miliband thinks that Scottish independence is an artificial barrier to that interconnected world where we all need to work more closely together, then by logical extension he believes that any independence is an artificial barrier. Including that of the UK. But I don’t see Miliband campaigning for a merged Europe or a world government. And rightly so, because that interconnected world works well when countries come together as mutually supportive, respectful partners, and don’t fear each other because they are “foreign”.

If certain unionists in the UK can think of the other six billion people on earth as foreigners without thinking less of them, why can’t they do that about the five million people of Scotland?


Since publishing, this post has been reproduced here by the popular politics blog Wings Over Scotland.

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