There are many reasons I support Scottish independence: from self-determination being the natural state of being and the assurance of always getting the Government voted for by the majority Scottish people, to removing nuclear weapons from our borders, rejecting illegal and immoral wars, to opening up the space for genuinely radical political change aimed at creating a fairer and more just society as opposed to the cronyism and corruption of Westminster, through which no alternative is, or will ever be, offered to the neoliberal consensus. However, although I’m passionate about all of these issues, the independence debate hit home most painfully for me when the politics of disenfranchisement had a painfully personal impact thanks to the Tory-led and UKIP-inspired changes to the UK immigration rules introduced in July 2012. These changes threatened my marriage and I believe robbed me of fundamental human rights which I hope can be restored to me in an Independent Scotland.
My wife is Jamaican, and prior to July 2012 there was no financial requirement for a UK Citizen sponsoring a Non-EEA partner to live with you in the UK as such: provided you had an income greater than income support level and your relationship was genuine, you would be granted a spousal visa (only the first step towards permanent settlement). When our relationship started around 4 years ago, it was easier economically for me to initially move to Jamaica in order for us to be together although after a while we decided that it would be best for us to try to make a move to Scotland. As an aside, I should explain that the rules for an EEA citizen sponsoring a non-EEA citizen partner to join them in the UK are more lenient and that situation remains the same: provided that the EEA citizen is exercising treaty rights in the UK (working or looking for work) their partner and any dependants can join them permanently, with no minimum income requirement.
As it transpired with the changes which took place in July 2012, the greater rights to a family life in the UK afforded to EEA citizens has admittedly chawed me, but remaining in the EEA has provided an essential counterbalance to the increasingly reactionary and punitive immigration policies introduced by the coalition Government. As Westminster veers ever-rightwards, with an impending in-out vote on Europe, it’s easy to see where UK immigration policy is headed with the prospect of a Tory/UKIP coalition, or sadly, even with a Labour Government. However, back to the July 2012 rule changes introduced by Teresa May et al. The effect of these rules was that I now had to find a job in Scotland which paid £18,600 per annum in order to be considered a valid sponsor for my spouse. There are other integral components which prevent the use of third party offers of support from friends and family in order to ‘top-up’ income levels and which also prevent, for most people, the use of savings to meet the threshold. For example, if I secured a job which paid £17,600, I would not be able to use £1000 savings in order to meet the threshold: I would, according to their formula, have to have 2.5 x the shortfall, plus a base level of savings of £16,000. So for this example I’d need to evidence £18,500 savings as well as a £17,600 per annum job, which was definitely out of reach for me. If I were to rely on savings alone and had no job offer, I would require £62,500 savings.
The Tory party line thus far has justified the introduction of these rules in terms that it is ‘acceptable’ to fall in love with a non-EEA spouse, and it is acceptable for that spouse to live in the UK, but ‘not at the expense of the British taxpayer’. The implication of course is that non-EEA migrants are claiming a disproportionate amount of DWP benefits and this fits neatly into the current scapegoating of immigrants and other minority groups, which the Tories and the coalition they dominate have been so keen to embrace in an attempt at appeasing the concerns of Middle England and capturing votes lost to UKIP. There is scant factual basis for these claims: a DWP study published in January 2012 estimated that as of February 2011, there were over 5 and a half million people claiming DWP working-age benefits, of which 6.4 % were estimated to have been non-UK nationals at the time they first registered for a NINO (National Insurance registration, which is the most reliable method the DWP have of estimating the numbers of immigrants who claim benefits). 25% of this 6.4 % were European nationals whilst the other 75% were non-EEA nationals. Of this 75%, UKBA statistics included in the study showed that 98% were subsequently matched to an immigration or nationality status entitling them to benefits. In other words, they were legal immigrants.
So in spite of all of the Daily Mail outrage and convenient scapegoating regarding illegal immigrants claiming benefits, at most 2% of this group had an immigration status which could make their benefits claims illegitimate. To combat this 2% (of 75% of 6.4%), the coalition government introduced a family migration threshold for sponsoring a non-EEA partner which at £18,600 for sponsoring the partner alone (the figure rises at substantial increments for each sponsored child for those with families) was far above the national minimum wage at the time of £12, 875.20 per annum and instantly created some of the harshest family migration rules in the world. Furthermore, according to evidence from the Migration Observatory, 47% of British Citizens in employment in 2012 would not qualify to sponsor a non-EEA partner on the basis of their earnings and because of their lower incomes, were unlikely to be able to afford the various ‘top-up’ methods I have already described. In Scotland, 48% of British Citizens in employment in 2012 would not qualify for sponsorship, in Wales 51% and in Merseyside 56%.
Interestingly, although according to Office of National Statistics, 38% of all UK residents born abroad are living in London, London is the least affected by the new financial threshold, because higher wages there mean that only 29% of London sponsors would be ineligible to qualify as a sponsor of a non-EEA partner. So whilst superficially appeasing Middle England, the coalition have ensured that their London city-state is least affected. Non-EEA immigrants are vital to London and this policy has ensured they can integrate there far more easily there than in the rest of the UK. The immigration levels in general have also been decreasing since 2006, which makes it even more difficult for the coalition to justify the implementation of these rules, which are completely disproportionate and seem to have little statistical/factual justification. To further counter the claim the non-EEA immigrants are a drain on UK resources, I should clarify that as the family migration rules stand, although they are allowed to work and pay tax after entering the UK on a spousal visa, a non-EEA family member is not permitted to claim benefits for a 5 year period after entry. Most non-EEA immigrants come to work hard, contribute and fight for a better life for themselves and their families.
On a personal level, it meant that a policy driven by a party with one MP in my country (Scotland) had effectively barred me from bringing my wife there to live with me. There are many others like me and as the Independence debate rages those who claim we’re ‘Better Together’ should remember that not all expatriate Scots who are ineligible to vote in September 2014 are abroad strictly through choice. I chose to remain in Jamaica with my wife because I love her and to return to the UK in search of work would have meant a period of indefinite separation causing untold strain on our marriage. So there was an element of choice, but it was a stark choice indeed. Furthermore, if I moved my base to Scotland my wife would have been unlikely to have been issued a UK visitor’s visa to come and see me, as UKBA would not have considered her a genuine visitor. Of course, the fact that I was in Scotland looking for work would also have meant that I did not have the resources to visit her in Jamaica. As time progressed it became apparent that since my job in Jamaica was threatened with closure, I would have to take the step we had dreaded. I had applied for literally hundreds of jobs in the UK, spending most nights and every weekend trawling through employment websites and submitting applications, to no avail.
The combination of the poor employment climate in the UK and the fact that perhaps my being abroad was off-putting to employers, meant that my efforts were fruitless. I’m not a fan of self-promotion, but I have a first class degree and several years’ experience in a specialised sector, therefore I hoped I’d be of use to somebody. Thank God that a couple of months ago I managed to secure a job in Scotland which pays the magical figure that Theresa May has declared is mandatory, so I can now sponsor my wife to join me in Scotland. I will have to wait until I have worked in this job for 6 months before we make our application though, because since my job in Jamaica did not pay £18,600 per annum, we could not make our application immediately. I don’t know how many people earn £18,600 per annum in Jamaica, but with a minimum wage which would not buy you a family meal in a UK restaurant, I can bet it’s not many.
However, I am very grateful and relieved that in time we can make our visa application and start our lives together in my country. I feel deeply sorry for the thousands of UK citizens split up from their partners and children because of these rules and the injustice of it continues to anger me. I have written to the Scottish Government about my situation and although I know that they obviously cannot provide me with the specific details of immigration in an Independent Scotland, they have assured me that their family migration policies will be based primarily on family reunion.
So what am I trying to get at? I’d like those who are undecided or who are voting No to consider what their British citizenship means to them. Flags are waved, militarism is celebrated and we are made to feel unpatriotic at best and treasonous at worst if we question the British values promulgated by the Establishment which our forefathers have fought and died for. However, please bear in mind that the truly great systems and institutions which were built by people all over Britain such as the welfare state, social housing and the NHS have been systematically torn apart by successions of Westminster Governments of all hues in an epic paper-chase which had abandoned all ethics and principles in favour of profit. These are some of the key achievements which Britain can genuinely be proud of.
But if you are living in Scotland, are holding onto the principles behind these institutions as last bastions of an inclusive and democratic Britishness (which is long-gone and will never be re-established in the current system), as counterintuitive as it may seem, you absolutely have to vote Yes to Scottish Independence in order to protect them. Remember also that, as my story proves, your British passport does not afford you the basic human right to have your partner settle with you in your own country, if by accident of birth they happen to come from outside of the EEA and you are unfortunate enough not to have the prerequisite material resources (in common with half of the population).
There is effectively no right to family life in Scotland for thousands of people in my situation and while these rules are unfair to UK citizens across the UK, surely the fact that they are imposed on Scottish people by a party with only one MP here is a complete affront to democracy and as stark an example of our democratic deficit as you could find.
My wife has talents and skills which should be welcomed in Scotland and would contribute to our society in many diverse ways. But more importantly, I love her, we’ve made sacrifices to be together and it should be my right to have her live here with me in my own country. Moreover, although this is not the time and place to enter an analysis of Scottish-Jamaican historical relations, my fellow Scots should remember the contribution Jamaicans made in blood, sweat and tears to the coffers of the merchants of Glasgow in particular, the fact that many Jamaicans of all hues share Scottish DNA (largely through the brutalisation of their ancestors rather than free choice), that they have sacrificed themselves in combat alongside and inside British forces in many conflicts and that they have had a permanent and positive impact on the culture of the British Isles.
For better or worse, Scottish influence in Jamaica is evidenced by the preponderance of Scottish surnames and place names, the inclusion of Scottish phrases in Jamaican patois and in the subtle Celtic cadences of the language. Scotland can enhance her economy by welcoming people like my wife to live and work here and we can also take ownership of our contribution to the brutality of British Imperialism by voting Yes and putting the final nail in the coffin of that Empire: laying it to rest in mind, body and spirit. We can then concentrate on fostering a new era of Scottish internationalism based on mutual respect, peace and prosperity rather than sabre-rattling militarism and patronising paternalism.
The deadline for registering to vote in the referendum is September 2. Click here to download a registration form.
Image from Matt Runkle