Jim Orr: Politics must reflect city’s diverse nature

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AROUND 14 per cent of the population of Edinburgh, some 58,000 people, were born in England, according to the recent census. We live in an increasingly multicultural but conspicuously anglicised city.

Just one benefit of this is that some of the more negative aspects of our nation’s small town mentality are scarcely in evidence here. For example, an English-accented person engaging with locals will very rarely hear the response (or objection) that “you’re not from here”. This is always dispiriting even if not meant maliciously.

What’s also important is that our city is – on balance and notwithstanding wild inequalities which we must tackle – a successful one and an agreeable place to live.

Unquestionably our ability to maintain this status depends significantly on attracting and retaining highly qualified people from south of the Border.

It’s good that the job market is competitive here, often fiercely so, with the higher education sector an obvious example. Yes, that makes it harder for young Scottish academics or researchers to make their mark at our excellent universities, and that’s unfortunate. But due to such competition the sector is unusually strong.

More importantly, we natives have little choice but to welcome immigration of talent and try to rise to the consequent challenges. We live in a continent of open borders now. That’s unlikely to ever change and most of us are already comfortable with easy migration within the EU.

As well as skills, English people simply bring a fresh perspective to any gathering of Scots and make it more diverse. This often puts them in a good position to observe that the way things have always been done is not necessarily the way that they should continue to be done.

We have many worthwhile traditions in Scotland, including many that need to adapt, and many that don’t deserve to survive. Monolingualism and heavy drinking belong firmly in the last category to name but two. More fresh pairs of eyes can only help Scotland gently evolve in a way we’re all comfortable with. But it’s unfortunate that, with regard to English and other incomers, our plurality of population and culture has scarcely yet filtered down to elected politics.

Of the Lothians MPs and MSPs, the vast majority are, to my eyes and ears, from conventional white Scottish stock. Similarly, while some of the elected members of Edinburgh City Council have English accents, there are a lot fewer than 14 per cent.

It’s not that it is necessarily beneficial to see more English people in elected politics, more that, with so many English people in top jobs in Edinburgh, it is curious and unfortunate that they appear to be unwilling or unable to compete for top political posts.

Politics can be a rough trade, and is not always meritocratic, but whatever the reason for the under-representation of English people, the city is poorer for it. There are few greater opportunities to change society for the better than elected politics.

Scotland’s future as a pluralistic nation must be reflected in political life. Local and national politics needs more competition for places and English incomers, to name but one group, clearly need more help and encouragement to get as engaged and active in politics as they already are in so many other walks of life. We need to identify the barriers that are preventing this engagement.

• Jim Orr is an independent councillor in Edinburgh