Democratic participation and a Scotland for All: A Migrant’s View

The countdown is on and the people of Scotland have been invited to join in the making of the new Scottish nation. Whatever the outcome of the referendum consultation – independence, ‘devo-max’ or any other solution – this is a time to test the political will of a people whose heritage over centuries has included great thinkers, innovators, scientists, businessmen, statesmen and citizens. Will the population use their unqualified right to participate, to add to an informed debate, but avoid the pitfalls of emotional rhetoric; and so doing, to shape their destiny?


By Pat Elsmie

Pat Elsmie is a migrant who has lived in Scotland for the greater part of 25 years. She has been active in the voluntary sector in many different capacities, particularly in black and minority ethnic communities’ welfare, mental health, equality and rights. She is founding Director and current Chair of Migrants’ Rights Scotland.

The Scottish National Party-led Government has devised a schedule incorporating the referendum in the buildup to the next national elections in 2016, likely to be the first under the new, sanctioned nation State. All pretty clear. But given the range of ‘stakeholders’ and the level of civic society formation and engagement with political processes, not to mention that of individual citizens, time is tight to establish the fullest ‘voice’ at a critical moment in history.

(CC)Image:Bob the Lomond/Flickr

For many reasons, the voice of migrant and immigrant communities in Scottish life has been hesitant and intermittent to this day; notions of ‘keeping head under parapet’ and staying low to avoid negative interaction abound. That is not to say minorities do not want to engage with or join in community life because they do – in churches, schools, workplaces, neighbourhoods, groups, community events – by their attendance, work ethic, voluntary efforts, contributions of music, dance, refreshments, prizes, and more.

However, it doesn’t take much – the odd comment, look or physical action – to make minority people head for cover, within their own four walls or communities. Others may be critical and call this “isolating themselves or keeping apart, not joining the mainstream”. It is a fine paradox then that keeping low or trying to be invisible does keep migrants/immigrants hidden or unseen, unacknowledged by the majority, when they are highly visible or distinctly audible in their difference.

The irony is: the very same migrants/immigrants long to share in local life, to be accepted, to Belong. But belonging is a two-way experience and when difference is the issue, the barriers between ‘them’ and ‘us’ are made up of complex vulnerabilities or sensitivities that seem to just reinforce the original defence mechanism. A further irony is that for all our human intransigencies, these barriers can be managed between adults, using respectful but frank, open conversation; nota bene, communication being another two-way process of course!

I expect this is the kind of communication that the Scottish Government had in mind for its 2007-9 National Conversation. Significant numbers did join in but I am aware there are still many grassroots minority groups and individuals (perhaps even mainstream Scots) who are not aware it happened; at best, many who only observed. As a political exercise, the Conversation succeeded in demonstrating the will of governing leaders to engage with their constituents. But to this migrant, it felt an uneven meeting of minds, of power and of opportunity, like meeting with a rich, benevolent aunt who’s come for tea (literally) asking the merest of polite questions including how wee Fiona or little Mei-leng is doing at school. I do believe though the clock can’t be reversed and as events have unfolded, there is increasing openness and confidence in minority citizens, plus awareness that their voices might count (breaths held) after all.

So further to my earlier question, migrant and immigrant communities do have the “unqualified right to participate, to add to an informed debate”. As we head down the road to Elections 2016, we must seize this chance of a lifetime to venture above the parapet and have the courage to be seen and to see… around us, the life Scotland offers us, how Scottish society affects us, even bypasses us or misrepresents our needs, our lives, our rights.  While the rest of Scotland also rises to the challenge to “shape our destiny”, so must we.  Not just our Elders, community or voluntary sector leaders. Each individual, each family is unique: all our experiences, our views are valid to share and to add to the whole, for the good of All.

And if we focus on “the good of All”, we might find the space for accommodating all.

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Over the next months, Migrants’ Rights Scotland will host a series of thoughtful blogs to raise knowledge and stimulate discussion on the role of migrants and immigrants in Scotland’s future.  You can join in online, send in a blog for the website or participate in Roundtables.  Check this website regularly for updates and events. Or contact info[at] with your views and blogs.