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Immigrant vote could sway tight Scottish independence referendum

Complex, overlapping identities shape the independence ballot choice of some foreign-born voters in Scotland

GLASGOW, Scotland — With polls suggesting a neck-and-neck race as Scotland heads toward a Sept. 18 referendum on independence from Britain, the ballot slips of people of non-Scottish origin could prove decisive. And opinion seems divided among those roughly 880,000 who on census forms identify themselves as other than white Scottish.

Mohamed Asif, 43, a Welsh-born British citizen of Pakistani descent who lives in Glasgow, said he would be among those voting no to a break from the United Kingdom.

“I like to be Scottish but part of the U.K. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that,” he said, taking time out from his job as a grocer.

The referendum that Asif — with an estimated 4.5 million other Scots who intend to vote — will be taking part in asks for a simple yes or no whether the country should go it alone.

But ending the 300-year union with England would have profound economic and political consequences: It would alter the balance of Parliament in London, stripping the House of Commons of 59 seats — 40 of which are held by the Labour Party, while only one is held by the ruling Conservative Party. Labour supporters in England fear that the loss of Scotland’s seats could cement Tory rule in London.

Uncertainty over what currency a newly independent Scotland would use and what percentage of national debt it would assume has already spooked financial markets, with the pound slumping to a 10-month low on news of a surge in predicted yes votes.

While all this weighs on the result of a binary choice on the ballot, the decision will be made by a Scottish population that has grown more diverse than ever.

The 2011 census allowed people to report multiple identities, including English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, British and other. It also inquired about ethnicity. The survey revealed that 84 percent identified as white Scottish. The remaining sixth was a diverse mix of other ethnicities that has increased by one-third in the past decade.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, being born in Scotland makes people feel Scottish; 94 percent of respondents born in the country reported identifying with a Scottish nationality, according to new research by the Center on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CDE).

Groups with more-established roots in Scotland are more likely to choose Scottish as a national identity. For example, 49 percent of Pakistani Scots identify with the country, but recently arrived Polish residents mostly identify with a non-U.K. identity. But ideas on what it means to be Scottish vary widely. Issues of economic stability and social equality, self-determination, immigration reform, family ties and more make up the mosaic of concerns driving the debate over Scottish independence.  

How people perceive Scottishness — distinct from Britishness — could prove crucial as the country goes to vote. Snapshot surveys previously showed the no camp with a strong lead, but the gap has narrowed as the vote draws closer. This week, for the first time, the yes side had a narrow lead in at least one poll.

Although the CDE research cannot predict how immigrant communities will vote, it showed, for example, that Scotland’s Pakistani immigrants were almost twice as likely to identify as Scottish as England’s Pakistani immigrants were to identify as English.

Andrew Smith, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Glasgow and a co-author of the study, said that Scottishness appeared “more inclusive” than the English identity for many ethnic groups. Minorities, he said, “increasingly view Englishness as a white-only identity,” while immigrants living in Scotland feel the country’s identity is more inclusive. “Almost all minority groups are more likely to claim a Scottish identity in Scotland than an English identity in England,” he said.

An independent Scotland would pursue a more open immigration policy than the U.K. currently does, according to a Scottish government white paper. It would offer extra visas to thousands of students and migrant workers to offset the effects of a rapidly aging population. It would establish a “humane” asylum policy different from what it calls Westminster’s “aggressive approach to immigration, asylum seekers and refugees, culminating in the recent controversy over advertisements to tell people to leave the U.K. and ‘go home.’”

Aamer Anwar, a prominent human rights lawyer and spokesman of Scots Asians for Yes to an Independent Scotland, said that what he perceived as the U.K.’s failing foreign policy in the Middle East and the connections he drew with a climate of hostility in the aftermath of Sept. 11 against his community compelled him to favor a vote for independence.

“There is a need for a different approach,” he said. “We want a just nation.” 

“Our community is four times as likely to suffer from discrimination,” he added. “You’re a Muslim, ‘a black bastard,’ and I’m not ready to take that anymore.”

In Glasgow, as customers lined up to transfer money to India in his shop, Abdul Shakoor, 44, who moved to the U.K. from Pakistan more than 20 years ago, said the outcome of the vote realistically wouldn’t matter much. 

“You have to accept the truth. They’ll always call you Pakistani first.”

Even if there’s comparatively stronger immigrant identification with Scotland than there is farther south with England, that doesn’t necessarily translate into votes for independence, Smith cautioned. In the Scottish Pakistani community, for example, 31 percent reported feeling just Scottish, while 34 percent said they were British only, he added, perhaps as a result of the emphasis on Britishness in citizenship procedures.

“Britishness may be a more inclusive identity for anyone,” he said.

For one of Scotland’s largest immigrant communities — South Asians, who have historically been more likely to figure among Scotland’s middle class compared with more recent immigrant groups — factors other than nationalist sentiment come into play.

Azhar Chaudry, 61, a shop owner of Pakistani origin in Glasgow’s university district, said Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s vague currency plans worried him, voicing a popular concern among his colleagues.

“It’s not the right time. We don’t have the resources,” Chaudry said. “They’re asking us to follow them into the darkness. And then maybe they’ll show us a torch. Don’t put your children’s fates at risk.”

The question of whether Scotland would be allowed to enter the European Union if it became independent worries many. Exclusion from the EU would deprive Scotland of favorable trade terms on nearly half its exports. More than 160,000 EU citizens might see their work permits hampered. Scottish residents wishing to visit the U.K. might run into border controls if a more liberal immigration policy in Scotland is pursued, some fear.

Experts disagree on whether Scotland would have to apply for EU membership through the standard accession provision, which would place the country in a queue behind Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia.

Anwar, who said he will vote yes, dismissed some of these fears, pointing at what he called the “irony” of Scotland’s potentially having a better chance of belonging to a unified Europe than if it remains part of the U.K., since Euroskeptics — those who are against the U.K.’s membership in the European Union — continue to grow in influence in London. 

Chaudry, who said he will vote no, believes Scottish independence is an unnecessary distraction from a sense of European identity that already has the capacity to unify all British citizens. He pointed at a group of seven trees on a green patch of land opposite his store, their branches intertwining so it wasn’t possible to distinguish one tree from another.

“They lost their identity. They look beautiful,” he said. “I would like the whole world to be like this, but unfortunately there are so many political differences.”

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