Well, that was a disappointment, wasn’t it? Of course I’m talking about UKIP’s acquisition of a Scottish seat in the European Parliament. A UKIP-free Scotland would have been a nice badge for us. Maybe some tactical voting could have done it.
But forcing UKIP just below the threshold they needed was never much of a badge to aim for. We should have trounced and humiliated them and stripped them of their deposits. It isn’t a terrific surprise that we failed. In view of the assistance that UKIP received from the media, the real surprise is that they didn’t walk off with a brace of Scottish seats.
The late Screaming Lord Sutch of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party could probably have secured a Strasbourg seat if the media had treated him with the seriousness they showed towards Nigel Farage. He would certainly have done a much better job than David Coburn, our new UKIP MEP, is likely to do.
UKIP is not a party of eccentrics or a protest party. It is a racist party. Some of the people who voted for UKIP might not see themselves as racist. But they must have noticed the anti-immigrant message on UKIP posters and leaflets. They must have either agreed with the message or thought it unimportant.
If they were a little more observant, they would have noticed the particular hostility that UKIP shows towards Romanian immigrants. UKIP knows that this will be understood and applauded by closet racists as an attack on Romania’s Roma minority, and perhaps on British Roma as well. Roma were victims of the Holocaust and remain targets of racism today. Scapegoating Roma people is a device to link supposedly legitimate arguments about immigration to raw, vicious racism.
The European election was an odd affair. Hardly anyone voting in Scotland has any idea what MEPs actually do. There are probably more Scottish voters who could tell you about something that has happened in the US Congress in the last few years than could tell you what has been happening in the European Parliament. Changing that ought to be the top priority of every Scottish MEP. For the moment, a European election is just a jazzed-up, over-priced opinion poll. The European elections in England and Wales coincided with local council elections, which ought to have helped link the elections to real politics. Not so in Scotland.
In the circumstances, Scotland’s 33.5% turnout was surprisingly high. UKIP scored 10.4% of the vote and 3.5% of the electorate. For the Herald, that’s a “shock breakthrough”. OK.
It was far below the average UKIP vote across the UK (27.5% of the vote, 9.4% of the electorate – the biggest vote for any party), but it was enough to win them one of Scotland’s 6 seats, behind the SNP (2 seats), Labour (2 seats) and the Tories (1 seat).
It was accomplished despite the near-complete absence of any UKIP organisation in Scotland. We’ve got the media to thank for that miracle.
And it will have concrete consequences. UKIP will have European money to spend on its racist propaganda. UKIP representatives will probably find the doors to the TV studios open even wider than before. They may manage to construct a real party organisation in Scotland.
Scotland needs a serious party of the left even more than it needs independence. By left I don’t mean Labour. And by serious I don’t necessarily mean big. Two or three MSPs would be OK, if they were matched by a few councillors and backed by proper party, not just a clique. Half a dozen MSPs would be better. A party like that would get air-time (though not as much as a right-wing party of the same size), and it could link the fight against racism with the struggle to defend and improve working-class living conditions. It could become a powerful new force inside a continuing cross-party and non-aligned movement against racism.
Some commentators seem to be pleased that Scotland has turned out not to be quite immune to the UKIP virus. Pro-union folk like to claim that Indepentistas believe anti-racism to be embedded in Scottish DNA. It gives them a nice straw man to knock down.
Scotland’s relative resistance to racist public discourse is in fact the product of very specific circumstances, and of events that occurred recently enough that most of us can remember them. It could have turned out differently. We need to build upon the fact that it did not.
Until 2002, Scotland experienced net emigration, not immigration. But in each of the last few years, 36-37,000 migrant workers (probably mostly from the EU) arrived Scotland (not necessarily permanently) and entered official records as the recipient of a national insurance number. 1.5% of Scotland’s population described themselves as “white other” in the 2001 census. In the 2011 census (unfortunately poisoned by the involvement of corporate human rights abuser CACI), 3.1% of the population (163,000 people) described themselves as either Polish (a new category) or “other white ethnic group”.
Scotland’s BME population stood at 2.1% in 2001. By 2011 it had climbed to 4% (212,000 people). In Glasgow the figure was 12%. In Edinburgh and Aberdeen it was 8%. Scotland remains rather white, but it is not as white as it used to be.
The most eye-catching of the developments that produced this change was the decision by the Westminster government, from April 2000 onwards, to disperse asylum-seekers around the UK, and the decision of Glasgow City Council (and later of other Glasgow housing providers) to provide accommodation for them.
Hostility to asylum-seekers had been a staple of sections of the UK media – and of some government ministers and opposition spokes-people – since the 1980s. The stage appeared to be set for a surge of racism in Scotland, and especially in Glasgow, the destination for nearly all of the asylum-seekers sent to Scotland.
Firsat Dag, a Kurdish asylum-seeker, was murdered in Glasgow in August 2001. There were other incidents too. An Iranian asylum-seeker – Davoud Rasul Naseri – survived a racist stabbing a few days after the attack on Firsat Dag.
Then something completely different happened. Glasgow communities mobilised in support of asylum-seekers. Not just against racist thuggery on the streets, but also against the racist Home Office and a racist system that harasses asylum-seekers and stacks the odds against their asylum claims. Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees played a leading role. Soon there was a diverse ecosystem of groups and individuals dedicated to helping asylum-seekers. Trade unionists gave their support. Campaigners pressured, cajoled, befriended and chivvied their MSPs. Representatives of all parties in the new Scottish Parliament – it was just over two years old when Firsat Dag was murdered – declined to follow their Westminster counterparts into the arena of competing anti-refugee rhetoric. Scotland began to shape itself, tentatively but consciously and collectively, as a place that celebrates and defends its multi-culturalism.
Glasgow’s working class has a long tradition of internationalism and opposition to racism. It was a tradition built in a white city, stronger on principle than practice. It might not have been up to the job. But it was.
New York’s Twin Towers were destroyed less than a month after the murder of Firsat Dag. Islamophobia and racism received a new impetus, stimulated and maintained by political leaders anxious to find support for their overseas adventures. The response in Glasgow was framed by the new work in progress to build a defence against the racist treatment of asylum-seekers. Glasgow’s response went a long way to frame Scotland’s response. When the accession of eight eastern European countries to the EU in 2004 led to increased immigration from those countries, the response was framed in the same way.
Myths impede progress. The campaign that took off in Glasgow after the death of Firsat Dag was neither bigger nor better than similar campaigns elsewhere in the UK. It had an unusual influence on public life in Scotland because of the unusual circumstances that prevailed at the time, and because Glasgow activists understood the political terrain and used it well.
Many of the MSPs in Scotland’s Parliament – including those in ministerial positions – were new to elected public office. Some had previously served on local councils. They were not ready to be bloodied. They hesitated to flirt with the death of others for the benefit of their party, and perhaps doubted that they could get away with it. The SNP was conscious of the political risk of appearing to be chauvinist. Scottish Labour was conscious that the lustre was wearing off Blairism, and was keen to appear a little more humane. The Parliament – housed first in the old Church of Scotland Assembly Hall and later in its own new building – wasn’t steeped in Westminster’s old cruel power. A modest bus journey could bring asylum-seekers and their friends and supporters to the parliamentary offices, or to a demonstration outside the Parliament.
None of these circumstances was especially profound. The circumstances that south of the border have created a spiral of racist rhetoric are not very profound either. Politicians and the media just happen to have raised the visibility and acceptability of racist attitudes every time the circumstance lent themselves to that. Both paths – the construction of racism and the construction of anti-racism – are beginning to create their own realities.
Devolved government was one of the factors that helped give shape to a collective dislike of racism in Scotland. I think independence will help us build on that. I think it will also help to clear away the old poisons of race, empire and supposed national glory that are afflicting public life across the UK, and especially in England. I think it will create circumstances that people in England can use to loosen the rightist grip on public life. All this is a judgement call, of course. But if Scotland votes no to independence on 18 September, I will fear for our future, both in Scotland and England.
What I am sure of is that, independent or not, the progress that Scotland has made in this millennium is not irreversible. It will need to be nurtured and fought for.