Independence thrown onto agenda by audience at #ScotlandWithEU event

Stuart Rodger

Audience members clash on independence as option is floated to retain EU membership

SCOTTISH independence and the possibility of a second independence referendum was thrown onto the agenda by audience members on both sides of the debate at a Scottish Government event on Wednesday with EU nationals. 

The interventions came at the event at Edinburgh’s Corn Exchange, where the Scottish Government sought to answer questions from EU migrants living in Scotland about the implications for themselves, their families, and their future status.

During her opening remarks, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon addressed EU migrants in Scotland directly: “You have done us the privilege of making Scotland your home. More than 20,000 of you study at our universties. You may make up five per cent of our NHS. We would be poorer without you. Whoever you are, you are welcome here in Scotland.”

To loud applause and cheers, the Italian citizen said: “I will never apply for a British passport. It is not my nation.”

But touching on the constitutional implications of Brexit, she added: “Let me be absolutely frank on this, because immigration law and policy is not the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, I cannot, at this stage,do the one thing I really want to do which is give a cast iron guarantee that your right to stay here will be unaffected by the outcome of the referendum.”

The meeting was called after the EU referendum two months ago, which saw the United Kingdom as a whole vote by 52 per cent to 48 per cent to leave the European Union. Scotland, meanwhile, voted to Remain by 62 per cent. There are around 135,000 EU migrants living in Scotland.

Confronting the first minister, an audience member from Northern Ireland said: “You are misrepresenting my European vote to further yet more separatism. When are you going to hold an event such as this for UK citizens, and reassure us that your nationalists will no longer seek division and hatred against us.”

“Because immigration law and policy is not the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, I cannot give a cast iron guarantee that your right to stay here will be unaffected.” Nicola Sturgeon

Responding, Sturgeon said she condemned all forms of xenophobia: “We clearly have different views on the constitution. Let me say first of all I admonish anybody who is anti-anybody on the basis of their nationality, whatever that nationality may be. I happen to have an English grandmother. My belief in Scottish independence never has been and never will be based on where people come from, it’s about how as a country we move forward together.” 

Continuing on the subject of a second independence referendum, Sturgeon said: “I’ve tried to take a pretty straightforward approach to this. I could have said on the morning after the referendum, Scotland’s voted to stay, the rest of the UK has voted to leave, that’s it, we’re having a second referendum, but I’ve chosen not to do that. As first minister I have a duty to try to bring people together and examine all options.”

Shortly afterwards, the event took an emotional turn as one Italian citizen, Carolina Magoha, who was there with her teenage son, said. “My son has had a very bad time, people telling us we shouldn’t be here.” Becoming tearful, she continued: “In the morning, we had Nicola telling us we were welcome, and we just breathed a sigh of relief.”

Expressing anger towards Westminster, she added: “I don’t have any trust whatsoever in the UK Government. I can’t trust the Tories. I trust the Scottish Government. I love Scotland. I will never apply for a British passport. It is not my nation.”  

“Scotland’s not immune from xenophobia.” Danny Boyle

Sturgeon responded: “It breaks my heart to hear how you felt. It breaks my heart to hear the impact on your son. It breaks my heart as the elected first minister that I cannot give the guarantee of your status.”

Reflecting on arguments made by the No campaign during the first independence referendum, Sturgeon went on: “It also makes me angry. That anger is compounded by the vivid memory of some of the same politicians in 2014 going around saying that if we’d voted Yes that would mean being thrown out of the European Union.”

The issue of xenophobia and bigtotry was brought up on a number of occasions throughout. Challenging the Scottish Government on this point, Danny Boyle of Bemis Scotland said: “Scotland’s not immune from xenophobia. We haven’t seen a spike in attacks on EU nationals necessarily – however if you look at the numbers from 2001 there has been a 500 per cent increase which also corresponds to an increase in EU migration.”

Responding, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson said Police Scotland was now working with third-party reporting agencies to alert them to any increase in hate crime. He said: “One of the messages we’ve been sending out over the past few weeks is to encourage people, if they do experience problems, to report it. I want to provide the reassurance that Police Scotland will do what they can to pursue these matters.”

“That committment will be honoured for all students entering in 2016-2017 and sustained for the duration of their time at university.” John Swinney

Also raised extensively was education, and the ability of the Scottish Government to guarantee tuition fee payments for EU nationals. When asked about this, Education Secretary and Deputy First Minister John Swinney said: “That committment will be honoured for all students entering in 2016-2017 and sustained for the duration of their time at university.” but suggested arrangements for 2017-2018 were less certain given the changing circumstances.

Swinney also raised the issue of research funding and collaboration being put into jeopordy by the Brexit vote: “I pick up from the academic community a tremendous amount of nervousness around accessibility to mutinational research groupings, and that’s where a large proportion of our research institutions secure their funding. The higher education minister is having intensive discussions with universties and feeding this into discussion with the UK government.”

One audience member, representing the Polish community in the Highlands, asked if the Polish language should be added to the list of languages taught in Scottish schools, given that some 70,000 Polish nationals now reside in Scotland. Responding, Swinney said: “On the Polish language I think you make a very significant and serious point. I will listen carefully to the arguments around that.”

Also of concern to one audience member was the business impact and the impact on Scotland’s whisky industry. Responding, economy minister Keith Brown said: “You know how important whisky is to the Scottish economy and the UK exchequer. The industry has worked hard over so many years to break down tariffs, so to find new obstacles would be hugely detrimental to the industry.” The first minister followed Keith Brown by saying access to the single market remained a priority for Scotland.

One female Italian citizen in her early 30s, speaking anonymously to CommonSpace, said she had previously voted No to Scottish independence, but was now firmly on the side of Yes. “There were too many questions that weren’t properly addressed. This time round I will definitely place my vote on my own personal interest, and I can see that Scotland will be part of the EU.” Asking her if this was perhaps unrepresentative, she said: “No, it’s pretty universal.”

Picture courtesy of Scottish Government

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