Facing up to racism in Scotland

Neil Davidson, Minna LiinPää, Maureen McBride and Satnam Virdee, editors, No Problem Here: understanding racism in Scotland, Luath Press, Edinburgh, 2018, pp. 236.

Reviewed by Douglas Chalmers

Early in March 2018, the then SNP Transport minister Humza Yousaf, and Labour MSP Anas Sarwar, both prominent Scottish Muslim politicians, told BBC Scotland that racism and Islamophobia were getting worse in Scotland. They reported to the BBC that they both frequently received violent death threats via social media and in e-mails.

This is just one detail of a background that makes the publication of this book so timely and valuable for everyone concerned to eradicate the scourge of racism in Scotland.

In their introduction, Neil Davidson and Satnam Virdee set the context for the book as being that of challenging what they see as the relatively little public discussion about the historical or contemporaneous structuring power of racism in Scotland. (p9). They highlight and critique what they see as narratives of the ‘Scottish elite’ such as the current Scottish government, in constructing a powerful myth that ‘there is no problem here’. This is not a new narrative invented by the SNP however, it’s one that they see as existing in the longer term, but which is not challenged by Scotland’s current government.

Although Davidson and Virdee welcome what they refer to as the ‘elite rhetoric’ (of, for instance, welcoming increased migration into Scotland), they take a critical view of the actions of the SNP and others which they believe helps to ‘further reinforce the myth that Scotland does not have a serious racism problem’. They go on to suggest that the crafting and ‘re-imagining’ of Scotland in SNP discourse represents a degree of ’intellectual dishonesty’ and an unwillingness to confront the legacies of empire and racism within which Scotland is implicated.

They caution that it is crucial to be aware of ‘the disjunction between elite discourse on migration and the lived reality of radicalised minorities in Scotland’. (p10). Their aim for the book therefore is to ‘dig beneath’ the conventional ‘race-blind’ narratives that Scotland and its elites have crafted over many years, in order ‘to perhaps unsettle them’, so that a space might be opened to write a historical sociology of racism in Scotland.

The book certainly lives up to this aim, and while very frank and positive in terms of outlining the current problems, remains an unsettling read.

In her chapter on Nationalism and Scotland’s Imperial past, Minna LiinPää looks at the role of myths in history and how the nature of these myths change over time. Very critical of how the distinction between ‘civic nationalism’ and ‘ethnic nationalism’ is currently used in Scotland’s national debate, she references Tom Devine’s notion of ‘national amnesia’ which she finds current discourse guilty of, and as an example of this, pinpoints some serious failings of the SNP-promoted Homecoming campaigns of 2009 and 2014.

She points out that during these celebrations, although affluent Scottish diasporic communities from the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia were targeted to ‘come home’, other parts of the Scots ‘diaspora’ – such as the Caribbean (known as the ‘graveyard of the slaves’), were, in the words of Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the first black Professor in Scotland simply ‘forgotten’. Astonishingly, no Jamaicans for instance were officially invited to take part in the events. She does acknowledge what she sees as more recent positive steps regarding the entrenchment of Black History Month in Scotland, and also the openings offered by public discussions on the transatlantic slave trade, (which were occasioned during the 2014 Commonwealth Games). She concurs with others in their suggestion that one step forward in public acknowledgement of Scotland’s past role in Empire and slave economies might be the establishment of a permanent memorial devoted to Scotland and slavery.

Alan Armstrong in his chapter on Britishness, the UK State, Unionism, Scotland and the ‘National Outsider, provides an essential (although quite comprehensive) whistle-stop take on the interaction of these issues. While extremely interesting in its historical overview of the rise and fall of ‘Britishness’ amongst other concepts – and therefore definitely worth a read for those not up to date with Scotland’s politics – any such overview is obviously vulnerable to its predictions in terms of the immediate future – which I found to be less strong than the rest of the chapter, some predictions having been overtaken by events.

Section 2 Of the book, which focusses on Anti-Irish Racism and Sectarianism, starts off with a chapter on The Irish Experience in Historical Perspective by Jim Slaven which offers particularly interesting historical insights into how Irish Catholics in Scotland have been portrayed, and interestingly in the way Scotland often saw itself in relation to Ireland ‘through their respective nationalism and through categories of race, nation and class’(p57).

He suggests that the first ‘War on Terror’ would be a helpful categorisation of how the Irish were treated under the 1800 act of union. He chillingly outlines the racist basis of many elements of the Scottish enlightenment, mirrored in the works of Carlyle, David Hume and others. Something I was unaware of and which shocked me was his bringing to light of the game of ‘Hunting the Barney’ which commonly took place in the times of the Glasgow Fairs of the 19th Century. During this, any Irishman entering the area of the fair would be abused and beaten. Anti-Irish Catholic prejudice had in fact been prevalent as early as 1790 when apparently there were 43 anti Catholic societies in Glasgow and only 39 Catholics. Maureen McBride follows on this narrative with a chapter looking at the Contemporary position of Irish Catholics in Scotland, describing the Irish diaspora as an ‘invisible ethnic minority’ (p69), something which has occurred despite the fact that the Irish were thought of as a ‘race apart’ in the 19th Century. She looks in some detail at the issue of sectarianism in Sport, reminding us that in 1952, the Scottish Football Association demanded that Celtic cease flying the Irish tricolour at their stadium or be disallowed from continuing to play in Scottish football. At the time the secretary of the SFA was Freemason and a member of the Orange Order (and this position could not however be enforced).

The ‘Trouble with Sectarianism‘ and the Scottish government’s attitude to it is then examined in a Bourdieusian framework in a chapter by Alex Law, ‘attempting to situate the moral panic around sectarianism in wider relations of social power’(p92). One of the interesting aspects of Law’s exposition is his examination of how the Scottish government publicly and symbolically adopted a position of ‘disinterested’ intervention to bring ‘disinterested reasonableness’ onto the terraces. In the process of dealing with sectarianism however, Law suggests that power balances are overlooked, citing the fact that despite an extremely unequal public presence of Loyalist marches (773) compared to Republican marches (41) in 2012, both were seen as problems of equal magnitude and lumped together under the nomination ‘sectarian’.

The final part of the book – part 3, contains valuable chapters on contemporary racisms, anti-racism and the policy field. Nasar Meer, reports on BAME self-reported Racial Discrimination in Scotland, with some troubling data, concluding that Scotland has more of a problem with racial discrimination than some UK data would have us believe – to the extent that UK wide surveys can be misleading in telling a story about Scotland.

Paul Goldie then tackles the issue of Cultural Racism and Islamophobia in Glasgow, arguing amongst other things that academia has paid scant attention to the Muslim experience in Scotland and supplements this with valuable data from his own work in the East End of Glasgow. Within this he finds ‘a continuing disdain for a Muslim identity amongst some Scots, with the role of ‘fear’ in marginalising the Muslim minority contributing to Islamophobia. Colin Clark contributes a chapter on Sites, Welfare and ‘Barefoot Begging’: Roma and Gypsy/Traveller Experiences of Racism in Scotland. He makes the statement that to be marked out as ‘Roma’, or ‘Gypsy’ or ‘Traveller’ is to be a _moving target_ (p145) given the nomadic nature of some of the families concerned and outlines some of the subsequent issues faced by these communities.

Usefully, the chapter does not adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach but instead examines the ‘different, diversity between and within the Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities’ (p145). Within the chapter he examines the discourse around ‘Barefoot Beggars’ and the moral panic engendered by sensationalist coverage in the local Glasgow newspaper the Evening Times, part of the stigma arising from ‘everyday racism’ for Roma migrants in Scotland. He ends by acknowledging that there are as many differences as commonalities in the different communities, but at source there is a shared experience of racism.

Gina Netto, in her chapter on Racism and Housing in Scotland, outlines the key role of housing in terms of shelter, security and its links to opportunities for employment, education and health as well as other issues. Interestingly the legacy of deeply entrenched institutional racism which hindered opportunities for accessing decent social housing for ethnic minorities also had subsequent knock ons due to the ‘right to buy’ legislation which then removed better quality social housing stock from the sector.

The chapters by Carol Young and Jatin Haria of the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights, Changing the Race Equality Paradigm in Scotland’s Public Sector and Race, Ethnicity and Employment in Scotland respectively are difficult ones to read, in terms of the challenges they pose if racism in Scotland is to be successfully overcome.

Disaggregating and starkly examining the statistics for murder with a known or suspected racist element in Scotland, Carol finds it to be higher per capita in Scotland than England – 1.8 murders per million people as opposed to 1.3 in England. In 2013 – 2014, 4,807 racist incidents were recorded by Police in Scotland – the equivalent of 92 incidents per week, not counting those not reported. She examines the lens through which race equality is examined, and finds it ‘fundamentally flawed’ (p182) with progress stalling as a result. Part of her chapter then examines how better to help institutions understand what racism is and how it operates. Dealing with Racism and visibility; Bias and privilege; Institutional racism; Racism and the cycle of exclusion; she then goes on to look at how to create a better evidence base, and how to engage with it. She also examines the ‘impact of difference’; celebrating diversity and challenging issues like organisational culture, and tokenism.

One of her interesting conclusions is that within public bodies there is often a mismatched relationship between senior and operational staff often hampering equality work – something that she examines in some detail. Her final section is entitled ‘learning from the past, working for the future’ in which she deals with the need to link all activities on race equality to evaluation and monitoring, stating that ‘despite decades of research, reviews and recommendations, progress on race equality remains limited. Lack of evidence is arguably less a problem than the response to existing evidence, which has been inconsistent, lacking in long-term commitment and leadership’(p 197).

In the penultimate chapter, Jatin Haria (also of CRER) looks at the key importance of the workplace for real action on racism. He provides a useful reminder of which responsibilities are reserved to Westminster and which are reserved, but outlines as a serious limitation the lack of reliable and detailed up to date Scottish data. The data that does exist however ‘paints a bleak picture in relation to race and employment in Scotland’(p205), with continuing ad-hoc approaches unlikely to change things. CRER had been involved in a detailed report to the Scottish government in January 2016 with 17 recommendations for action by the Scottish government. At the time of the chapter’s publication, a response from the government was still awaited.

In their conclusion, Maureen McBride and Minna Liinpää challenge the complacent attitude of ‘Scottish exceptionalism’ – ‘no problem here’ – which they believe has been given a new lease of life in the post-Brexit context. Summing up evidence in the book, they suggest that, rather than Scottishness being characterised by ‘innate inclusiveness’, racism works differently in Scotland: thus there is no room for complacency.

Following the publication of this book, Neil Davidson, in an interview with the radical Scottish website Commonspace, warned that the Scandinavian countries, often held up as a template for an independent Scotland were examples of the dangers of complacency over the potential for racism and fascism to develop mass support.

“We only need to look at the Scandinavian countries, which had far higher levels of equality and social provision than Scotland, and which are still being brandished as a model for us, post-independence. These are now home to hard-right and quasi-fascist parties mobilising in opposition to migration and winning seats in their parliaments. If these societies can turn in that direction, it is a wilful blindness to imagine that Scotland – with its history of slavery, imperialism, militarism and religious fundamentalism – would be immune’.

He ended by arguing that the struggle against racism had to be part of the wider struggle for ‘another Scotland’ and ‘another world’ – sentiments that shine through ever chapter of this very valuable book.

Review published April 2019

About the reviewer: Dr Douglas Chalmers is Senior Lecture in Media and Journalism at Glasgow Caledonian and was previously Secretary of the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament. He is currently President Elect of the University and College Union.