Why are Celtic nationalists pro-immigration?

22 Feb 2014

I have been bemused for some time by the fact that the Celtic nationalist parties of the British Isles – the SNP, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru and Mebyon Kernow – are not opposed to immigration. In fact they are positively in favour of it. For instance, Sinn Fein’s manifesto for the 2010 Westminster elections states ‘Immigrants and new Irish communities are increasing the diversity of our society. This is something to be celebrated and embraced’. Similar remarks are to be found in Plaid Cymru’s 2010 manifesto, and in the SNP’s referendum document ‘Scotland’s Future’...


There are many reasons why this state of affairs is baffling. Most basically, such views on this issue are at odds with those of almost every other European nationalist party. English nationalists, French nationalists, Hungarian nationalists and so on are clearly and stridently opposed to immigration, so much so that the idea of a pro-immigration nationalist seems like a contradiction in terms. 

In deed I believe that it is a contradiction in terms. The principle that defines nationalism is that of self-determination: that each nation should organise itself, advance its interests and defend itself through the vehicle of a sovereign state. In turn, the nation – the Armenian nation, the Basque nation – is an ethnic or ethno-religious group. Ethnicity – or race - is an essential component of what it means to be a nation. For some this is an uncomfortable and inconvenient truth. That it is a truth is confirmed in intuition by how mistaken it sounds for someone to describe a multi-national-state, such as America or South Africa, as a nation-state. Whilst such states meld their groups together more or less successfully with a flag, reverence for a constitution, and even a widely shared popular culture, there remain more basic and primordial divisions between the inhabitants. South Africa is not a nation-state, but a multi-national-state: to define South African’s as a unitary national group would be to obscure that states real internal diversity. The same truth is made manifest by the fact that most Americans are unsatisfied with being American simpliciter,they qualify and hyphenate themselves as Italian-American or Jewish-American. A Korean or a Lithuanian does not encounter this need. One can observe also that on this understanding the United Kingdom is not a nation-state. Rather it is a union of three crowns and six nations: the Cornish, the English, the Welsh, the Scots, the Ulster-Scots and – albeit unwillingly – the Irish inhabitants of the six counties. The term ‘British’ is an uneasy and gently disintegrating umbrella term for both these groups and more recent immigrants. Long enduring but artificial, ‘British’ may begin to go the way of ‘Yugoslav’ before this year is through.

With this in mind, it appears absolutely contradictory to the principle of nationalism to be in favour of immigration. The self-government of the Welsh people in Wales would be clearly undermined by the existence of a large non-Welsh population in Wales. It would change self-government for Wales from a ‘government of the Welsh, by the Welsh and for the Welsh’ to ‘government of the merely geographical entity ‘Wales’ by whoever happens to reside therein’. If Plaid Cymru do not wish the people of Wales to exercise self-government as part of a larger entity, the United Kingdom, in collaboration with the people of England, Scotland, Cornwall and Northern Ireland, then why are they so sanguine about the prospect of exercising self-government with Nigerians, Poles and Indians?  If they are so vehemently opposed to wealthy English people buying second homes in coastal villages, thereby pushing the Welsh out, why are they not similarly opposed to immigrants buying first homes in urban areas, thereby pushing the Welsh out?

In addition to this general contradiction, the Celtic nationalists of the British Isles have more particular reasons to be against immigration. Cornwall, Ireland (in both its jurisdictions) and Wales – though not Scotland – have higher levels of poverty and unemployment than England. There is no economic case for immigration to those places, as they already have a large surplus of labour. Further, an influx of immigrants would be contrary to the stated aim of all these nationalist parties of protecting their indigenous languages and cultural traditions. An immigrant to Gwynned will in all likelihood have little interest in learning the Welsh language or participating in Welsh culture – and that is true whether they’re from Libya or Lincolnshire. 

Though this topic remains a conundrum to me, I think there are two factors that can begin to account for the strangeness of the Celtic nationalist stance on this issue. First, it may be simply a hangover from the Cold War era and its discourse of internationalism. Through the 60s and 70s newly independent African states were led by nationalist governments, often of a left-wing complexion friendly to the Soviet Union. For the leaders of these new countries, the struggle for independence from colonial powers was also – rhetorically at least – part of an international struggle against capitalism. So these newly independent states were not isolationist, but rather they were open to the idea of international solidarity and socialism, economic collaboration, cultural exchange and so forth with the Soviet Union, China, and other socialist states. In the instance of Sinn Fein it is undoubtedly the case that they, as a party already committed to socialism, adopted this anti-Colonial rhetoric and its internationalist implications – as is evidenced on the Falls Road by murals celebrating Hugo Chavez, Cuba, and the cause of Palestine. Northern Ireland was, to Sinn Fein, a place under military-colonial rule, analogous to Britain’s Southern Rhodesia or South Africa’s Namibia. To a lesser extent I think a similar explanation applies to the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Mebyon Kernow. Positioning oneself as the rebel, the freedom fighter, the David against Goliath, lends itself to a spirit of openness and internationalism rather than insularity. Interestingly, Mebyon Kernow follows Gerry Adams on twitter. The SNP and Plaid Cymru do not, though I suspect that is only from a cautious sense of political-hygiene rather than lack of sympathy with the Irish nationalist cause.

The second factor to mention, which accounts for the continuance of this internationalist discourse despite the decline of the geo-political situation that gave rise to it, is the comparatively low levels of immigration to the Celtic nations in question. The nationalist parties have not yet had to reassess their rhetoric. For all of them, questions of immigration are not centre-stage on the political agenda -when I asked Mebyon Kernow via twitter whether they were pro- or anti-immigration, the response I got was a rather unsure ‘Pro, I believe’. It may be that as levels of immigration to their countries increase, they will become less pro-immigration. As the unpleasant realities of mass immigration for their, often working class, constituents grow, and as the retarding effects it will have on their campaigns for national self-government become apparent, they may abandon their idealistic and antiquated stances.

One small, and highly speculative, sign that I may be correct in this prediction is to be found in the SNP’s ‘Scotland’s Future’ document. It makes the complaint, in line with their pro-immigration stance, that ‘Westminster has also adopted an aggressive approach to immigration, asylum seekers and refugees’. It then makes the rather curious remark that ‘The Westminster government’s policy for the whole of the UK is heavily influenced by conditions in the south east of England’. What could this possibly mean? It cannot be a suggestion that Westminster is now restricting immigration because of a supposed deleterious economic effect on that part of the UK. As bad as immigration is for the common man – with whom the Tory party has nothing to do - south east England’s economy continues to boom on the backs of low-wage immigrant workers. If the Westminster government were taking its prompt from economic conditions in the south east of England alone, it would be increasing immigration. Could this remark instead be a reference to the uneasy socio-political situation that has arisen in the hyper-diverse south east, the rise of ethnic segregation, dis-eases of identity, and the flight of the English from the capital? Perhaps. I hope the SNP and the other Celtic nationalist parties will pursue that thought, and meditate on England’s uncomfortable situation. I hope they will see the egregious error of England’s immigration policy, and that, if the SNP is victorious in this years’ independence referendum, it will not lightly fritter away Scotland’s hard gained and distinctively national sovereignty.

By Marcus Hunt

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