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Independence Referendums: Who should vote and who should be offered citizenship? - Polish migrants in Scotland, by Derek McGhee and Emilia Pietka-Nykaza


Polish migrants in Scotland

by Derek McGhee and Emilia Pietka-Nykaza (University of Southampton)


The Scottish Independence referendum is a historic event, as an independence referendum being held in an existing EU member state is unprecedented (Shaw 2013: 13). Independence referendums are unlike other sub-national elections, as they address questions that as Ziegler notes in this Forum ‘are qualitatively different from the issues raised in elections for sub-units of a state’. The fact that the outcome of the referendum could disrupt Scotland's and the UK's continuing EU membership is of particular concern for EU migrants living in Scotland. We will return to concerns over continuing EU membership and other related issues (including the link between sub-national election rights and naturalization) at the end of the contribution. 

This contribution primarily concerns  a particular aspect of what Bauböck (2005) might call EU migrants’ sense of having ‘a stake’, or being ‘stakeholders’. Thus, we examine how some of the Post-Accession[1]  Poles in Scotland (it should be noted that Post-accession Poles are Scotland's largest minority group[2] ) we interviewed[3]  perceive their eligibility to vote in this referendum. What we were particularly struck by in our interviews was the number of our participants who referred to their inclusion as eligible voters in this referendum either as a privilege or as a burden. Both of these perceptions offer opportunities for deepening our appreciation of the experience of being a ‘stakeholder alien’ in this historic referendum.

The participants who perceived their voting rights as a burden struggled with the decision whether to vote in the referendum. There were two main reasons that a number of our participants gave for this contemplation. The first reason was related to the question whether migrants in Scotland have a moral right to vote and decide about independence of a nation state they are not citizen of. The second reason was that migrants did not want to exercise a right that might contribute to an outcome that their hosts might not desire. Thus, their response was a matter of taking on the role of the considerate guest who does not want to be seen to be abusing their host's kindness and hospitality:

I know that I have a right take part in referendum, but do I have a moral right to do so? (…) If someone is asking about my personal opinion whether Scotland should be independent, I would say no, I think it should remain in the UK. But if someone is asking me do I feel that I should decide after 7 years of living in this country? I think I don’t. I think I won’t be voting because I can contribute to the decision that could make them [Scots] unhappy.

Jan, age 57, warehouse worker, Glasgow 

In a sense participants such as Jan are exhibiting a sophisticated understanding akin to Derrida's (2000a, 2000b, 2005) insistence on the impossibility of 'pure' or 'absolute' hospitality. For Derrida, hospitality is precarious and conditional. That is, conditional on the host’s continuing favourable attitude to their guest(s). As well as exposing the migrants' perception of the precariousness of hospitality, Jan is also articulating what Richard Sennett calls a code of honour. Following Bourdieu, Sennett considers honour to suppose that 'an individual who sees himself through the eyes of others, who has need of others for his existence, because the image he has of himself is indistinguishable from that presented to him by other people' (Bourdieu, in Sennett 2003: 55). In this context, being honourable and honouring the host is an expression of gratitude which acknowledges a conditional welcome and the risks of appearing ungrateful (to one’s host), as such gratitude has ‘survival value’ (Komter 2005: 57). From Jan's perspective, his decision not to vote is in a cycle of gift (the vote) and counter-gift (deciding not to vote) that from Jan’s perspective is essential in sustaining social ties and social cohesion (Komter 2005: 57) in his adopted country. 

In contrast, other participants viewed their inclusion in the referendum as a more straightforward and unconditional gift or privilege. That is, as something Scotland has given EU migrants voluntarily without them asking or demanding this right. For a number of participants this gift or privilege was seen as ‘form of gesture’ and recognition of migrants’ presence and contribution to hosts communities. 

I think it’s a form of gesture and a way of showing one’s trust, because, on one hand, I think if one has lived here for a number of years, one should be considered a citizen of this country (..). I think it was a very valid and positive gesture, because no matter how you look at it, the immigrants who come here not only join the army of labour but also settle down here and contribute to the economy, plan their lives here and shape the culture of the country, and so I think they should totally have the right to vote as well.

Marta, 28, Web developer, Glasgow

The gift or privilege of being eligible to take part in the referendum was also associated with the need to reciprocate, 'give back'. This sentiment was expressed by Anna:

I feel that taking part in referendum is my privilege because I am not a citizen of this country. In Poland this is my duty, but here this is my privilege (…) the implications of this referendum are huge, thus this is huge decision. Because I’m eligible to vote I want to learn and know more and be able to decide wisely and responsively. 

Anna, 42, Teacher of German language, Glasgow

Here, the perception of Marta's and Anna’s right to vote in the referendum is regarded 'as a sign of honour, respect, and appreciation' (Komter 2005: 45). This was articulated by another participant thus: “…it makes me feel appreciated that Scots decided that because I live in this country I am eligible to take part in the referendum.” Marek Psychotherapist, 44, Edinburgh. 

There are some similarities between the Polish Migrants who have decided to honour or show respect to their hosts through not voting, and others who feel 'honoured' by what they perceive as the gifted privilege (rather than the right) to vote in the referendum. Both responses feature the necessary ingredient of inequality in the gifting or exchange process which, from a Maussian perspective, leads to those who benefit from the gift wishing to give something back even if they cannot give back an equivalent (Wise 2009: 11). Thus, they reciprocate through voting or not voting, depending on what they perceive to be the proper way of honouring the gifted privilege they believe the Scots have bestowed on them. What is common to both responses is they want to 'do the right thing' with these gifts. According to Wise's reading of Mauss, these exchanges have the effect of turning people outward of producing a more general disposition of trust (Wise 2009: 17). Cheal takes this one step further when he says that the circulation of gifts underpins the moral economy, that is, a 'system of transactions which are defined as socially desirable (that is, moral) because through them social ties are recognized, and balanced social relationships are maintained' (Cheal 1988: 15 and 19). That being said, Jan’s response to the situation is more complex than Marta’s, Anna’s, and Marek’s. Jan did not want EU migrants' participation in the Scottish Independence Referendum to impact negatively on what he perceives to be the current pro-migration attitudes in Scotland. Jan’s response presents a degree of anxiety and powerlessness, which evokes the other side of the migrant experience where, there are concerns that conditional hospitality can turn to hostility, in the context of the unstable pairing of hospitality/hostility (Derrida 2000: 3). 

Many of our participants perceive what they consider to be the potential 'strings attached' to their inclusion in the referendum electorate. Just as Caplow observed, in terms of interpersonal gifts, the majority of gifts are given in order to ascertain and fortify relationships that are deemed important but have not yet been stabilized (Caplow, in Komter 2005: 47). Although we have found that, for a number of our participants who feel the warmth of recognition, honour and being part of this historic process, reciprocation of the perceived gift or privilege of referendum electorate inclusion could well have a stabilising effect, we note that this stabilising effect in terms of the obligations and the compulsion to 'give something back' to Scotland for those who intend to honour the perceived privilege of election right inclusion by voting in the referendum was not in turn articulated in longer-term naturalisation plans. What did emerge in our interviews was a yearning for clarification and certainty in the context of the uncertainty the referendum has generated for EU citizens as to what their status as EU citizens of an independent Scotland will be. Thus, clarification of their 'long-term alienage' (Shaw 2007: 70-71) was more salient than naturalisation for these particular stakeholders in this referendum. 

What we observed was that the Poles’ ‘stakeholdership’ as migrants did not seem to follow Bauböck's assumptions that limited (sub-national) voting rights should lead to naturalization by application (Bauböck 2005: 686)[4].  Shaw notes regarding Bauböck's definition of stakeholder citizens that 'long-term alienage' seems to be excluded as a possibility for migrants (Shaw 2007: 74). On the whole, our participants are intent on and content with remaining EU citizens living in Scotland. With regard to the referendum, they desire to have their legal status (in terms of rights and responsibilities) as EU citizens living in a potentially independent Scotland more clearly articulated in the future.




Bauböck, R. (2005) Expansive Citizenship - Voting beyond territory and membership; PS online, 683-687.

Cheal, D. (1988) The Gift Economy, Routledge: London.

Day, S. and Shaw, J. (2002) European Union electoral rights and the political participation of migrants in host polities, International Journal of Political Geography, vol. 8, 183-199 .

Derrida, J. (2000a)  Hospitality, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 5.3, 3-18.

Derrida, J. (2000b) Of Hosptality, Stanford University Press:Stanford.

Derrida, J. (2005) The Principles of. Hospitality, Parrallax, 11.1, 6-9.

Hammar, T. (1990) Democracy and the Nation State, Avebury: Aldershot.

Komter, A. (2005) Social Solidarity and the Gift, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Scotland's Future (2013). Scotland's Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland, Scotreferendum.com.

Sennett, R. (2003) Respect: the formation of character in a world of inequality, Penguin: London.

Shaw, J. (2007) The Transformation of Citizenship in the. European Union, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Shaw, J. (2013) Citizenship in an independent Scotland: Legal Status and Political Implications, CITEES Working Paper Series, 2013/34, University of Edinburgh.

Walker, N. (2008) Migrantship and the Deterritorialisation in the EU, European University Institute, Working Paper, http://cadmus.eui.eu/handle/1814/8082, 

Wise, A. (2009) Everyday multiculturalism: Transversal crossings and working class cosmopolitans, A. Wise and S. Velayutham (Eds) Everyday Multiculturalism, Palgrave: Basingstoke,  21-45.




[1] Post-accession migrants are the citizens of the eight countries that joined the EU in 2004 (Czech, Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia). 

[2] According to the 2011 Census for Scotland, the number of Polish migrants living in Scotland was 55,231. See National Records for Scotland

[3] This was a small-scale mostly qualitative study. We do not intend to generalise findings, nor do we claim that outcomes are representative of all Polish migrants in Scotland. We conducted an online survey, 250 participants completed the survey between April-June 2014, and 24 individual in-depth interviews with Polish Adults, 12 in Glasgow and 12 in Edinburgh, between May and June 2014,. We anonymised the names of all participants.

[4] According to the White Paper, applications for naturalisation will be possible for migrants who can prove they have resided in Scotland for ten years at any time and have an on-going connection with Scotland (Scotland's Future 2013: 496). It may well be that for those who are resident the qualification period may be shorter, e.g. five years.