There is still no official referendum campaign, but the battle lines for Project Fear Mark II are being clearly drawn. Whereas Project Fear Mark I told Scotland that it shouldn’t become independent because it was too wee, too poor, and too stupid, Project Fear Mark II is telling Scotland it shouldn’t become independent because it is too wee, too poor, and too stupidly racist. One reason we’re racists, apparently, is because we’re not providing a safe space for British Unionists to call independence supporters racists.
Yesterday in the Guardian there was an article by a young Scottish black woman who pointed out Scotland’s history of racism. That bit of her article was correct. Scotland, like all European nations, has a history of racism. It’s not entirely clear what Scotland’s 18th century involvement in the slave trade says about the modern Scottish independence movement that it doesn’t also say about Scotland’s modern Unionist establishment, but we’ll let that pass for the time being.
What the article didn’t say was that what characterises Scotland is its unique experience as both coloniser and colonised. While individual Scots enthusiastically participated in the British Empire, they did so as Britons. They did so in order to aggrandise Britain and Britishness. And while they did so, back home parts of Scotland were being depopulated and despoiled. The Gaelic language was being extirpated in what was but a bawhair away from an organised campaign of genocide. Its speakers were shipped off abroad to exploit brown skinned people somewhere else, or they ended up in the slums of the Lowlands where they were pitted against immigrants from Ireland by cynical employers who used sectarianism as a tool to defeat organised labour and who sang God Save the Queen.
As a young black Scottish woman the author of the Guardian article has experienced racism in Scotland, and it’s not for a white guy like me to reinterpret her experiences. To paraphrase another British Unionist, her experiences are her experiences. However it was bordering on dishonest that neither the Guardian nor the author made it clear that she is a former Better Together activist, and so very much has a dog in this fight. Her views on the Scottish independence movement are not those of a neutral and dispassionate academic studying the nexus between racism and the Scottish independence movement. Naturally people who support the Union have every right to express their views, but she is a campaigner for Scotland to remain a part of the UK, and it undermined the sincerity of the piece that that fact was not made explicit.
What I do take issue with is the way in which the article attempted to conflate two very different things. There’s the issue of the racism experienced by people of colour in predominantly white societies. This is a real issue, it’s an issue for Scotland as much as it is an issue for any European country. Then there is the supposed issue that the Scottish independence movement is motivated by anti-English racism in particular. This is not a genuine issue, it’s a trope of the British Unionist movement. Anti-English sentiment in Scotland does exist in an inchoate way on a personal level with certain eejits, but it is not organised or systematic in the way that racism against black and ethnic minority communities is. It certainly is not welcomed in the mainstream of the Scottish independence movement, far less providing its main motivation.
What Unionist apologists never point out is that anti-English racism in Scotland is less powerful than anti-Scottish racism in England. Anti-Scottish racism regularly puts in an appearance in the pages of the UK right wing press. Scots are decried as subsidy junkies, grievance mongers. There are numerous English terms of abuse for Scottish people as anyone who dips a toe in the sewer of the below the line comments on articles about Scotland in the likes of the Daily Mail or the Express can testify. Scottish anti-English racism doesn’t actually have any popular terms of abuse for English people. If it was indeed so pervasive and essential, you’d think that at the very least we’d possess some anti-English equivalents to the long list of offensive terms there are in English for just about every other ethnic group under the sun. The fact these terms do not exist is proof of the marginality of Scotland’s anti-English racism.
The author claimed that the pro-independence aim of making Scotland better was proof of its anti-English racism, an argument which she based on nothing more than innuendo. Better than who? Eh? Nudge nudge wink wink. Why better than England of course! Then having completely invented something she complained that it was an instance of Scottish exceptionalism. Proof positive that the Scottish independence movement rests upon the belief that Scotland is better than England, and that’s racist and bad. Actually myself, and thousands of other independence supporters who are not seeking any English axes to grind – because it’s only Unionists who do that sort of thing – interpret that slogan as independence can make Scotland better than it is just now. It’s not Scottish exceptionalism to believe that Scotland can be better than it is. It’s British exceptionalism to believe that it can’t be.
Let’s talk about some real Scottish racism. One comment that the author of the Guardian article made I did find offensive and hurtful. She said that white Scots have no experience of racism, with the implication that white Scots have no right to comment. That’s offensive and hurtful because it’s untrue. And it’s offensive and hurtful that an academic who specialises in the study of racism doesn’t recognise the greatest and historically most pervasive racism experienced by members of Scotland’s largest migrant community. What we like to call sectarianism is nothing more or less than anti-Irish racism, and it’s a form of racism which is and was practised by supporters of the British state and a British identity in Scotland. The proponents of anti-Irish racism wave Union flegs. Scottish sectarianism, Scottish anti-Irish racism, is a disease of British nationalism. It’s hardly surprising that an apologist for the British state didn’t want to address it.
It’s true that white people cannot experience racism in the same way that visible minorities experience it. As long as no one knows your Irish sounding name, or knows that you went to a Catholic school, you can, in theory, hide. But that doesn’t mean that anti-Irish racism can be excused, it doesn’t mean it’s not real. It blighted lives. It destroyed opportunities. It was systematic and all pervasive and highly organised.
I’m not that old but I can remember when I was a child being told that my sister couldn’t join the sports club her friend went to, because it didn’t admit Catholics. I remember my aunt, the first person in my family who went to university, telling me that she had wanted to study economics so she could work in a bank, but she was informed that as a Catholic she would never be promoted above the level of bank teller. So she studied maths and became a teacher instead. Teaching was then one of the few occupations open to Catholics with middle class aspirations.
We all knew which places where you could forget about applying for a job, because you were a Catholic. It was a much much longer list than the list of places where Catholics were preferred. The proof that it was racism and not about a person’s religious beliefs was that it didn’t matter whether you believed in god or not. If your family was Catholic, so were you. Your own religious beliefs and experiences were irrelevant.
Every summer there were the marches with their Union flags and God Save the Queenery telling us that we didn’t really belong here. The Union flag was a flag of exclusion. It was a flag that told me and people like me that we didn’t really belong in Scotland. Catholic was just code for “of Irish descent”, and that meant you couldn’t be British. And if you couldn’t be British, you couldn’t be Scottish either. Traditional Unionism took it upon itself to define who could or could not be Scottish. One of the reasons they howl now is that the Scottish independence movement has taken that power away from them with a more inclusive and tolerant vision of Scottishness.
It was anti-Irish racism that allowed the Conservative and Unionist party to maintain its dominance in working class communities throughout the first half of the 20th century. Anti-Irish racism once extended into every aspect of Scottish life, and it was one of the tools used by the North British establishment to exert its control and dominance over the unruly working classes. Divide et impera. Yet British Unionists in Scotland don’t want to address it. They refuse to acknowledge the role of systematic racism in the perpetuation of British rule in Scotland. So if we want to talk about racism in Scotland, let’s talk about anti-Irish racism too. Let’s talk about the destruction of the Highlands and Gaelic culture in the name of spreading British civilisation. But those are stories which don’t allow the supporters of Union to present themselves as victims. If we want to examine the real history of racism in Scotland, it’s the Unionists who are the perpetrators. Racism in Scotland was a tool of Unionist rule. No wonder they don’t want to talk about it now.
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