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Digital Subscriptions > History Scotland > History Scotland Sep -Oct 2019 > The politics of population

The politics of population

Understanding Scottish emigration in a post-war, post-imperial context (part 2)

In the second half of a two-part study, Kajsa Louise Swaffer, winner of the 2018 History Scotland/Royal Historical Society undergraduate dissertation prize, analyses the nature of Scottish emigration in the post-war period, discovering how emigration became inextricably tied to both unionist and nationalist conceptualisations of Scottish identity

Traditionally, shipbuilding employed thousands in Scotland, but after the second world war, the Scottish office began to realise that emigration was restricting the growth of industries such as this one

The political, social and economic problem of Scottish emigration was intensified in the post-war period by an administrative layering which immobilised Scotland in terms of infiuence over centralised emigration policy, and limited her political power in general. Scotland lacked representation on the overseas migration board, and carried limited representation in committees and working parties negotiating migration policy. The interdepartmental committee in charge of reviewing and renewing the empire settlement act of 1957 was represented by those departments considered apposite to the question of emigration from Britain, but lacked any direct Scottish representation, epitomising the government’s position on the management of Scottish affairs. In a similar vein, almost a decade later a working party on the economic effects of British emigration, this time carrying Scottish representation, recognised that ‘one of the objects of Government policy was to stimulate industry in Scotland and reduce movement out of Scotland; any increase in emigration might be prejudicial to this policy’. Nevertheless, after having duly noted the ‘special population problem of Scotland’, the working party declared ‘it should not be assumed that there would be any radical change in Government policy on emigration’.

The ‘Scottish situation’ as perceived in London

Scotland’s restricted political autonomy in combination with the Scottish office’s poor track record regarding emigration analysis not only fostered an outward appearance of Scottish passivity on the issue, but also meant that mixed messages regarding the severe state of the Scottish post-war economy were being received in London. In 1964, when the Scottish office was consulted by a government working party to consider the economic effects of a hypothetical 50 per cent increase in British emigration to the dominions, the Scottish office declared with unanimity that increased emigration from Scotland ‘would be little short of catastrophic’. Unfortunately, their historical neglect in conducting robust analysis on migration now came back to bite them, and the working party noted that Scotland had had difficulties obtaining ‘satisfactory data’ on emigration, and relied on ‘common knowledge’ rather than empirical evidence of heavy emigration rates. The working party therefore concluded that it was not possible to ‘analyse what proportion of skills being lost to the United Kingdom came from Scotland’, with the final report barely mentioning Scottish circumstances.

But because the same administrative layering suppressed Scotland’s political power to intervene in its own economic challenges, the Scottish office was largely unable to observe migration from Scotland as a problem in its own right. Emigration had simply become interpreted as an extension of post-war economic and social challenges such as population forecasting, employment, income levels, taxation and housing. Reducing unemployment rates was a priority for the Scottish office, and for this reason permitting high emigration rates became a mechanism allowing Scotland to intervene in its economic situation and improve unemployment figures. However, this technique also meant the acute need to create more employment in Scotland appeared reduced. This contributed to an under-estimation of the need for regional investment in Scotland by government, and became central to shaping how the ‘Scottish situation’ was perceived in London. The Scottish office was in consequence even further politically immobilised, faced with a general disbelief regarding the seriousness of the issue of Scottish emigration and of the Scottish economy. In response to the improving unemployment figures presented by the Scottish office to the ministry of labour, the ministry stated that ‘We are glad to find confirmation from Scotland of our own calculations that emigration from Scotland is not having the serious effect that some of the alarmists claim’. This dissuaded the government from intervening excessively in Scottish emigration as well as unemployment in Scotland when this was very necessary.

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About History Scotland

Don't miss Sep/Oct History Scotland and the launch of our Insider BONUS CONTENT! Highlights of this packed issue include: · The Sobieski Stuarts – new research on the remarkable brothers who popularised tartan and fooled a generation with their book Vestiarium Scoticum · New findings relating to the Traprain Law hoard – discovered in East Lothian 100 years ago this year · The Aberdeen Doctors – six men who dared to oppose the National Covenant · Lords of the Isles: a striking reconstruction of a medieval Islay power base * HISTORY SCOTLAND INSIDER: Exclusive interview, new video on the north east slavery legacy, exclusive discounts from heritage partners.​