Scotland’s Empire of denial

‘O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us,’ a rumination by the national poet, has become cherished folk wisdom for generations of Scots.

It is a counsel in humility: we don’t know half of what we don’t know. Sometimes, an outsider is needed to hold up a mirror to our assumptions.

This week, the modern makar imparted a fresh lesson: sometimes, one of our own has to thrust that mirror in front of us. Jackie Kay, Scotland’s most celebrated living poet, revealed an ugly experience she was put through at an annual celebration of her forebear. It was the Edinburgh Burns Society’s Burns’ Supper and she had been invited as a guest speaker.

She recounted: ‘I was asked to do the Toast to the Laddies. I asked to do the Toast to the Lassies, but they said no. I decided I would write quite a radical speech, a #MeToo generation Toast to the Laddies, which was done with a lot of affection and humour.

‘As soon as I started up, one of the men who had actually invited me started heckling me and kept going throughout my address. He later told me: “This is our club. You don’t belong here. Get out.” It was deeply shocking and upsetting.’

This was more than one nasty man and one nasty incident. As Kay averred: ‘I don’t think Scotland has changed enough as far as race goes. I don’t think we reflect that in our culture, in our television or news programmes, how we think of ourselves and in what we teach about history in schools.

‘The average Scottish child won’t know that Glasgow was founded on money from the slave trade, that a slave owner put the Gallery of Modern Art building there, why Jamaica Street is called Jamaica Street and why Virginia Street is called Virginia Street. They won’t know any of these things in the way that Liverpool, Bristol, Manchester and London have all started to come to terms with their histories. We just don’t talk about it.’

And with that, a long, defensive silence was shattered. Scotland does not like to talk about race. It’s hardly a comfortable conversation in the best of circumstances but especially unsettling for a country that sustains itself on myths of victimhood and moral probity.

However, Kay compounded her offence by adding that: ‘It seems acceptable to keep on asking people where they are from in the way that you just don’t do with a black Liverpudlian, a black Brummie or a black Londoner. You can’t accept that now, in 2019… I think Scotland is behind.

‘Any Scottish city is at least 30 or 40 years behind Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool and London. That’s just the truth. We need to find ways of changing that. It’s not just about people being there and a diverse population, it’s about how we actually change our image of ourselves when we think of what it means to be Scottish.’

Anyone familiar with the poisonous nature of online debate in Scotland can probably guess what happened next. The suggestion that Scotland was behind England — indeed, that there is anything we could learn from our friends in the south — brought out the cybernats to defend the nation’s honour.

One wrote of Kay, who was born in Edinburgh: ‘I would say you are completely wrong, being born here and travelling Scotland extensively I see no racism in large cities or rural communities, travelling in England and even […] parts of Europe, it’s far more common.’

Another wittered: ‘Looks to me like she’s basing much of this on one drunk man at a Burns Supper…& as much as we should know our history, I refuse to bear guilt of Scottish Unionists from our past who benefited from the proceeds of slavery.’

When Nicola Sturgeon stepped in to say Kay ‘mustn’t be ignored’ and that there was no place for ‘complacency on racism’, one of her digital foot soldiers snapped: ‘It is very disappointing to see you agreeing with Scotland being rubbished like that, I don’t care who says it. I wonder why she took the position of Makar if she hates Scotland so much.’

As one disenchanted nationalist columnist later noted: ‘[W]ith depressing predictability, comments by a woman of colour were written off by white people who won’t accept any criticism of Scotland’.

Reasonable people can disagree about how to address the issues of racial prejudice and identity. Some believe we should work towards a post-racial society that emphasises what we have in common rather than the characteristics that divide us. Others say this is running away from the problem of racism instead of confronting it head-on. What is unreasonable is to believe that Scotland is immune from the problem, untainted by prejudice by dint of a superior national ethic.

The country Jackie Kay describes might be unrecognisable to those whose love for Scotland is like that of a teenager for their first crush but the poet has more than anecdote on her side. She has the numbers. At the most recent census, Scotland was 96 per cent white, compared to 85 per cent for England. All but two members of the Scottish Parliament are white; the House of Commons, only five times the size of Holyrood, has 26 times the number of ethnic minority parliamentarians. None of them, however, represents seats north of the Border: every single Scottish MP is white.

Two in every three hate crimes in Scotland are racial in nature and a 2018 Glasgow University study of murders committed between 2000 and 2013 found race-related homicides were higher per head of the population in Scotland than across the rest of the UK. The same researchers also discovered that white applicants for jobs in large public sector bodies had an 8.1 per cent chance of landing the role compared to just 1.1 per cent for black and minority ethnic candidates.

A report published this week by Strathclyde University found 77 per cent of young eastern Europeans living in England and Scotland had been subjected to racism. While opposition to certain immigration policies should not be construed as racism, the latest polling shows 45 per cent of Scots think migration is too high and only six per cent think it should be higher. These attitudes cut across familiar political divides: roughly half of both Yes and No voters from 2014 think immigration into Scotland is too high.

Moreover, while hostility to immigration has fallen since the EU referendum in the rest of the UK, it has grown in Scotland. The fiction of open Scotland and fortress England is just that.

In May, there was comment about polling indicating that 40 per cent of Leave voters believe ‘that having both parents born in Britain is a core part of Britishness’. However, according to research from 2016, most Scots believe only those born and raised here are truly Scottish. Fifty-nine per cent said considering yourself Scottish was not enough, nor was having lived here for more than ten years for 58 per cent. Only half said having one Scottish parent qualified you and more than a quarter insisted having grown up in the country still did not make you Scottish.

As if all this wasn’t enough, it has been reported that Sir Geoff Palmer, Jamaica’s honorary consul in Edinburgh, was last week denied entry to an unnamed ‘Scottish institution’ after the doorman assumed he was someone’s driver.

Why are so many, in particular Scottish nationalists who boast endlessly of their progressivism, so deeply in denial? The culprit is the inflated sense of virtue that too many carry around with them, one that is intimately linked to the politics of independence. The strain of nationalism unleashed during the 2014 referendum was not, however much its hosts insisted, ‘civic’ or ‘joyous’; it was a belligerent victimhood whipped up by politicians who grasped that when people feel aggrieved they become angry and angry people are always looking for someone or something to vent at. Tell people often enough that there’s a boot on their neck and they will be willing to believe the most benign institution is the owner of the foot.

The myth of Scotland being done down by the English is hardly new, though the nationalists are careful to substitute terms like ‘Westminster’ and ‘London’ these days. In its current, referendum-era incarnation, this legend turned the Union from a partnership largely shaped by the Scots (and whose financial benefits accrue to Scotland more than anywhere other than Northern Ireland) into a mechanism for Tory domination, exploitation and callous disregard. Voters were told ‘Westminster’ held them in contempt and that Unionists regarded Scots as ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’, a characterisation devised by nationalists to verbal their opponents.

Predictably, this demagoguery kindled a self-pitying chauvinism in which nationalists lashed out at the ghosts they dreamt up to torment themselves. During the referendum, slogans like ‘it’s time to get above ourselves’ and ‘big enough, rich enough, smart enough’ abounded. Flags, once restricted to football stadiums and royal visits, turned ubiquitous and scepticism became a sort of treason. Those who dissented from this politics of the pep rally were declaimed as ‘self-loathing’ and accused of giving voice to the ‘Scottish cringe’.

The Scottish cringe is real, at times silly (who among us hasn’t winced at a broad Weegie accent on TV?) and at other times justified (those with saltires out the window are for the watching). But these days Scotland doesn’t cringe half as much as it preens, radiating self-satisfaction about a progressive spirit that owes much to the imagination.

The Scottish superiority complex — the conviction that we’re just as good as everyone else and even more so than the English — was not born in 2014 and is by no means limited to nationalists. It has a long pedigree and is Scotland’s way of sublimating a dual resentment: that it has been extraordinarily successful as part of the Union and the fear that it would no longer be if it went its own way. It is Scotland’s way of having its cake and blaming the English for eating it.

The rub is that, once you convince yourself that your country is a victim, you become hostile towards competing claims. When your politics rests wholly on Scotland’s victimhood, there is no space for other victims, real victims, Scotland’s victims.

First, you blot out Scotland’s past misdeeds and for Scottish nationalists this means denying, distorting or downplaying Scotland’s role in the British Empire. As one celebrated commentator has previously told us: ‘Across the world Scotland’s progressive values are recognised for the genuine attributes that they are. We are a nation, too, that carries less of the colonial baggage so associated with a British imperialism of the past.’

If you want to understand why Scotland cannot face up to its racism problem, you must get to grips with this mentality that wills away a thousand volumes of history in one sentence. In fact, Scotland was at the forefront of the British Empire, represented in the ranks of officers, settlers, administrators and mercenaries to a degree all out of proportion with the nation’s population. Glasgow was the second city of the Empire.

Scotland was also an unabashed slave-trading nation, including before its entry into the Union, and both Greenock and Port Glasgow served as the primary docks for importing tobacco, sugar, cotton and other goods produced by slaves. Far from expressing shame, Scotland has until very recently tended to celebrate the men responsible. Glasgow’s Buchanan Street was named after Andrew Buchanan, one of the Tobacco Lords who profited from slave labour, while Glassford Street pays tribute to John Glassford, the Paisley-born slave-owner who ran plantations in Maryland and Virginia.

The historian Neil Oliver, who happens to support the Union, was decried by nationalists when he documented the Scottish roots of the Ku Klux Klan. As Jackie Kay now knows, attempts to challenge Scotland’s culpability in racism are often met with furious backlash.

But Scotland is not special, then or now, and it is not untainted by the universal virus of racism. The Scottish barons who traded in people did so of their own volition. The working class Scots who sung hymns to the Empire and freely echoed its prejudices towards the people it ruled did not do so at the barrel of a gun. Scots who engage in racism today have not been conditioned by the Union or the Westminster bogeyman. Moral consciences are not issued on one side of the Border only, and wickedness is not to be found solely on the other.

Race is the most sensitive of conversations. No one person or group has all the answers and the discussion requires respect and understanding. The ultimate goal must be to bring people together and work towards equality and justice. But that work can only begin once Scotland, and its self-appointed advocates, acknowledge the sins of the country’s past and the realities of its present. We might begin by listening to people like Jackie Kay with a note of introspection, rather than lashing out in vain denial.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at Feature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

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