The Scottish Utopia Myth

As protests start to be organised across the UK in support of the Black Lives Matter movement it has been troubling to see the criticism that has been used against them. A lot of people in the UK like to look to America and criticise the failings of its systems but put the blinders on when it comes to being a bit more introspective and taking a look at the country we live in. This phenomenon is even more prevalent in Scotland. There is a tendency to think of Scotland as the “best wee country in the world”; a place where the majority of us reject Tory rule and are proud of an international reputation for friendliness and good humour. Many only think of the wars of independence and our countries involvement in the world wars when they think of the history of Scotland. While being important parts of the history of the Scottish people they are not the only parts. Ignoring Scotland’s role in the British Empire and involvement and benefit from the Atlantic slave trade, as well as ongoing issues with racism and tribalism invalidates the experiences of people of other ethnicities and makes it less likely that these issues will be meaningfully dealt with.

To be clear, this article is not here to proclaim that Scotland is a racist nation and all Scottish people should be ashamed of themselves (although some definitely should be!) It is simply a candid look at the issues, both historically and currently, that contribute to inequality. There absolutely is reason to take racism seriously in this country and the people marching for Black Lives Matter have every right.

THE PAST

As part of the British Empire, Scotland had an incredibly involved role in all its aspects. From military to plantation ownership and even as settlers the people of Scotland were involved all over the world. North America, the Caribbean, Australasia, South Africa, India as well as colonies in South-East Asia and Africa all saw involvement from the Scots.

One mainstay of Scottish history is the wealthy elites of Scotland jumping on any opportunity to make more money and grab more power. It was true in the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England which, after the failure of the Darien venture, gave the wealthy in Scotland access to all of England’s colonies as well as to the East India Trading Company. This meant that Scotland became heavily involved in the colonies in India and the Caribbean very quickly with many plantations in both areas. And with plantations came involvement in the slave trade.

Glasgow is most notorious for its involvement in the trade, especially with the so called “tobacco lords”. Men that made so much money through dodgy dealings and the slave trade that they were said to live as well as aristocrats, these men were well respected in their times. Glasgow was seen as the second city in the Empire and reaped a lot of benefit due to the slave trade. Many streets in the city are still named in honour of these men, something that has recently come into the conversation again. Over 16,000 people have signed a petition to have the names changed and one activist has attached alternative street signs such as ‘Fred Hampton Street’ and ‘Rosa Parks Street’.

Moving on from the 18th and 19th centuries, let us look at the 20th century. You may have heard of the “Battle of George Square” in 1919, the day that between 30,000 to 60,000 peaceful protestors in Glasgow were violently put down by the police for asking for the 40-hour work week, amongst other basic workers’ rights. This was the famous event in which Winston Churchill was so afraid that it would turn in to a revolution that he had Scottish soldiers contained in the Maryhill barracks and ordered tanks into the city. A moment of pride to many in the struggle for workers rights, however the labour movement at the time was also implicit in racism. Just a few days before the Battle of George Square one of the ugliest events in Glasgow’s history took place. Known as the ‘Broomielaw Race Riot” it was the result of speeches delivered by local delegates of the National Seamen’s Union in which they scapegoated, mainly black British colonial and Chinese sailors as the reason that the white Glaswegian sailors were finding it hard to get work. It was all an attempt to gain support from the local seafaring workforce in the general strike that was planned for that Sunday. Such inflammatory speeches simply stoked fires that had already been lit. The shipping trade already enacted racist policies with many shipowners instigating a ‘colour ban’ in response to trade unions opposing the hiring of non-white British subjects.

The events unfolded later in the day as sailors were waiting at the port offices to try and get work. A group of around 30 African sailors were harassed by a much larger group of white sailors, it got so bad that the African sailors ran away to seek shelter where they were staying in Broomielaw. The mob of white sailors followed them and attacked the building causing the African sailors to run again to a nearby lodging house. Again, the crowd followed them, now numbering in the hundreds, and attacked the building with bricks and bottles. The police eventually arrived and took the African sailors away in ‘protective custody’ but subsequently charged them with riot and weapons offenses. None of the white rioters were arrested or charged.

Scotland has always struggled with poverty and is a place in which the scapegoating of immigrants has always had purchase. Whether it’s African and Chinese sailors in 1919 or South Asian migrants in the 50s and 60s or more recently the Syrian refugees; there has always been a narrative pushed that the poor people of this country have the poor people from other countries to blame for their woes.

THE PRESENT

If you read all of that and scoffed, thinking them the actions of a past nation no longer linked to the Scotland of today, think again. The systemic racism of that time has reverberated through the generations and is still evident today.

In response to a Glasgow Times article discussing the Black Lives Matter protest, this is what the comments section looked like –

Comments section of a Glasgow Times article about BLM protests

Interestingly in 2018, Glasgow University academic Neil Davidson, a lecturer in Sociology, co-authored a book with findings that between 2000 and 2013 there were 1.8 race-related murders per million people, compared to 1.3 per million in the rest of the UK.

We also have similar issues with policing. Although nowhere near the extent that the policing in America is a problem, a remarkably similar incident to the murder of George Floyd happened here in Scotland. In May 2015 in Fife, police were called out to reports of a man acting erratically with a knife. The mans name was Sheku Bayoh and by the time the officers arrived he was in no possession of a knife. The officers used CS spray, leg restraints and batons to subdue him resulting in 23 separate injuries. Much like George Floyd he shouted that he could not breath, he died in hospital after the incident. The officers denied all wrongdoing and were never charged for his death, luckily the incident is being investigated in a public enquiry.

Other than these examples there are always reports of racist abuse at football games, of attacks on people of other ethnicities and a normalisation of the use of racist language.

Racism is not something that can be ignored until it goes away. It is a parasite that must be confronted head on. The collective ignorance or wilful dismissal of the issues of racism in Scotland, whether in the past or the present, simply entrench the problems further. As a people we need to be educated and mindful of this country’s historical place in the implementation and complicity in scientific racism and can only claim to be the friendly wee country we seem to think we are if we start acting like it.

Photo by Donald Edgar on Unsplash