Immigration and Elections, Then and Now

As the 2015 General Election approaches, immigration has become a central feature of political discourse, a trend increasingly evident over the past decade or so. Immigrants and immigration have been discussed in each of the ‘leaders’ debates’, and have crept into the manifestos of all major parties. The emergence of UKIP as a new, minor, political force in Britain saw immigration become a hot potato, with each of the major parties giving more space to discussions of immigration. Recently, the Labour Party caused some controversy by revealing a party mug for sale which is emblazoned with party ‘Pledge 4’: ‘Controls on Immigration’. The Conservative Party have reiterated their desire to clamp down on so-called benefits and health tourism. According to UKIP leader Nigel Farage parts of Britain have been ‘taken over’ by foreigners, leaving areas of major towns and cities ‘unrecognisable’. Worse still, according to UKIP, economic migrants were stealing ‘British jobs’ and ‘British benefits’.

While Scotland has a relatively liberal voice on immigration in this on-going debate, this has not always been the case. A century ago the main focus of the hysterical anti-immigration lobby in Scotland was the Irish. Irish migration into Scotland had peaked in the late 19th century, and by 1911 there were around 175,000 Irish people living in Scotland; 4% of the population. Throughout this period immigrants were the subject of discriminatory discourses, being accused of changing the face of Scottish towns and cities, corrupting our language, and ‘bleeding’ our welfare dry. Then, just as now, critics of immigration were unable to provide incontrovertible evidence to support these claims. An editorial in the Dundee Courier from May 1923 lamented the increasing threat the Irish posed to Scottish workers, and called for stricter controls over our borders. In a letter to the Dundee Evening Telegraph, from May 1929, ‘Scoto Scotorum’ lamented that if Irish migration – and it seems reproduction – was not checked Scotland would become swamped and its glorious heritage lost for future generations. In another letter from the same edition of the Dundee Evening Telegraph, ‘Pro Patria’ claimed that Irish Catholic immigrants were stealing bread from the mouths of Dundonian families, with ‘hundreds of Scotsmen in Dundee alone idle and looking for work: men who have paid rates and taxes in their own native town for years back, yet ‘Pat’ can come and get the work from under their noses’. Substitute ‘Pat’ for Polish joiners or Romanian fruit pickers and we see a trend here.

Just as immigrants in Britain today have been used as political fodder and sometimes as scapegoats, the Irish in early 20th-century Scotland faced the same fate. John Gilmour of the Scottish Unionist Party, who was later to become Home Secretary, promised if elected to ‘send back to their native land those people who, either lazy or incapable of contributing anything to our economic life, come over here, often purposely, for the sake of parish relief’. Reid Miller, a Tory candidate for Shettleston, who ran a vitriolic campaign against John Wheatley of the Independent Labour Party in 1924, also whipped up fear by claiming that unless Irish immigration was more strenuously regulated Scotland would fast become ‘merely a colony of the Irish Free State’. Critics of Irish immigration were not limited to fear-mongering politicians and pseudonymous letter writers. Reverend Duncan Cameron of the Church of Scotland was a fierce opponent of immigration from the Irish Free State. Cameron saw Irish immigration as the ‘tragedy of the Scottish race’.

Just as extremist political movements in Britain have fixated not only upon ethnic origin but religion too, much of the opprobrium directed at the Irish related to their Roman Catholicism, and links were also made between Irish immigrants, Roman Catholicism, and political agitation. The Free Church of Scotland saw a threat not only from immigrants’ religion but from ‘Romanist’ political influence, which it hinted had led to the formation of a ‘socialist’ government in 1923. According to an article in The Scotsman, from July 1928, a strain of thought dominated in Scotland which saw the Irish as ‘a pestilential lot who make it their business to stir up strife in politics and industry’. Here we see the immigrant not only as a ‘job snatcher’ but one who occupies the fringes of so-called religious and political extremism.

Such anti-Irish rhetoric was by no means universal, and letters pages also contained counter arguments, but these were in the minority. The pejorative discourse on Irish immigrants demonstrates that concerns over immigration over the last century tend to be very similar no matter who the immigrant is, or where they are from. The immigrant is perceived by some to be a threat to ‘indigenous’ culture, religion and politics with alarmist predictions offered by the likes of ‘Scoto Scotorum’, ‘Pro Patria’ and the rest, that the Irish would soon smother Scottish society. Yet this vitriol ignored the fact that in places such as rural Angus, Irish labour was instrumental in supporting agriculture, while in the central belt the economic success of the Second City of the Empire owed much to Irish immigrant workers who provided the labour force for much of the unskilled work in the docks, mines and shipyards whilst receiving low pay that forced them to live in poor quality housing. The argument that immigration poses a serious threat to Britain is nothing new, and just as disingenuous as it was 100 years ago, but it still gets used as a political football, which dehumanises the thousands of men, women and children who contribute significantly to the nation’s social, cultural and economic life.