Why Scotland’s Treatment of Refugees is a Cut Above the Rest

This past week, I’ve been doing some freelance research for a British human rights charity. This experience has dramatically opened my eyes to the absolute chaos that is the British “immigration” system.

Of course, we’ve all heard about British government’s fumbling inability to handle current refugees and even integrate migrants. Windrush Scandal, anyone? Or Theresa May’s explicit wish since 2012 “to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”? Well, looks like it’s worked there, Prime Minister! How about the refusal to grant visas to 100+ Indian doctors, who had been especially recruited to help critical health shortages in the NHS? Or the ever-growing imprisonment of asylum seekers in British “detention facilities”? Or the fact that the Home Secretary herself had no idea that immigration quotas were used in her own department? So long, Amber Rudd.

But while I was scrutinising the absolute disorder and contradictory measures that the Home Office currently takes towards the world’s most vulnerable people – refugees, asylum seekers and victims of trafficking – I was delighted to discover that at least one portion of this Great Britain is taking deliberate, long-term steps towards helping these groups: Scotland.

Did you know that of all the UK, Scotland is the only nation that wants to give refugees the right to vote?

Hurrah! In May 2018, it was announced that plans are being proposed to the Scottish Parliament to give EU, non-EU and asylum seekers the right to vote. Let’s hope it passes!

But why is this a good thing? Giving migrants the right to vote is an absolute cornerstone of nations with a history of immigration and diversity. For example, Australia, the United States, and Canada have benefitted immensely from giving refugees, asylum seekers and other landed migrants the right to vote. Although, admittedly, this didn’t happen overnight. (For example, Japanese and aboriginals in Canada were not given the right to vote until 1949 and 1960, respectively). But in the 1970s, Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau flooded Canada with migrants and, by extension, new voters. Although it seems wonderfully inclusive, the true motive was to dilute existing Francophone and Anglophone tensions that were hitting a crisis point!

Trudeau’s strategy, however underhanded, achieved something remarkable. It meant that political parties had to include these new immigrants in their broader policy objectives. It meant that migrants were courted with initiatives that appealed directly to them. This forced politics to become dynamic, progressive and inclusive. Instead of pushing migrants to the fringes of society, this enforced that Canadians, whether new or native, were included in the most high-level decisions in Ottawa. In fact, in 2011 and 2015, the Canadian Conservative Party won a higher share of votes among immigrants than it did among native-born Canadians. Go figure.

Of course, if migrants in Scotland are given the right to vote, this allows the Scottish National Party (SNP), currently a significant minority party, an opportunity to expand its voter base. And, you know what? I don’t care. It doesn’t matter if you’re an SNP, Tory, Labour, Lib Dem or Green supporter. If migrants can vote, including EU and non-EU residents, then this only benefits greater Scottish society. Inclusivity and diversity will become ingrained in Scottish politics which, in turn, will impact Scottish voters, Scottish attitudes and broader long-term Scottish aims.  This will irrevocably enrich Scottish society.

Also, increasing the rights of people who live here does not nullify or decrease the existing voter rights of born-and-bred Scots. Equal rights for others does not mean less rights for them. It’s not pie, right?

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Green MSP Ross Greer said in May 2018,  “What better way could we show refugees and asylum seekers that they truly are welcome and that Scotland is their home than by giving them the right to vote?” These Syrian refugees arrived in December 2017 to be settled on the Isle of Bute (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images).

Did you know that of all the UK, Scotland is the only nation to have an explicit strategy in place to integrate newly-arrived refugees?

To my absolute astonishment, England, Wales and Northern Ireland do not have any broader strategy to integrate its thousands of refugees and asylum seekers.  Stupid, no? Fortunately, after mounting pressure, England announced last March that it will invest £50m to support an Integrated Communities Strategy that will initially target five local authorities in England to improve English language skills, increase economic opportunities (particularly for women) and ensure that every child receives an education. So, I guess late is better than never, eh?

But a lack of an “integration strategy” (however bureaucratic and boring that sounds) has massive impact on migrants. For example, asylum seekers in the UK face massive problems once they’re granted refugee status. After waiting six months for a decision (while surviving on just £37.75/week for yourself and dependents, with no right to work or access mainstream benefits, and living in shady Home Office accommodation outsourced to companies with a history of poor quality compliance, like G4S), you are given just 28 days to find work, a new home, apply for benefits, and “move on” towards integration.

This “move on” period is often the worst moment for refugees in the UK. Suicide rates spike, mental health problems increase, people are forced into destitution and exploitation simply due to a lack of support and, critically, not enough time.

In fact, the Home Office often does not send critical documentation to new refugees within this 28-day period. For example, a National Insurance Number (NINo) and Biometric Residence Permit become vital to a refugee’s survival in the UK because they often did not flee war and persecution in their homeland with their passports, right? So, one or both of these documents are required for gaining employment, opening a bank account, applying for a Home Office “integration loan” (£100+), accessing mainstream benefits and securing private or public accommodation. However, the Home Office often does not send these documents until well after an asylum seeker has been granted refugee status. Seems counterintuitive, no?

For example, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees wrote in their report about Sami from Iraq. He was not sent his NINo until the day after he was evicted from his Home Office accommodation (at the end of the 28 day “move on” period). Because Sami could not claim benefits or obtain employment to secure accommodation without his NINo, he was forced into homelessness. Charity reports are riddled with stories like these, where it’s obvious that the UK’s current system is failing those it most means to help. Instead, homelessness, destitution and exploitation become synonymous with the refugee experience.

After the “move on” period, refugees now have the long-term task to integrate. Learning English is, obviously, the biggest task. Without being able to communicate, migrants cannot access NHS services, higher education or training, the job market, or even just simple things like community events! So, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes are vital, right? But in England, government funding for ESOL classes was drastically reduced by 55% between 2008 to 2015. Fortunately, Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland all currently have ESOL strategies in place. Nearly 5% of all Scots (over age of 3 years old) actually speak another language other than English in the home. Although Brits are generally notorious for not speaking other languages, at least the Scottish government is wise enough to support these refugees learning English. This, sadly, is something they’re failing to do south of Hadrian’s Wall.

Did you know that of all the UK, Scotland currently hosts the largest urban population of refugees? Yep, Glasgow.

The local authorities that currently host the largest number of asylum seekers (waiting on refugee status) are Glasgow (3,799), Liverpool (1,622), Birmingham (1,575), and Cardiff (1,317). But the largest asylum seeker populations are actually in North West (10,111), the West Midlands (5,431), Yorkshire and the Humber (5,258) and London (5,084).

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By September 2016, asylum seekers were ten times more likely to live in Glasgow than anywhere else in the UK. Seems the ‘Weegies were okay with this! (Photo credit)

Although asylum seekers are allocated Home Office accommodations in Glasgow, decisions on their applications are not within the remit of the Scottish authorities. Everything is decided through a centralised, federal system. But while one waits on their application, one can be “dispersed” anywhere within the system without one’s choice taken into account. This means that local authorities and NGOs must compensate for shortages in financial support, issuing documentation and allocated housing.

Fortunately, there’s multiple Scottish/Glaswegian charities willing to help: Scottish Refugee Council, Refugee Survival Trust, Positive Action in Housing, and Scottish Faiths Action for Refugees, among others.

To my great surprise, I googled “Glasgow, refugees, asylum seekers, bad, 2018” to find recent negative news stories about asylum seekers in Scotland. To my shock, I found nothing that denotes a systemic problem between asylum seekers and the local populations. Instead, I googled “Glasgow, refugees, asylum seekers, 2018” and found headlines within the last 6 months like this:

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Damascene Street Food really does look delicious, eh?

Of course, there must be bad news stories… and they appear to be coming from Scottish charities. One independent news source, called The Ferret, reported that charities had doled out record amounts of emergency grants to asylum seekers in 2017 – over £110,000 to be precise. And, at £80 per grant, that’s a huge number of asylum seekers deemed to be in crisis in Scotland.

Why is it so high, the Ferret asks? Due to delays on documentation, poor housing, no access to work or benefits while waiting on one’s application, etc. Basically everything I’ve already written. In fact, The Ferret calls it the “invisible epidemic” of refugee destitution. Evidently, Scottish charities are facing the same challenges as their brothers and sisters south of the border.

Did you know that Scotland allows asylum seekers and refugees full access to the NHS?

All refugees in the UK have immediate free access to healthcare provided by the NHS. Asylum seekers are also entitled to free “urgent care” (also called “primary care”) while in the UK. But “secondary care,” such as getting a specialist to check that never-ending ear infection, or receiving mental health support, or chemotherapy if you have cancer, all those types of long-term “secondary care” benefits are not provided to everyone.

In England, those refused asylum are required to payfor secondary health services. However, in Scotland, refugees and even refused asylum seekers (those deemed as having no recourse to public funds “NRPF”) have full access and treatment on the same basis as any other UK national. Also, all prescriptions are free! Sensational.

So what?

The broader immigration system in the UK is flawed, to put it mildly. Asylum seekers like Nesrîn, an Iraqi Kurd, and her two children, survive on just £37.75/week. She comments that:

They give us asylum benefit so we will not beg, but actually we are begging. Sometimes I cry for myself; everything is secondhand, everything is help. I can never do something for myself… When you become a mum you have everything dreamed for your daughter, and I can’t do anything. I’ve given up, actually.

I can’t imagine just how powerless an asylum seeker must feel in this country. After fleeing violence, war and persecution in their homeland, they arrive on British shores to only find a hostile and monstrous bureaucracy awaiting them.

But, fortunately, Scotland’s treatment of refugees is a cut above the rest. By giving asylum seekers the right to vote, you are giving them a voice. By giving asylum seekers access to full healthcare, you are giving them a chance to live. By creating national strategies for local governments, communities and charities, you are giving refugees a chance to learn English, get a job, find a home, receive an education and integrate into Scottish society. These are remarkable steps in a direction that is supportive, inclusive and diverse. As Sabir Zaza, Chief Executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, said eloquently in May 2018:

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Refugees often flee their homes because their human rights are denied. For people from the refugee community to then have access to all their rights including the right to vote in Scotland is a hugely significant point in their journey towards integration, citizenship and the ability to play an active role in society.”

Tour Guides’ Tricks vs Historians’ Hang-ups: Lessons for Teaching History

Recently, I’ve started working as a tour guide on Edinburgh’s beautiful Royal Mile. For two hours, come rain or shine, I escort random tourists down the narrow alleyways, onto cobblestoned streets, across graveyards, and into medieval courtyards, regaling them with (hi)stories about Edinburgh’s colourful past. It’s entertaining and challenging work.  Guides must be on-the-ball with funny jokes, vibrant vocabulary, and accurate answers to a wide variety of questions for the whole two hours. It’s draining work, but super fun. The time flies by.

Being a tour guide is exciting because of my great love of history, local knowledge of Edinburgh, and previous experiences helping tourists. Also, after spending 10+ years in admin office roles in both Canada and Scotland, I am crystal clear that I’d rather be walking the streets of one of the prettiest cities in Europe than sitting in a stale office staring at spreadsheets. No more spreadsheets, I say! No more!  But my education (ie. PhD in modern history) is dismally underutilised in a position that caters to “just tourists.” Surely after so many years of study, I can “do better” than tour guiding?

Tour guiding might be a “fall from grace” for ambitious academics, but other employment opportunities – especially at universities or in research – are notoriously competitive and outrageously difficult to attain. So, while the rejection letters pour into my inbox (and until I reluctantly decide to give up on my dream of being a university lecturer), I’ve decided to apply my skills elsewhere. Also, those bills don’t pay themselves.

But I’ve learned there is a vast difference between a tour guide and a historian. Like, wow. And some of the differences are totally refreshing. Others are a little disconcerting. And some are just down right hilarious. Despite starting this job with a somewhat cocky attitude (“Surely it can’t be that much harder than when I taught at a university…”), tour guiding has re-opened my eyes to history and history-telling. And, of course, sufficiently humbled my approach.

Historians and tour guides both earn money from the same skill set: the ability to teach history. Although one researches and lectures in a university, the other guides on the streets, often in the exact place where that history took place. While teaching history unites these professions, their approaches greatly differ. This is why I decided to write this blog. Hopefully, my observations will debunk some myths (or prejudices) we may have about both trades.

1) Story-telling vs (Hi)story-telling

Professional historians will vehemently say that teaching history as a story (or narrative) is not good history. But tour guides rely heavily on stories because they are entertaining. And, because one of the chief goals of tour guiding is to entertain, historical events are often conveyed in a narrative structure (setup, conflict, resolution), as it makes history accessible, engaging and much more memorable.

But stories and histories are not interchangeable. History should not be moralised, narrativised, pushed into little boxes of “good” versus “bad.”  As we all know, history is often written by the victors (ie. white, old, wealthy, MEN) and any publication about historiography – the study of writing history – is plagued with lengthy analyses about the inherent bias in historical sources. Today’s students of history undertake meticulous and often painstaking training about how to identify and overcome such biases, so that most contemporary historical research endeavours to be objective, evidence-based and (hopefully) self-aware and self-reflective.

And yet, it is worthwhile noting that some students of history, like Michael Conway, perceptively argue that it is not until a student engages in historiography that they begin to realise that history is not a single overarching description, but instead a conflict-ridden zone of historians/scholars bickering endlessly about all aspects of history. This, Conway argues, is actually more compelling: “History is not indoctrination. It is a wrestling match. For too long, the emphasis has been on pinning the opponent. It is time to shift the focus to the struggle itself”. But let’s get back to tour guiding…

When history is told as a story, the goal is often to promote consumption; it (negates that academic battleground that Conway writes about and instead) allows the reader/audience to easily absorb the information without any moral dilemma, ambiguity, or guesswork. But this does not mean that the story is not meaningful or stimulating. In fact, some of my favourite British public historians (such as Neil Oliver or Lucy Worsley) often present history as narratives. Fortunately, they often simultaneously question whether we should accept such interpretations as accurate.  By doing so, audiences are given a choice: they can blindly accept such portrayals as conveniently memorable stories, or they can wrestle with the ambiguity and interpret the (hi)story in their own way.

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Neil Oliver is a prominent archeologist and television presenter in Scotland. Criticised as being too Anglo-Centric by some, it did not stop him from being appointed as President of the National Trust of Scotland in 2017. (Photo credit: BBC)

But not all history can be put into a narrative structure. In the event you might disagree, then think of genocide, or slavery, or war. There’s no moral to be learned from the existence of concentration camps. There’s no overarching narrative of tragedy, comedy or redemption within slaves’ experiences. There are no “good” or “bad” soldiers in war. And, because these topics cannot be easily reduced or moralised, they continue to attract revision, debate and controversy among multiple stakeholders: historians, legal and legislative bodies, policy-makers, international organisations, humanitarians, educators, artists, authors, filmmakers, and so many, many more.

On Edinburgh’s Cowgate, I tell the story of Joseph Smith (“Bowed Joseph”), a poor, disabled 18thcentury cobbler who notoriously roused Edinburgh’s poorest segments of society into a frenzied mob (up to 10,000 people) whenever it suited him. The town officials were so wary of Bowed Joseph that they would often consult him before enacting local policies (such as increasing the price of ale). The “story” goes that when Joseph heard that a poor father-of-six had committed suicide after being evicted by an unconcerned landlord, Joseph beat his drum down the street to provoke thousands to storm the landlord’s house, stripping it of all possessions and piling the furniture into a nearby park. As the helpless town guard looked on, Bowed Joseph himself lit the match. The pyre reportedly burnt for hours.

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Bowed Joseph’s malformed skeleton (on display at the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum) shows us the devastating effects of childhood malnutrition in the 18th Century.

Historically speaking, we know very little about Joseph Smith. Born into abject poverty sometime in the mid 1700s on Edinburgh’s Cowgate, he developed rickets at a young age. He had strong, massive arms and short, bowed legs. We know this because upon his death in 1780 (falling from a coach after gambling at the race track in Leith), the University of Edinburgh’s prestigious Medical School acquired his deformed skeleton. Today, it’s displayed at the Anatomical Museum, which coincidentally was the only reason that I knew that Joseph Smith existed at all!

What the points of telling you all this? This is bad history, but a great story; the tale of an underdog who used his power for social justice. But – I would argue – stories like these teaches elements of history without the tourist even realising it. For example, the audience learns about Edinburgh’s brutal poverty, childhood diseases of the 1700s, the strength (and fear) of the mob to provoke political change, rioting as a commonplace practise of 18thC Scottish culture, existing class tensions between landowners and tenants – these are all historical themes that this story illustrates.

But I’ve practically sold my academic soul. I have compromised my formal objective, evidence-based study of history with an engaging narrative chiefly devoid of tangible facts, in order to achieve my manager’ goal: to entertain tourists about Edinburgh’s “history.”

2) Telling Entertaining (Hi)stories

Training for this job was mostly self-directed. I was not given a script, but simply told the appointed “audition date” I would give a two-hour tour of the Old Town to my manager. I was allowed to speak about anything, and was invited onto other guides’ tours to see their routes and topics. Considering this company is one of the highest rated on Trip Advisor (the chief reason I applied with them), I was surprised at this somewhat laissez-faire, trusting approach.

Although studying “all” of Scottish and Edinburgh’s history was slightly daunting, this worked perfectly for me. I have learned that both historians and tour guides are only as good as the knowledge they possess. Breadth and nuance of historical insight is entirely dependent upon that person’s work ethic and willingness to learn. Taaa-daaa – maybe tour guides and historians aren’t so different after all!

After my audition, my manager’s feedback was hilarious (…well, in retrospect): “Chelsea, you must use less dates. Tourists do not care if it happened in 1861, just say ‘mid-1800s.’ Of course, always know your dates in case anyone asks, but stop being so precise! Your groups don’t want a history lesson!”

My inner pedantic academic and pride as a “proper educated historian” shrivelled into a little lifeless ball of death. I laughed but was disconcerted. How can years of pushing for flawless historical accuracy (including memorising dates) be considered a weakness? I walked away from my audition a little bruised. My ego a little weakened. But then, it dawned on me. Could it be that imprecise teaching (the greatest faux pas of any educator) could be considered a strength here?! Could it be that extraneous pedantic detail was actually not necessary in guiding? Could it be that just the interesting, engaging, enjoyable parts of history are actually the focus?

A great relief settled inside me and that lifeless ball of death sprung alive again. Of course, tour guiding is about entertainment, and formal history is about education. Both can go hand-in-hand but are not identical. While History with a big H is important, we all know that aspects of it are tediously boring, even to historians: Economic history of immediate post-Confederation Canada? Not interested. Technical capabilities of British naval vessels in the Napoleonic Wars? Sorry, don’t care. Another biography of Winston Churchill? Please dear God, no.

Thus, I’ve learned that tour guiding isn’t just about using stories to tell history, but instead, to tell entertaining history. It’s like being given cream for your coffee, instead of weak milk. It’s like getting a filet mignon instead of rump steak. It’s like eating the centre of the cinnamon bun first, rather than the crusty outer edges. (ps. I like food analogies).

3) Questioning Impact and Legacy Without All the Pedantic Detail

As you’ve noticed, telling Edinburgh’s and Scottish history in entertaining, bite-size pieces are the trick of the two-hour tour guiding trade. But when I asked my manager if I could end with a question, instead of an amusing anecdote, he considerately listened and nodded his head. He simply said that so long as it was concise and clear, there’s no reason it wouldn’t work.

The need to understand and interrogate the legacy or impact of history details/facts/events/persons is a cornerstone of every good historical study. History conferences are full of scholars squabbling over the minutiae of history.  Even if it’s very technical details (i.e. the Spitfire only had 14-18 seconds of ammunition), those details can have significant impact upon larger events (pilot performance, casualty rates, future combat airplane design, and so on). That’s why details are so very important to historians, even if it makes them look like pedantic, over-obsessed nerds. If those details are inaccurate, misinterpreted, or false, then the larger context and the enduring legacy can also be questioned.

But would your average holidaying tourist be interested in such details?

No, let’s get real. Tour guides do not have the time to meticulously analyse every detail of Scottish history. For tourists, this would be the opposite of entertaining. Their holidays would be ruined by my tedious obsession with overwhelming empirical details.

Instead, I discovered that tour guides, similar to public historians, can approach it backwards – by deconstructing the legacy as a way to question details. For example, I deliberately end my tour beside the Writer’s Museum (with a view of the Royal Mile and the Scott Monument).

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The largest monument in the world dedicated to an author, the Scott Monument, was built in 1844.  (Photo Credit)

There I discuss Sir Walter Scott, arguably the most influential Scottish citizen to impact modern Scottish identity.  But because Scott’s writings showcased Scottish identity in a certain way – Highlands, stags, romance, the wilds of the north – it often failed to include other portions of Scottish society and culture.

This came to a climax (notice my narrative structure!) in 1822 when King George IV visited Scotland, the first official state visit in almost 200 years. Scott, a national celebrity, had been commissioned to plan the festivities and he did not fail to deliver. Notably, Polish conmen (Sobieski Stuarts) sought to benefit from the celebrations, publishing a famous book that claimed that specific tartan denoted a specific Highland Clan.  Scottish nobles raced to find their Highland ancestry so they could purchase their kilts in time for the King’s visit.  And Scott’s prolific writings (and explicit instructions for the festivities) had impacted locals and foreigners so much that when the King arrived, only a certain type of Scottish person was showcased – the “Highlander”. Bedecked in colourful tartan, this robust, whisky-swilling, haggis-eating, masculine, bearded and kilted “Highlander” came to represent all the Scots.

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Various cultural representations of Scotland have perpetuated the identity (myth?) of the “Highlander,” including films such as Highlander (1986), Braveheart (1995) and TV series Outlander (2014+). Perhaps it’s no wonder this image of Scotland still prevails today.

I thus conclude my tour with a question: Was Scott’s interpretation of the Scots actually an accurate reflection of Scotland’s identity? Or is he responsible for creating a redundant, overused, exploited image of the Highlands? I then humorously remind them to think twice about purchasing tartan scarves on the Royal Mile. Or watching Braveheart.

4) The Irrefutable Power of Location

The most formidable tool in the tour guide’s arsenal is not actually her/his ability to research history (the realm of professors) or to seamlessly present history in a convenient package (the realm of television programs), or even to repurpose history (the realm of public historians). Instead, it is the power of the physical location of historical events and legacies that allow tour guides to instil, showcase, mobilise, present, investigate, question, and explore history. By walking the same street that Bowed Joseph roused his mob, or by seeing the same views that JK Rowling saw when she wrote the first Harry Potter book, or by tasting haggis as Robert Burns would have tasted when he wrote “Ode to a Haggis,” the tourist is imprinted with so much more than just a history lesson. They themselves smell, taste, see, hear and thus participate in history in a way that no book, no TV show and no lecture can equal. It’s exponentially more powerful, more visceral and more resonant.

To my surprise, tour guides are often the only educational resource for tourists following a tight travel itinerary (I’ve checked with the tourists on my tours!). This means that tour guides are as vital to teaching history to the public as any other formally trained historian, curator or television educator. Although I travel a great deal, and have experienced amazing tours in places where history unfolded (the rise of the Third Reich in Munich, or discussing the Battle of Berlin steps from the Reichstag), I’m not sure I fully appreciated the role of tour guides in orchestrating and teaching history until now. Tour guides have an invaluable role in researching, selecting and presenting the physical locations of historical events, legacies and people to retell history. And by refocusing the audiences’ attention upon the location, tour guides revive history more authentically than can be created even in the most competent lectures, or among the most vibrant imaginations.

In 1774, one of my favourite Enlightenment authors, Voltaire, was dissatisfied with how scholars studied and wrote history:

“People are very careful to report what day a certain battle took place… They print treaties, they describe the pomp of a coronation, the ceremony of receiving the Cardinal’s hat, and even the entrance of an ambassador, forgetting neither his Swiss soldiers nor his lackeys. It is a good thing to have archives on everything that one might consult them when necessary… But after I have read three or four thousand descriptions of battles, and the terms of some hundreds of treaties, I have found the fundamentally I am scarcely better instructed than I was before.”

Voltaire proposed a solution that was rather innovative, especially for his time. Instead, he suggested that we should focus on location, artefacts, art and theatre to learn history:

“A lock on the canal that joins two seas, a painting by Poussin, a fine tragedy, are things a thousand times more precious than all the court annals and all the campaign reports put together.”

 

 

 

 

Big Opportunities for Big Improvement: Changing the History of Social Security in Scotland

History is being made in Scotland right now. Although many haven’t noticed.

Westminster is currently devolving a number of powers to the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Act 2016. This includes a portion of the social security budget, accounting for £2.9 billion or 15% of the total £17.5 billion spent every year. The new social security system will deliver 10 of 11 key benefits to over 1.4 million people in Scotland, including Carer’s Allowance, Disability Living Allowance and Sure Start maternity grants (Discretionary Housing Payments will continue to be paid by Local Authorities).

If you’re not on benefits, or don’t live in Scotland, then perhaps this is of little interest to you. But from a historical standpoint, and a humanitarian perspective, remarkable things are happening at Holyrood that will have a massive impact on the most vulnerable portions of Scottish society.

As a welfare state, Scotland (and Britain) is committed to the collective welfare of its people, so that no citizen falls below the minimum standards in income, health, housing and education. In other words, it’s like a social safety net.

Collective welfare in Britain began in the 1830s. Although Victorians distrusted the poor, believing poverty was their own fault due to wasteful habits, laziness, and poor moral character, England introduced the New Poor Law Act in 1834. However, it only offered assistance to able-bodied persons if they entered a workhouse, were put to work and thus “submitted to harshness” (I’m not even kidding, that exact phrase came from this textbook: Baldock, Mitton, Manning and Vickerstaff, Social Policy, 4th ed, 2007, p. 29). Workhouses were not happy institutions, we must remember. Instead, these able-bodied persons were meant to experience a lower standard of living than even the poorest labourer. The rationale was that it would discourage all but the destitute able-bodied from turning to the Poor Law, whose only choice in life was either the workhouse or nothing. Pretty grim!

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Abject poverty of Glaswegian children in the 1850s, photographed by Thomas Annan, and taken from No. 46 Saltmarket, an old close in Glasgow.  Image from the National Galleries of Scotland via www.sath.org.uk

Over a hundred years later, during the Second World War, economist William Beveridge (1941) wrote a ground-breaking report on social policy. After surveying wartime housing schemes, Beveridge famously declared that Britain commit itself to attack five giant evils: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness.  Some would argue that this was the pivotal moment when modern welfare measures were introduced. (For a marvelous documentary on how the bombings during the Blitz revealed the conditions of Britain’s poorest class, and inspired lesser-known journalist Ritchie Calder to confront the long-term housing and poverty crisis in Britain, see BBC’s Blitz: The Bombs that Changed Britain).

The creation of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1946 was one of the largest reforms of modern British society. By amalgamating local authority hospitals with voluntary hospitals (many of which had already been organised during the war), and by promoting the NHS as a service based on clinical need rather than ability to pay, the British public warmly welcomed the new health scheme. Despite this, social security in Britain faltered. In the 1960s, critics such as Peter Townsend, brought attention to the fact that many pensioners were in poverty because of inadequate pensions. Meanwhile, National Insurance (NI) was given based on contributions, which often left unemployed women (ie. homemakers) excluded from the system. By the 1970s, means-tested systems were introduced to rectify social security shortcomings, which meant that low pensions, for example, were increased in line with prices or earnings, whichever were greater.

By the 1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared that excessive public expenditures were the root of Britain’s economic issues, as the delivery of public services were “paternalistic, inefficient and generally unsatisfactory” (Baldock, Mitton, Manning and Vickerstaff, Social Policy, 4th ed, 2007, p. 39).

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The ‘Tell Sid’ campaign from 1986, which that encouraged people to buy shares in British Gas. ‘If you see Sid, tell him’ ran the slogan, and around 1.5million did at a cost of 135p/share, in a £9billion share offer, the largest ever at the time.

The real issue, of course, was to avoid welfare recipients from becoming too dependent on state benefits. Echoing her Victorian ancestors, Thatcher and her advisers thought that “generous collective provision for unemployment and sickness was sapping some working-class people’s drive to work.” Measures were introduced to lower taxes and decrease state intervention and instead increase market forces with private investment. Major utility companies for gas, electricity, telephones, British Airways and British Rail were all privatized.  The assumption was that this new system would use competition to promote efficiency, and be motivated by public demands. This, it can be argued, was when the welfare state in Britain changed substantially. Or, this is when it went downhill.

An Example: Thatcher’s “Right To Buy”

Affordable housing, for example, was undermined by the unprecedented cuts in maintenance and subsidization under Thatcher. The “Right to Buy” scheme was introduced in 1980 so that long-term council tenants could purchase their council home at a discounted rate. As over 55% of Scottish people lived in council homes in 1981, this was a useful scheme to help many families become more independent.

But, crucially, this scheme removed thousands of homes from local councils’ resources. Without more affordable housing being built, and large reduction in subsidies from the federal government in 1981, Right to Buy only led to higher rents, longer waiting lists, and created a major housing crisis that lasted for decades.

By November 2012, a Scottish government consultation revealed that the majority of councils, and many tenants and landlords wanted the Right to Buy scheme abolished. In 2013, the Scottish government announced it would end this scheme in order to “safeguard social housing stock for future generations.” By 2016, the Right to Buy scheme was terminated in Scotland.

Education, healthcare, social security, all experienced cuts under the Thatcher period. And, with New Labour in the late 1990s, more changes sought to eradicate the “postcode lottery” effect of the NHS services by introducing national standards and centralized audits and performance reviews. Focus was also placed on employment; “welfare-to-work” epitomized the belief that work was the surest way out of poverty. As Chancellor, Gordon Brown promised to eradicate child poverty through a system of tax credits (a mission he still fights for, especially in Edinburgh where child poverty stands at 35% in some areas).

When Death Comes Knocking… Is Devolution is the Solution?

In addition to Scotland’s current housing crisis and child poverty, policy researchers are now drawing attention to another impending crisis on the British horizon: death.

In 2017, a comprehensive 110+ page report called “Death, Dying and Devolution” (hereafter called DDD) by the University of Bath’s Institute for Policy Research outlined the impact of death in Britain. Its findings were unsettling: Over 500,000 people die in Britain each year and over 2 million deal with death’s emotional, financial and practical consequences every year.  That is one in four or six Britons every year. A further 1 million people provide care for someone with a terminal illness every year, but only one in six employers have policies in place to support this population.

This means that family members (estimated 58% women) must assume the caring role with very little compensation (as you will see shortly). Disabled or injured people receive small sums to support themselves, forcing their family and support network or local authorities to pay for their housing and basic utilities. And, shockingly, unregulated funeral services plummet many families into something called “funeral poverty”!! Read on!

The findings in the DDD report is meant to be a radical wake-up call to policy makers about Britain’s approach to death. The alarming deficit in policy response and legislation, the report argues, is compounded by poor infrastructure and strategising, resulting in fragmented care, escalating and unregulated funeral costs, and massive inequalities experienced by dying and bereaved people due to their geographic location. However, the DDD report singles out Scotland as the only nation to have developed innovative, progressive policies in respect of end of life care. Notably, Scotland’s goal is to provide palliative care to all who need it by 2021 – the only nation to actually set a deadline.

Fortunately, it is not all doom and gloom. The process of devolution is the perfect opportunity to tackle many of these problems. The report claims that “In light of the projected rise in the UK death rate over the next 20 years, with devolution comes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to (re)address the neglect of death as a public policy issue, repositioning death as a central concern of the welfare state,” (p. 6).

Soc Secuity Bill

The Social Security bill has just passed through stage one of a three-step parliamentary process. Find the latest updates on Twitter @SP_SocialSecur 

Let’s now return to the Social Security Bill being discussed in the Scottish Parliament…

As part of the legislative process, the Social Security Committee, comprised of multiple Members of the Scottish Parliament, has been given the task to oversee the new social security system.  This committee decided to make a Social Security charter (which would be quicker to implement than legislation) and submitted it for the public to scrutinise in the summer of 2017. You can see the charter here.

This is where it gets interesting.

Numerous charities responded to the public consultation with their concerns, criticisms and viewpoints. After the Social Security Committee received these reports, it will then amend the charter, seek more evidence from private citizens and charity directors as required, and in general, improve the legislation. (“Part one” of a three-stage legislative process is due for completion by December 2017, “part two” will begin in January 2018).

To the credit of the Scottish Ministers who drafted this charter, it’s somewhat vague and simplified, which is “normal” for such legislation in its infancy. For example, it’s impossible to say precisely how much a Carer should be paid, but merely to state whether a Carer should be paid more or less than the current benefit.

And to the credit of these charities’ policy researchers who drafted these perceptive responses, they have sunk their teeth into this charter and have ripped it apart…

Carer’s Allowance. This is currently less than the current jobseeker’s allowance (£73.10/week) and comes with a list of restrictive conditions. To qualify for Carer’s Allowance under the current system, you must provide care to someone who already receives Disability Living Allowance (this can be a major problem due to delays in assessment or confusing terminology about “terminal illness,” for example).  Assuming the person under your care successfully receives DLA, then to receive your small £73/week “compensation”:

  • you must provide 35+ hours/week caring,
  • you must NOT earn over £116/week,
  • you must NOT receive a pension (45% of all carers are aged 65+!)
  • you must NOT study 21+hrs/week or be under age 16.
  • If you care for two people (say an elderly parent and your child), you cannot double your benefits.

Although the new Social Security Bill suggests Carer’s Allowance should be raised to the current jobseeker’s allowance, Motor Neurone Disease Scotland argues “this rise does not go far enough: Many carers are forced to give up work to care for their loved one on a full time basis – they are not looking for work.” And even if Carer’s Allowance was increased to the equivalent of jobseeker’s allowance, this “new rate would only recompense carers at the rate of £2.00 per hour based on a 35 hour caring week(Carer’s Scotland Consultation Response, 2017). And, remember, if they work part-time to compensate for this egregiously low compensation, they cannot make more than £116/week, or else their Carer’s Allowance is terminated.

Disability Living Allowance. The actual amount provided to people with disability is surprisingly little. The lowest DLA rate (for those requiring some care) is £22.10/week. The highest DLA one can receive in Scotland is £82/week (assuming they require constant 24/7 care). If mobility is challenged or non-existent, then the highest mobility allowance is £58/week. But is that enough to cover most disabled peoples’ expenses (transportation costs to medical appointments, rent, food and other daily expenditures)? Really?

Funeral Poverty. The average cost of a funeral in Britain was £3,897 (DDD Report, p. 82). Applications for assistance take four weeks on average to process, and the rules regarding eligibility for the applicant often does not “take into consideration the nature of contemporary family relationships” that may not be straightforward nuclear families (p. 81). But Scotland has admittedly taken great strides towards regulating the funeral industry by pushing for licensing the Burial and Cremation Scotland (Bill) 2016.

Let’s just imagine a desperate situation to illustrate funeral poverty: a young family mourning the loss of a terminally-ill child. Currently in Scotland, independent funeral directors provide free of charge until the age of 16 (while the Co-operative Funeral Care extends this to the age of 18). These include embalming, a coffin, a hearse to transport the child, personnel to conduct the funeral and the use of a funeral home (where available), in addition to overhead administrative requirements. However, this does not include cremation (or burial), the headstone, or burial plot. As cremation is currently a less expensive option than a traditional burial in Scotland, some families (according to a leading Scottish children’s charity) are forced to choose a less expensive cremation despite their religious beliefs or the wish of the terminally ill child.

So what?

Exposing the bare bones of Scotland’s current social security policies might seem like an insensitive and rude awakening. But we currently live in a world where gaps in care are compensated by families, friends or charities. Often, these carers and support networks are rewarded with heartlessly small compensation. And although those amazing charities help where they can, they should not be responsible for filling the gaps in care. Even large government donations to charities sadly fuels the “postcode lottery” effect of what services these charities can provide across the country, contributing to inconsistent care and, ultimately, health inequality.

The welfare state exists so that the poorest and most challenged citizens in a community can be supported. Historically, huge strides have been taken in the last 100 years towards administering social security to British people – from Lloyd-George’s National Insurance Act (1911) to Lord Beveridge’s Five Giant Evils (1943) to the founding of the NHS (1948), Thatcher’s sweeping reforms in the 1980s and then New Labour’s Welfare-to-Work  – and we hope these strides are taking us towards a better, fairer and more equal society.

The new Social Security Bill in Scotland is one step in a longer national history towards social justice and a healthier society. Devolution might seem like a complex, tricky business but one can hope the outcome will be transparent and simple to access. For all we know, devolution could irrevocably change the history of social security in Scotland! Ultimately, this new legislation offers big opportunities for big improvement.   According to Social Security Secretary, MSP Angela Constance, “once all the benefits are devolved, we will make more payments each week than the Scottish government currently makes each year.” With the first payments planned to roll out by mid-2018, this ambitious and complex infrastructure could (potentially) improve the desperate circumstances of Scotland’s most vulnerable citizens.

To keep up to date on the latest meetings or voice your opinion, see the Social Security Committee website or Tweet them @SP_SocialSecur 

Hidden Edinburgh: The World’s First School for the Deaf is in my back Garden

A few times a week, I walk down a quiet path through Edinburgh’s residential Southside. This well-used and well-maintained path follows the foot of the Salisbury Crags and offers a magnificent, up-close view of Holyrood Park. It’s also a stone’s throw from my flat.

This path borders one of the largest council-built estates in southern Edinburgh called “Dumbiedykes.” (Pronounced as dumm-ee-dykes). While this is a strange name, I had once been told that it derived from the fact that there was once an old school for the “deaf and dumb” nearby. (Of course, no one in modern PC language would ever call it that nowadays).

A tall stone wall separates this walk path from Queen’s Drive, the road that skirts the Salisbury’s Crags and is annoyingly closed every Sunday or during major events to all road traffic. (Often due to royal events at nearby Holyrood Palace, an inconvenient reality for us plebs who live so close to royalty).  Thus, a walker such as myself must walk along this wall when using the path. Here’s a crude representation:

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Upon closer inspection of this marvellous stone wall, you begin to notice the remnants of fireplaces, walls, and numerous inexplicable nooks and crannies that have no logical order.

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Can you spot the fireplace? Can you spot the commemorative plaque?

Every time I pass this wall, I try to imagine the stone cottages or stables that might have been attached to it so long ago.  Of course, just like so many other parts of Edinburgh’s dark grimy history and confusing urban landscape, I merely shrug my shoulders and continue my walk.

 

Not today, I vowed myself. Not today! 

After an afternoon of researching my local area, learning about this deaf school, its founder, and discovering British Sign Language’s status in Scottish society,  I thought a blog post would be a perfect forum for my findings.

Who founded this “deaf and dumb” school? When? And, why? 

Born in 1715 in South Lancashire, Thomas Braidwood studied at the University of Edinburgh and began a career in education to the children of wealthy families. At his home in Edinburgh’s Canongate, Braidwood privately instructed local students and especially enjoyed teaching mathematics. However, this changed in 1760 when a wealthy Leith wine merchant, Alexander Shirreff, asked Braidwood to teach his 10 year old deaf son, Charles, how to write.

Evidently, Braidwood was eager for the challenge. In 1764, he founded Braidwood Academy just south of the Royal Mile along a street called St. Leonards. The building, which came to be known as “Dumbie House,” was the very first (private) school for deaf children in Britain and, some claim, in the world.

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This drawing (1885) depicts Dumbie House (later named Craigside House), and it can also be seen on 1820s maps from Historic Environment Scotland.

Despite Braidwood’s good connections and enthusiasm towards this untapped educational market, Charles Shirreff (who would become a celebrated painter and portrait miniaturist) was his only pupil. However, soon enough, Dumbie House welcomed other wealthy pupils, including astronomer John Goodricke (1764-1786), Governor of Barbados Francis McKenzie (1754-1815, also Clan Chief of Highland Clan McKenzie, British MP, and a botanist with the Royal Society of London), and Scottish biographer John Philip Wood (1762-1838).

Remarkably, Braidwood became a pioneer in sign language. During the mid-18th century, deaf education mostly comprised of teaching how to speak clearly enough to be understood. But Braidwood’s new technique was unusual; he combined the vocal exercises of articulation with lip-reading and, for the first time, hand gestures that we recognise today as sign language. This combined system became the forerunner of British Sign Language (BSL).

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Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) suffered from poor health himself having contracted scofula (a form of tuberculosis) as a child. Despite hearing loss and bad eyesight, Johnson had a remarkable career as a writer. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, he is the second-most quoted Englishman in history.

Braidwood Academy also received attention from famous contemporaries. Sir Walter Scott mentioned Braidwood Academy in Heart of Midlothian (1818) and even the famous author, Dr. Samuel Johnson, described the school after a short visit en route to the Western isles: “There is one subject of philosophical curiosity in Edinburgh which no other city has to show; a College for the Deaf and Dumb, who are taught to speak, to read and to write, and to practise arithmetic, by a gentleman whose name is Braidwood. It was pleasing to see one of the most desperate of human calamities capable of so much help: whatever enlarges hope will exalt courage. After having seen the deaf taught arithmetic, who would be afraid to cultivate the Hebrides.”

Dumbie House eventually boasted 20 students, including women (Jane Poole, for example, set a major legal precedent when a court accepted her last will as valid, even though she had communicated her wishes to the drafter exclusively by fingerspelling as she was both deaf and blind – a massive victory for legal rights of the disabled in Britain). By 1780, Thomas Braidwood moved to London to begin a new school in Hackney. Notably, his three daughters also became teachers for the deaf and continued to practise his combined approach to new generations of pupils. Dumbie House continued to operate as a school until it was shut in 1873 and Dumbie House was demolished in 1939.

But Braidwood’s Influence Spreads Across the Seas….

Another very important Braidwood Academy pupil was Charles Green. Born deaf, Charles was the son of fourth-generation American and Harvard graduate Francis Green (1742-1809). Just prior to the American Revolution, the Green family moved to England and in 1780, Charles was enrolled at Braidwood Academy in Edinburgh.

Francis watched his son learn how to communicate orally, but was astonished at the speed of which sign language could allow his son to communicate with other students. He was so impressed, apparently, that Francis published a book anonymously that praised Braidwood’s work called “Vox Oculis Subjecta: A Dissertation on the most curious and important art of imparting speech, and the knowledge of language, to the naturally deaf, and (consequently) dumb; With a particular account of the Academy of Messrs. Braidwood of Edinburgh” in 1783. “Vox Oculis Subjecta” translates to “voice subjected to the eyes.” Francis wrote in the introduction that:

 “Man as a social being has an irresistible propensity to communicate with his species, to receive the ideas of others, and to impart his own conceptions.”

The first half of Vox Oculis Subjecta surveys the natural capacity of humans for language (quoting various famous authors extensively), and then describes Braidwood’s methods. As Braidwood himself never wrote about his own teaching practises, Green’s Vox Oculis Subjecta (1783) is invaluable record of deaf education.

Although Charles tragically drowned at age 15 while fishing, Francis continued to take an interest in deaf education. According to historians Melvia M. Homeland and Ronald E. Homeland, in the 1790s, Francis visited Paris and London to see how other institutions taught deaf students to communicate (The Deaf Community in America: History in the Making, p. 31). He eventually returned to the US. Before his death, he not only advocated through his writings for free education to all deaf children in America, but in 1809, had collected the names of 75 deaf individuals in Massachusetts (the first ever census of the deaf) with plans to start a school.

In 1812, just three years after Francis Green’s death, Col. William Bolling, who was a sibling to some Braidwood Academy’s pupils who studied alongside Charles Green, and himself a father of two deaf children, attempted the first US school for the deaf. Even Thomas Braidwood’s grandson, John Braidwood II, who had moved to America by then, assisted with the school. Although the school closed in 1815, it just two year later when another educationalist, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, successfully started what is considered today to be America’s first school for the deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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This road sign, which serves history more than a practical purpose and is just meters from the remnants of Dumbie House, has a great deal more meaning for me now.

So What? 

It seems rather odd that such an instrumental school for deaf education and British Sign Language is so little acknowledged. When I stride past its demolished foundations and the fireplace in the stone wall, I note that its commemorative plaque was not installed there until 2015 (admittedly with a great turn out by the Lord Provost, British Deaf History Society, Deaf History Scotland, and multiple Scottish officials). But this delayed promotion of deaf history is inconsistent with the remarkable work of Edinburgh’s numerous charities and societies (Historic Scotland, National Trust, Old Edinburgh Club, Lost Edinburgh, etc) that are outstanding in their ability to conserve, protect and promote local history…

So perhaps my perception of Braidwood Academy’s neglect speaks to some of the larger attitudes towards disability. Of course, during the 18th Century, deafness – like all disabilities – was poorly understood and it wasn’t until institutions like Braidwood Academy that some began to realise that intellect was not affected by disability. Being deaf was certainly not synonymous with being “dumb.” Compounding this ignorance was the issue of class. Initiallly, only the rich could afford to educate their children at Braidwood Academy. Fortunately, in 1792, the London Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb Poor at Bermondsey, became the first public Deaf school in Britain. Again, Braidwood’s influence was also felt there too – it was one of his previous employees, Joseph Watson, who founded it.

British Sign Language (BSL) was not recognised as an official language by Westminster until 2003.  Ironically, Braidwood Academy’s Dumbie House is just half a mile from where the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act was passed unanimously in 2014 by MSPs in the Scottish Parliament – giving BSL the same legal protection as languages such as Gaelic. In Scotland today, an estimated 12,500 people speak BSL. However, in Wales and Northern Ireland, BSL has no legal status or protection.

While I’m pleased that BSL is legally protected and that a commemorative plaque was mounted on the original foundations of Braidwood Academy,  I do not believe that deafness, or disabilities in general, are given the recognition they deserve. But Braidwood’s remarkable influence on language, teaching and disabled rights is at least an excellent starting point for repositioning deafness as a critical aspect of Scotland’s broader history.  As Ella Leith, secretary of Deaf History Scotland, said at the unveiling of the plaque in 2015:

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“It’s partly about pride for the deaf community in seeing their history recognised, but also about raising awareness among hearing people that Scotland’s heritage should include deaf people too. Their heritage is as much part of Scotland as general heritage.”

 

 

 

Refugees, Labour and Violence: Rethinking “borders” while in the Scottish Borders

Last month, I holidayed in a region of southern Scotland called “The Borders.” As the boyfriend was raised in one of its charming towns, I had a built-in tour guide. He showed me all the fluffy sheep, the gorgeous green rolling hills and told me stories of the Borders’ sparkling history of violence and raiding.

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This vantage of the Tweed valley and Eildon Hills is called “Scott’s View,” as it is reputed as one of Sir Walter Scott’s favourite views.

This lush swath of land held a contentious political boundary that separated Scotland from England. Between the 13th and 17th centuries, this magnificent countryside became ground zero in the quest to define those two nationalities. Repetitive small conflicts and systematic raiding dominated the region due to a group of mercenaries called the Border Reivers. Equipped with bows and arrows and mounted on little ponies, they were notorious for stealing, raping and fighting for live stock and lands.

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Queen Elizabeth I was so impressed with the Border Reivers ruthless success, that she once said, “with ten thousand such men, James VI could shake any throne in Europe.”  (photo: wikipedia)

Today, traces of the intense violence are still present in the abandoned peel towers that dot the countryside, where residents would hide from invaders. One particular peel tower called Smailholm Tower was made popular by Scotland’s cherished author, Sir Walter Scott. As a child battling polio in the late 1700s, Scott stayed with his grandparents at Sandyknowes farm just beside Smailholm Tower and even played in its ruins.

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Smailholm Tower was one of hundreds of defensive fortifications that dotted the countryside. Inside was often a local laird and enough room to house the sheep and cattle, a major resource for the Border Reivers.

Due to the strong oral traditions among the local farmers and shepherds, Scott also learned about the Border Reivers’s raids through workers on the farm, including his auntie who would sing to him. Years later, Scott transcribed and modified some of these folk tales, popularising them through his writings and publications. In one fell swoop, Sir Walter Scott’s renditions of these stories soon came to define an entire portion of Scotland’s (heavily disputed) land and (blood-soaked) history into the romanticised nation we know today.

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Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s family home, is now a B&B and museum.

While Scott’s impact upon Scotland is indisputable – he seemed to be a remarkable and eccentric man – the Scottish Borders as a specific region made me stop and think. Scotland and England would eventually find peace (to an extent) so that the violence would stop, but what do such borders achieve?

Are borders entirely arbitrary, or do they serve a useful purpose? What do borders accomplish? How do borders define a group? Do they cause more peace or more violence? Do we still need them? Or should we build more?   

I’m not the first to ask such questions, especially in recent history. Just last month, it was the 70th anniversary of India and Pakistan’s creation. Or, it was the 70th anniversary of one of the bloodiest legacies that ever came from drawing a border.

In the immediate post-war era, calls for Indian independence from British rule could no longer by ignored by Westminster. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Congress and Muslim League, demanded the creation of a Muslim state. With British PM Clement Atlee’s strong support, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Cyril Radcliffe were responsible for hastily drawing a boundary that essentially cut Punjab and Bengal almost in half.  But the problem was that millions of Muslims lived in what would become Hindu-majority India, while millions of Hindus and Sikhs lived in what would be Muslim-majority Pakistan.

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A photo from 19 September 1947 of an overcrowded train station by New Delhi (from an article by Dawn).

The “Mountabatten Plan” was submitted just five days before India and Pakistan were partitioned (14th and 15th August, respectively). Celebrations ensued, but so did mass migration. Over 15 million Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus essentially swapped countries, leading to over a million deaths in the violence that followed. Chaos reigned at train stations, looting and food shortages were commonplace. People apparently defended themselves from discriminate attacks with knives, guns, swords. Thousands sought shelter and refuge in sacred temples and tombs. Millions died because of this arbitrary, hastily drawn line in the earth. Millions died because of a border.

Borders, essentially, divide people.

Hundreds of years ago, physical features of the land would define a people, such as river or forest. But in more recent history, borders have been politically motivated rather than geographically defined. Or sometimes both. I remember being a young Canadian elementary student in Social Studies class and asking why the US-Canada border was straight on the left (west), but squiggly on the right (east). My teacher laughed and said the St. Lawrence River was the chosen boundary in the east, while the 49th latitude was the boundary in the west. The answer confused me, but then I was told that the US-Canada border is the longest undefended border in the world. “But we’ll be okay,” she reassured me. “Okay from what?” I remember thinking.

Borders “protect” people.

They keep foreigners out. They help us to define ourselves in relation to the “other” whatever we perceive it to be: barbarity, violence, backwardness, et cetera. By doing so, borders create a sense of homogeneity, safety and order for those inside, implying further that such civilised aspects of society only exist within that border. Borders thus legitimise our identities and strengthen our communities. Evidently, borders do accomplish a great deal.

Today’s borders allow free trade, the free movement of goods to be exchanged. This allows us to create links (sometimes exploitive) with our neighbours and is one of the best things to come out of colonisation and globalisation. And yet we do not afford that same freedom of movement to people, to labour.

As British journalist Giles Fraser says, “We are so hypocritical about our borders.” We will celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, but we will fortify Calais and the UK against the waves of eastern refugees and migrants. We will condemn Trump’s proposed wall with Mexico, but continue the oppressive system of First Nations reservations in Canada and the US. We shake our heads at the illegal detainment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but we will applaud the commendable efforts of Médecins Sans Frontières (or, Doctors without Borders).

Why such hypocrisy? 

Professor Jonothan Moses claims in International Migration: Globalization’s Last Frontier (2006), that “as distance in the world recedes with technological, social, demographic and political advances, the demand for international migration will surely grow.” The only way to solve our multiple global problems, he claims, is through free migration. It is the last frontier to be conquered by the global community. Naturally, this sounds both radical and implausible, but he assures us that eventually we would become more just and happier, as the world’s economic and political bounty would be better distributed.

A world without borders? Is that possible?  

Just imagine a world where you could visit or permanently move anywhere you wanted without restrictions. Tropical islands everywhere would become overwhelmed with the world’s richest retirement-aged elites. Many long-distance relationships could be solved. Families separated by war or migration could be reunited.  Unmarried women could backpack through Saudi Arabia! And, importantly, the global divide between the rich underpopulated North and the poor overpopulated South would rebalance. Eventually.

But a world without borders is difficult to comprehend.  So if a borderless, free-moving, global population is one radical extreme, then at the other end of the spectrum is a world with well-defined “nations”. We know this world, because we are living in it. A world with borders, barriers and walls, such as those that currently in Israel/Palestine, or those proposed by Trump with Mexico, or those proposed by Brexit with Europe. No more EU Schengen plans. No more visa-free travel. Everyone restricted to their little nation. Everyone defined by their borders.

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The closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics demonstrates just how much we are defined by our borders (Photo: Daily Mail).

But then, history. History tells us that borders aren’t necessarily the best invention since sliced bread. Borders cause war, then war happens, then borders are redrawn. Repeat. For example, one of the strongest underlying factors for the outbreak of the First World War was the fact that people were angry with their borders. And this anger took the form of nationalism. Pause here.

Nationalism (generally, a pride in one’s nation) is based upon a collective identity due to ethnic, religious, and/or political reasons. It’s a massive concept that historians debate endlessly (see Anthony Smith’s Theories of Nationalism (1971), Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (1983), anything by Eric J. Hobsbaum). Because borders keep foreigners out, legitimise citizens within, and nurture collective pride and identity, nationalism is tied inextricably to borders – real or imagined. Nationalism does not always need to exist in a community, but it does exist because that community is legitimised by, or rebelling against, its borders. Correct? Yes.

So, in the early 1900s, multiple ethnic communities in the Balkans were formulating new identities that wanted autonomy from the Austria-Hungarian state and old Emperor Franz Joseph in Vienna. Two previous localised Balkan wars had proved just how forceful these groups were becoming. But the conflict escalated into the First World War when a member of one Serbian nationalist group assassinated the nephew of the Emperor. Nationalism, aggravated by borders (that these groups felt limited by), was thus a major component of the ongoing tensions that sparked and accelerated that conflict.

After the First World War, borders were redrawn: Poland, Finland and the Baltics were born. Austria-Hungary was split into Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Alsace-Lorraine was returned to the French. German colonies were transferred to the victors. The League of Nations was created to hopefully broker ongoing peace and stability after an estimated 25 million deaths.

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The German delegates at the Treaty of Versailles: Professor Walther Schücking, Reichspostminister Johannes Giesberts, Justice Minister Otto Landsberg, Foreign Minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau, Prussian State President Robert Leinert, and financial advisor Carl Melchior. (Photo from Wikipedia).

For a time, it seemed to work. But the League of Nations faltered. Nationalism grew. This time Germany and Russia became massive forces that spurned many citizens to believe that their nations had not only the means but the right to reclaim lost territories and even conquer new ones. Hitler and Stalin’s fierce ambitions, and weak Allied leadership in the late 1930s heightened tensions and nurtured opportunity for conflict. The Second World War resulted in an estimated 50 to 80 million deaths.

The United Nations attempted to succeed where the League of Nations failed. European Integration became central to rebuilding a world after total devastation. A common market was created among its first four members and the free movement of goods became a cornerstone of collective European prosperity. Go, Europe!

Simultaneously, the Cold War constructed “the Iron Curtain” and, again, divided Europe and the world. The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 and symbolised the cold, hard barrier between western capitalism and eastern communism. The last remaining right-wing dictatorships in Portugal and Spain soon dissolved. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and East and West Germany were finally reunited. Borders that had previously been so indestructible for decades seem to crumble in a few short months.

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Over 138 people died trying to escape through the Wall, and an estimated 5,000 were successful. The first to escape was East German border guard, Corporal Conrad Schumann, in August 1961 (Photo from here)

By 1993, the Schengen Agreements allowed for movement of “four freedoms”: goods, services, money and people. Millions of young people were able to study in other EU countries and the Euro currency was adopted by most EU nations. Remarkably, the EU eased gracefully into a period of prosperity and harmony. Goals to tackle climate change and terrorism unified these once national enemies. Germany, despite his historic territorial ambitions, became the world leader in accepting refugees and migrants. The EU won the Noble Peace Prize in 2012.

But then, Brexit. And Trump’s Mexico wall. It seems that some western leaders believe tightening borders, not eradicating them, is the best response to global migration.

So what’s the solution?

Rethink the nature of “borders.” Although totally removing borders is radical and implausible in the near future, global migration will only increase. As migrants move between countries, they often transition through multiple societies, adopting new identities in each and thus complicating the simple labels of “origin” and “destination.” Global migration is not only increasing, but becoming vastly more complex.

History proves that borders do not keep foreigners “out” nor keep citizens “in”. And why should they? The global economy is based upon free trade, the free movement of goods, so why shouldn’t that be extended to people, to labour? Meanwhile, current gaps between the rich and poor, the north and south, the citizens and refugees, are eroding due to instantaneous communications, faster transportation, and global infrastructures and this exact type of trade. Sorry, world, but refugees and migrants won’t just “go away,” no matter how high you build those walls.

According to the International Organisation of Migration, “Migration is an integral part of global transformation and development processes rather than a problem to be solved.” If true, then how do we improve this?

Of course, the best remedies lay in helping those on the other side of the border. Provide immediate aid to victims of war, hunger and disease. Allow those fleeing persecution and war to cross borders, with or without passports or visas. Commit to large-scale, international resettlement projects across borders. Do not underfund long-term peace projects that tackle the root causes of war, hunger and disease. Persecute human traffickers heavily. Combat all forms of racism and xenophobia at home and abroad.

The Scottish Borders unknowingly provides us a great deal of information about how this could work on a global scale. Although fighting over human and material resources could continue for centuries, strict borders will eventually disappear. People will eventually live without violence. And while pride for one’s nation is still very strong in this part of the world, and tensions between Scotland and English still certainly exist, the Borders is a serene and renowned land with its numerous peel towers and fluffy sheep.

Who wouldn’t be proud of that?