Whichever way the referendum in Scotland is decided, things will never been the same again. The often uneasy relationship between nationalist and unionized Scots has seldom filtered as far south as London in terms of a major political agenda item, and thus it has been for many hundreds of years. So what has changed and where do Poles fit into this seismic shift in relationships between two nations joined by a piece of paper?
A long-established social, political, and economic history with Scotland
The history is pretty straightforward, English Kings and English soldiers conquered the Celts in the North and welded them through force of arms into a part of the English crown. In this respect, Scotland was no different to dozens of other small principalities across Europe who were swallowed up by a larger neighbor. Whilst some still proclaim national identity, few have managed complete separation and creation of a sovereign state without the help of outside agencies or nations.
Scotland is different in that it has been allowed a referendum on its future by David Cameron, a prime minister who carries a Scottish surname, and the Scots now have to make a choice. It’s a fair bet that many thousands of them don’t care either way – and just as many don’t want to have to make a choice. Not everyone is either a nationalist or a unionist – they just want to get on with their own lives. This is especially true of the Poles living in Scotland.
Poland, of course, has a long-established social, political, and economic history with Scotland itself dating back many hundreds of years. Scotland was a place where Poles traded, visited, and came to live – some fleeing persecution in the eighteenth century, others seeking to make their fortunes in the nineteenth century. It was the twentieth century that saw the largest influx of all, as much of the remainder of the Polish armed forces was stationed in Scotland to reform and re-equip before they rejoined the war against Nazi Germany.
However, like hundreds of thousands of Poles in England and Wales, these Poles did not seek to re-establish a Polish homeland abroad. Quite the contrary, they preferred assimilation and the chance to build a new life in their newly adopted homeland. They may have preserved some traditions and worked on teaching their children their Polish alphabet, but essentially they became Scots from Poland.
No desire to engage
However, also like their English counterparts, they haven’t shown any wish to engage in the political process. It’s almost as though they wanted to escape from politics, a sense maybe that it was politics that had dragged them into war, that the history of Poland was dogged by political strife, and that part of starting again was founded on a love of freedom not a love of the politics that created this freedom. So it is that in both England and Scotland the Polish vote could be pivotal, although it just doesn’t turn up for the party.
This fact dawned on the Scottish nationalists recently and out they went to try to mobilize and attract the Polish vote. I doubt whether this has worked. Changing a cultural perspective with a currency that is most prevalent amongst younger Poles cannot happen overnight. In recent interviews I was informed that it is estimated that only 2% of enfranchised Poles will bother to vote in the coming referendum on Scottish independence.
That of course is a tragedy for democracy, the democracy that needs the involvement of the Poles – many tens of thousands who have come to Scotland in the last ten years to enjoy. The idea that whatever happens simply won’t affect them is not only incorrect, it will be irrevocable.
Partly in their defense, the Poles of the younger generations that have been and are coming to the UK do not vote in Poland either. With national electoral turnouts of around 40% in Poland, it should come as no surprise that Poles in Scotland are simply not interested in politics. They also tend to come from the East of Poland in larger numbers where voting is even lower on the agenda than in the cosmopolitan cities.
I wonder if they think that they will just be allowed to carry on working in relative freedom as they do now, able to come and go as they please, and to enjoy the fruits of their labors, while someone else takes the burden of responsibility? Of course becoming part of a new nation may indeed change all that.
Poles could prove pivotal
Two other things strike me. One is that Scotland will never be the same again. Whoever loses the vote will forever be tormented by the result. Like Northern Ireland, there will be an uneasy truce punctuated by fermenting discord, with the subject of independence or unity a hot topic for years to come – it has gone too far now to stop becoming a national problem in Scotland and over time, Poles will have to get involved.
The second issue is that Poles in the rest of the UK are equally unattracted to political engagement. Their turn to have to avoid political involvement is coming in May next year with a general election in the UK (whatever that may look like) and shortly after a referendum on Europe. Again, if Poles in England and Wales think that this will not affect them and their economic livelihood, they need to start waking up to the harsh realities of living in the UK. The UK is changing rapidly.
The cosmopolitan, international, and uber-democratic country they joined is facing a reaction from the conservative right that will without doubt see Britain’s place in Europe change or maybe even disappear, and again the enfranchised part of the 800,000 or so Poles across the UK could prove pivotal in making the difference between staying as we are, or making a national change. To do nothing would be an English tragedy that would make Hamlet look like a Scottish comedy.
Born in 1960 to a Polish soldier, Philip Bujak (@PhilipBujak) joined the British Army in 1979 and then pursued a very successful career in education, becoming Headmaster of Stover School for Girls in 1993. From 2003 to 2014, he was Chief Executive of the Montessori Schools movement in the UK. He read history and politics at the University of East Anglia (1979-1982), is the author of four books, and is a Freeman of The City of London. He takes an active interest in Polish affairs and politics in the UK, and is a regular supporter of Polish Heritage projects, receiving the Pro Memoria Medal from the Polish government in 2012.