No problem here?

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

In the second of two articles for Black History Month, my friend and colleague, Tony Adams reviews No Problem Here: Understanding Racism in Scotland (Luath, 2018) Neil Davidson, Minna Liinpaa, Maureen McBride and Satnam Virdee (eds.). This article originally appeared in The Scottish Left Review (Issue 106 July/August 2018).

Racism in Scotland is often relegated to the back burner. Even when the issue of racism is broached by anti-racists campaigners the stock responses they are met with is that ‘Things aren’t as bad as all that, you exaggerate; you’re indulging in special pleading or you must be paranoid’. Little wonder there is this widely held view both by politicians and academics that ‘there is no problem here’. Ethnic minorities are congratulated for integrating better and there is a welcoming attitude towards refugees and migrants.

Meanwhile research into the historical record and contemporary reality tells a different story. The racialized outsider faces discrimination in education, jobs, housing and at the hands of the police and criminal justice system. Racism in Scotland is, therefore, not a side issue and it is not peripheral either. It is central to the way things work. The question of racism in Scotland and the interplay, of race class, nationalism and other intersecting issues are very focal to this edited book. It brings together the views of academics, activists and anti-racism campaigners who argue that it is vital that the issue of racism be brought into public discourse.

In contrast to England, there has been relatively little public discussion about the historical or contemporaneous structuring power of racism in Scotland. ‘We wish to dig beneath the ‘race
blind’ narrative that Scotland and its elites have crafted for many years, to perhaps unsettle them a little, so that we might begin to open up space for writing a historical sociology of racism in Scotland’ the book says. Its contributors ‘contend that the narrative of an absent racism in Scottish history and that the Scots are more egalitarian, more likely to place an emphasis on collectivism over individualism and on government intervention over self-reliance reinforces the myth that Scotland does not have a serious racism problem’. Instrumental to the consolidation of this powerful myth that ‘there is no problem here’ is that memorable Scottish phrase, ‘We’re a’ Jock Tamsin’s bairns’.

Such myth making has the effect of deflecting attention away from the disproportionate role that Scots actually played in the British Empire. It occludes any discussion of racisms in the country. Empire is central to the union. TheAct of Union, 1707, opened up English colonial markets to Scottish merchants and made it possible for Scots to play
a role in the construction of the British Empire. But when we think of the British Empire our minds often drift to England rather than to Scotland. Yet Scotland was complicit in the slave trade and had colonies predating the joining of the union. It is significant to note here that slavery or the slave mode of production was central to early capital and racism became its justification. Thus racism has evolved entwined with capitalism over the last three centuries.

There is a level of amnesia that clouds the history of empire. Glasgow was the second city of the empire and, by the end of the Victorian era, Scots firms had attained a controlling position in key sectors of the economy of British India. Rather than sanitizing its past in order to re-imagine a post-union future, perhaps we need to look back at Scotland’s imperial history and connect it to a broader understanding of the British empire and Britain’s colonial past.

This perception that Scotland has less of a problem with racism than other areas of the UK is not borne out by the statistics either. In 2013-14 there were 4,807 racist incidents recorded by police
in Scotland, the equivalent of 92 incidents a week without accounting for the many cases that go unreported. And lest we forget that there has been racist murders here many of which have still not been formally acknowledge as racist – Nuer Mohamed, Hector Smith, Shamsie Din Mohamed, Imran Khan, Sanjit Singh Choker and Sheku Bayoh to name a few. The growth of far right parties and the rise of Islamophobia across Europe and the US has to be challenged and driven back. Scotland is not immune from this.

The book explores the different modalities of racism in Scotland and the ways in which cultural racism has become central to the experiences of particular social groups. It also seeks
to locate the contemporary debates on racialization and racism in their appropriate context in Scottish history. As the late historian E H Carr once put it: ‘There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write’. No Problem Here is a welcomed and important starting contribution that will invigorate the debate of what kind of Scotland we live in and what kind of Scotland we want it to be.

Tony Adams is a lecturer and EIS equality rep at City of Glasgow College. He has published in the Asian Times, Caribbean Times, Morning Star and Weekly Journal.

Black sailors and the battle of George Square

Photo by Soviet Artefacts on Unsplash

To mark Black History Month, my friend and colleague, Tony Adams recalls a forgotten chapter of the events around ‘Red Clydeside’ in 1919. This article was originally published in the Scottish Left Review.

The year, 1919, in Britain represents a high point in working class struggle and one un-matched since in its breadth and scale. Over 34m working days were not worked due to strikes compared to an average of 4.5m for each of the preceding four years. Two thousand soldiers, ordered to embark for France, instead mutinied and formed a Soldiers’ Union. Even the police force struck and demanded the right to unionise. Britain, it is said, was on the brink of a revolution. On 31 January that year a violent confrontation took place in Glasgow between the police and radical striking workers centred in and around the area around George Square. The workers were striking to demand a reduction of the working week from 54 hours to a 40 hour working week.

At a massive union rally in George Square on the day of the protest, the red flag was raised above 60,000 striking shipbuilding and engineering workers. Newspapers of the next day dubbed the demonstration which saw pitched battles between the police and strikers as ‘Black Friday’ or ‘Bloody Friday’. What began as a protest soon became a riot, with fighting across the city continuing throughout the night and 53 people were recorded injured. This dramatic incident and the leaders of the strike have been mythologised under the banner of ‘Red Clydeside’.

Meanwhile, a lesser known harbour race riot on Thursday 23, January 1919 in which black British colonial sailors were branded as unfair economic competitors by the national seamen’s unions and their local delegates, has been overlooked both in the personal and historical accounts of the general strike until more recently. The riot began in the yard of the mercantile marine office in James Watt Street where sailors gathered for their chance to be signed on to a ship. While waiting to see if they would be hired, competing groups of black and white sailors jostled and shouted insults at each other. This baiting descended into a pitched battle which spilled out of the yard onto the street. More than thirty black sailors fled the sailors’ yard pursued by a large crowd of white sailors. White locals joined the crowd which grew to several hundred strong. The rioters used guns, knives, batons and makeshift weapons including stones and bricks picked from the street. On being chased out of the hiring yard, the group of black sailors initially ran towards the nearby Glasgow sailor’s home on the corner of James Watt Street and Broomielaw Street. The white crowd smashed the windows of the sailor’s home and then invaded it. The two or three beat police officers in the harbour area were overwhelmed and an additional force of 50 police officers was called in. The large police force cleared the two set of rioters from the sailors home.

Though the staging of a general strike in Glasgow, its collapse following ‘Bloody Friday’ and the presence of tanks in the city centre the next day were far more eye-catching than the riot in the harbour a week earlier, the two events were explicitly inter-connected through the activities of the members of the leadership of the 40-hours strike movement. Emanuel Shinwell, leader of the Glasgow branch of the Seafarer’s was in addition, president of the Glasgow trades and labour council and chairman of the workers strike committee. Although a moderate, he advocated direct action in the most inflammatory terms in the days leading up to both the harbour riot and the mass protest of the 40-hours campaign. He and other strike leaders, such as William Gallacher, sought to encourage unskilled workers – including seamen – to take part in the sort of strike action that had been the province of the skilled workforce on wartime Clydeside. The two episodes ought to be viewed together as the harbour riot and the George Square demonstration occurred within a few days of each other. This proximity was much more than coincidental especially as the riot in Glasgow seaport, was soon followed by similar riots in South Shields, Salford, London, Hull, Liverpool, Newport, Cardiff and Barry.

It is important to note that the Glasgow harbour riot was the first instance of a spate of rioting focussed upon black residents in British ports which reached its height in June of that year. It was also part of the wider picture of industrial strife which has been simmering below the surface on Clydeside and other heavily industrialised regions throughout the war years and into 1919.

During these riots, crowds of white working class people targeted black workers, their families, black owned businesses and property. One of the chief sources of the violent confrontation in the run- down port areas was the ‘colour’ bar implemented by the sailors’ unions campaigning to keep black, Arab and Asian sailors off British ships in a time of increasing job competition. The imposition of a ‘colour bar’ on black workers at Glasgow and elsewhere around Britain’s seaports to protect white British sailors’ jobs illustrates the disregard for sections of the working class among many of those who considered themselves protectors of the organised workforce. Historically expressions of racist hostility have been tied to questions of employment. Hostility towards groups of fellow workers among trade unionists was nothing new. The opposition of white union members to the employment (in some cases) of cheaper overseas merchant sailors, violently demonstrated at Glasgow harbour, bears comparison to the wartime industrial action on Clydeside which aimed at preventing the ‘dilution’ of skilled with unskilled job losses and the permanent undercutting of ‘engineers’ wages.

The sea port riots of 1919 in which white crowds attacked black workers, their families and communities, have long presented a painful conundrum as they prefigure a century of conflict and harassment of people of colour in Britain. The causes of the riots are located in the interplay between on-going strikes, riots and other collective violence elsewhere in Britain and the Atlantic basin as well as the local context and meanings (including housing shortages and unemployment). In this light, the British riots appear less an isolated eruption ‘proving’ British racism, as they have often been portrayed. They were part of a broader political movement of resistance against post-war betrayals. This made the role of service and recently demobilised men a significant factor in the riots, one which was commented upon in many local press accounts of the violence. It is also clear that the specific grievances of the white sailors were not the only issues in the riots. The sense that the great sacrifices of the war years had been futile was being experienced at a national level as post-war shortages in housing and increased competition in the job market were the first results of mass demobilisation. Wider frustrations were being focused on the black community in Britain as a means of release. That the authorities in part recognised this is often apparent from the light sentences meted out to the white rioters in various centres around the country. However, there is also an element of racial antipathy revealed by the official response to the riots.

The fear of violence in the immediate post-war period became a worldwide phenomenon, and not without reason. The level of global unrest in the late 1918 and 1919 is also worth considering as it provides a wider context in which the race riots in Britain may be discussed. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1918 provided governments worldwide with a spectre of the overthrow of the state in a situation of crisis. The attempted revolts of the Spartakist movement in Berlin, the establishments of soviets in Bavaria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia and the socialist revolt in Austria fuelled the worldwide fear of Bolshevism. It was not merely in the ‘defeated’ nations that unrest occurred for the politicising effect of war service and the strains placed on every day society by the war resulted in riots in the United States, the Caribbean, Africa as well as in Britain. As one of Scotland’s leading expert calls for a permanent fixture to remember the demonstration which took place on 31 January 1919, the black sailors of the Glasgow harbour riots deserve a place to be commemorated too because there is a single working class in Britain by historic right and present participation.

Tony Adams is a lecturer and EIS equality rep at City of Glasgow College. He has published in the Asian Times, Caribbean Times, Morning Star and Weekly Journal. Jacqueline Jenkinson’s ‘Black 1919 Riots, Racism and Resistance in Imperial Britain’ (Liverpool University Press, 2009) is the best available study of the issues.

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https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/04/13/no-blacks-no-irish-no-dogs-we-like-to-think-that-such-signs-are-a-thing-of-the-bad-old-days-in-housing-law-what-about-no-dss-tenants-some-recent-legal-actions-suggest-that-such/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/06/17/is-it-cos-i-is-black/

Scotland’s shame

Photo by Seán J Crossan

Look at the above image: the crime of vandalism? Almost definitely, but put it into context and a more sinister picture emerges that of sectarianism.

The building in the picture is a meeting place of the Loyal Orange Order and it has been spray painted with blatantly offensive graffiti which is diametrically opposed to everything that the Order stands for i.e. the unity of the British State, upholding Protestant religious values and support for the British monarchy. This is not just an act of vandalism: it is also a hate crime; an example of sectarianism.

The vandals, if ever caught, may also incur civil liability for their actions. Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 covers the protected characteristic of religion and philosophical beliefs.

Sadly, these types of incidents can be all too common and both sides of the sectarian divide can be guilty of such behaviour. In January 2019, a young man admitted to a sectarian offence at Glasgow Sheriff Court. While attending an Orange Walk, Bradley White spat on a Catholic priest, Canon Tom White, who was standing at the door of St Alphonsus’ Church when the parade passed by. The incident gained a lot of media attention.

Man who spat on Glasgow priest caught by his own DNA

A sheriff condemned the “disgusting” assault, which took place outside a Glasgow church as an Orange walk went past.

The Scottish Parliament (which first sat in 1999) was keen to address the issue of sectarianism and finally did so by passing the much maligned Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012.

The 2012 Act acknowledged that a large part of sectarian division was expressed through the medium of football with reports of disorder at stadia and offensive comments being circulated on social media.

It was also the fact that before the 2012 Act was introduced, Scots Law had an existing arsenal upon which to draw when tackling hate crimes of a sectarian nature, namely:

  • Common law offences
  • Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995
  • Crime and Disorder Act 1998
  • Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003

The 2012 legislation has since been repealed by the Scottish Parliament on the grounds that it was difficult to operate and that it had significantly restricted freedom of speech.

Related Blog article:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/26/a-pile-of-mince-or-a-dogs-dinner/

That said, the Scottish Government has not been prepared to leave this area alone and it instructed Lord Bracadale, a retired Senator of the College of Justice to chair an inquiry into the current state of hate crime laws in Scotland.

A link to Lord Bracadale’s recommendations can be found below:

https://www.gov.scot/publications/independent-review-hate-crime-legislation-scotland-final-report/

A secular society?

Although, the United Kingdom is regarded as a largely secular society in that the majority of its citizens no longer profess allegiance to a particular religion, many of the its people come from a distinct religious tradition. Yet, the British State itself has not caught up with these social trends: Queen Elizabeth II is the Supreme Governor of the established Church, the Church of England; and Anglican Bishops still sit in the House of Lords deliberating on and making laws for the country.

According to the British Social Attitudes Survey of 2018, more than 50% of people in Britain stated that they had no religious beliefs.

A link to an article in The Guardian about this aspect of the Survey can be found below:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/11/uk-secularism-on-rise-as-more-than-half-say-they-have-no-religion

The Protestant Reformation

Since the events of the Protestant Reformation in 16th Century, religious and political tensions have been a hallmark of British and Irish culture and society.

England, Scotland and Wales became Protestant countries while Ireland remained overwhelmingly Roman Catholic in its religious outlook.

To proclaim yourself as a Protestant was to pledge your loyalty to the Scottish and English Crowns (there was not yet a United Kingdom, although there was a union of the two Crowns in 1603).

To assert your Catholicism was often viewed as disloyal and treasonous. It could also mean that you could be subjected to criminal sanctions e.g. fines, confiscation of property, imprisonment and even the death penalty.

The Reformation raised Ireland’s already tense and problematic relationship with England to new heights (and later Scotland when James I became King of England).

Suspicion about Roman Catholics’ loyalties were further exacerbated as a result of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605. Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes, Thomas Percy and their co-conspirators were fanatical Roman Catholics who wanted to kill the King and his key Ministers by blowing up the State opening of Parliament. Had the Plot been successful, plans were in hand to re-establish Catholicism as the religion of the embryonic British State.

Sectarianism in Scotland

Historically, religious discrimination or sectarianism in Scotland has been a big problem and has often been referred to as ‘Scotland’s shame’. These tensions really began to surface during the Irish Potato Famine (an Gorta Mór) in the 1840s. Thousands of Irish people – who were overwhelmingly members of the Catholic Church – left their homes and settled in Scotland in search of work and to escape hunger.

This huge influx caused tensions with the local Scottish, Protestant communities. In Glasgow in 1814, there was just one priest – Reverend Andrew Scott – serving the Catholic community. Father Scott supervised the building of St Andrew’s RC Cathedral on Glasgow’s Clyde Street in order to minister to his “vast Irish flock” (James Handley: The Irish in Scotland (1964): 127).

In the years following, many Irish continued to come to Scotland (and other parts of the UK) in search of work. Caused huge social tensions and Irish people were often the target of institutionalised discrimination. In Scotland, this discrimination always had a religious dimension – better known as sectarianism.

Discrimination ran right through Scottish society: Catholics and Protestants went to different schools, attended different churches, lived in separate neighbourhoods and, significantly, supported different football teams e.g. in Glasgow, Catholics supported Celtic FC and Protestants supported Rangers FC; in Edinburgh, Catholics supported Hibernian FC while Protestants supported Heart of Midlothian FC; and in Dundee, Catholics supported Dundee United whereas Protestants supported Dundee FC.

Conclusion

Although religious participation in Scotland has decreased significantly – in line with trends across the UK generally – the echoes of religious traditions can still be heard. In Glasgow and west-central Scotland (where Irish immigration was most heavily concentrated), support for Celtic and Rangers Football Clubs is still a pretty good indication of a person’s ethnic and religious origins.

The Scottish Parliament and Government has tried to take a lead in combating sectarianism – not always successfully. To the credit of the Government and Parliament, they are not prepared to leave the matter and Lord Bracadale’s recommendations on updating existing Scottish hate crime laws are both welcome and timely.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 20 April 2020