Last week was marked by the fallout from the Labour Party’s Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, use of a speech at a party conference to equate the movement for Scottish independence with racism, as well as the volatile comment pieces that sprang up as a result. (See http://www.ericjoyce.co.uk/2017/03/the-claire-heuchan-episode-is-an-early-warning-to-independence-supporters/ for a timeline of the most significant contributions.) The resulting field of commentary resembles less one of battle, than one of agriculture, because it is so filled with ‘straw men’ that you cannot see the crops for the scarecrows.
The Mayor of London had been invited to speak at the Scottish Labour Party’s spring conference in Perth last Saturday, which was serving as a final rallying cry before May 2017’s Scottish council elections, in which Labour are expected to lose heavily (a projected drop of 12 points on 2012’s results, where they lost the popular vote to the SNP for the first time). Khan apparently penned his speech in conjunction with Anas Sarwar (former MP and deputy leader of Labour in Scotland – rumours were rife over that weekend that Khan was somewhat annoyed at Sarwar for messing up his pitch, perhaps as an attempt to break Khan’s erstwhile close relationship with Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon). Much of his oration was trailed in advance on the Friday in the Daily Record – an understandable preview platform, as it is the Scottish Labour Party’s pet tabloid (infamously responsible for the empty ‘Vow’ that swung the September 2014 Independence Referendum vote at the 11th hour), but it caused such a backlash that his speech as delivered the following day seemed to back off from the stridency of some of his more contentious statements as they had been promoted in print. “There’s no difference between those who try to divide us on the basis of whether we’re English or Scottish and those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion” had the caveats of “in this respect” and “of course I’m not saying the SNP are racist” inserted, to slightly distance himself from his own previewed text.
The take-home message from his speech was easy, his comments parsed down to the shorthand version of ‘if you vote for Scottish self-determination, then you are a racist – so stop supporting independence and back the Labour Party’…which unsurprisingly drew a somewhat negative response from the Yes movement: many of them were former Labour voters, and this strategy may not have been the wisest to ‘woo them back to the fold’ in advance of the May council elections. (People don’t like being called racists.)
In the immediate aftermath, with Khan’s speech doing more to damage his reputation than to encourage a resurgence for the ailing Labour Party, enter Claire Heuchan, a PhD student from Stirling University, who penned a comment piece for The Guardian newspaper, endorsing the interpretation that Scottish nationalism relied on ‘othering’ and issues of belonging:”both perspectives are reliant on a clear distinction being made between those who belong and those who are rejected on the basis of difference”. Inherent in Heuchan’s article is the assumption of a belief on the part of the Yes movement that Scottish society has somehow already achieved an egalitarian nirvana, which is a fallacy of presupposition, often presented as Scotland believing itself ‘racism-free’. This reminded me of my time as a student in Edinburgh in the 1980s, when a 28 year old Somali refugee student called Axmed Abuukar Sheekh was murdered in the Cowgate in Edinburgh on January 15th 1989 by a group of white youths. Firstly, it is depressing to recognise just how long the Somali refugee crisis has been ongoing. But beyond that, although there had been racist killings in Scotland before, this brutal act more than any other publicly killed the lie of Scotland being free of racist violence, and led to a coming together of a group of us, to form Edinburgh Students Against Racism. Our aims swiftly coalesced around a campaign to have the murder classified as racist: there was a determination on the side of the authorities not to prosecute it as a racist killing, in spite of correspondence composed by the suspect (while incarcerated) bearing National Front and swastika symbols…along with the Union Flag.
The association of the Union Flag with such sentiments should not come as any great surprise, even before the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by Britain First supporter Thomas Mair last year – after all, it is unlikely that any country will grow to become a major imperial power if it is ‘burdened by inclusive attitudes’ – and the well-recorded support for racist groups in the UK (the British National Party, the KKK, the Orange Order, the English Defense League, the Scottish Defense League) for a ‘No’ vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum of September 2014 was emphatic. Beyond campaigning groups, this pattern was also reflected in the attitudes of those who actually voted. Last September, a YouGov poll correlated responses to questions about what people regarded as making someone ‘Scottish’ with their vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum: place of birth, parental heritage, where one grew up, time period of residency, even simple personal belief of ‘Scottishness’ were all assessed by the sample. In all categories (save for ‘two parents Scottish’), Yes voters were more receptive and welcoming to those who considered themselves to be Scottish – for whatever reason.
This was further supported by a Panelbase poll in February of this year, where a question was asked about the level of immigration: with Scotland having one of the lowest immigrant population shares in the First World (at less than 7%), it is not unreasonable to use this question as a proxy for racism. (People don’t tend to like being asked directly if they are racist.) The results were quite stark, with No voters, Leave voters and supporters of the two main unionist parties (Conservative and Labour) polling as significantly more racist than Yes voters, Remain voters and supporters of the LibDems and SNP. (Similarly, the over 55 part of those sampled, which famously voted ‘No’ in contrast to the younger demographics, also came out with more than 50% agreeing that there was ‘too much immigration’.)
Sadiq may have unwittingly stumbled into this, without realising it, but …the idea that Scottish independence is about anti-English racism is old and redundant: it is demonstrably not, and is very far away from that. Scottish self-determination has not been about ‘anti-Englishness’ for a very, very long time, and only a failure to conduct adequate research might lead him to say otherwise. Such a statement is at best lazy or ‘late to the party’, at worst deliberately provocative…and, indeed, an attempt at divisiveness.
With Sadiq’s apparent starting point intrinsically flawed regarding the Yes movement, the first Straw Man appears. Khan was fundamentally wrong about Scottish independence being about dividing Scots and English – apart from the fact that I can remember vocal English SNP members back in the 1980s, the self-determination movement exists because people who live in Scotland recognise that UK governments systematically and repeatedly fail, disparage and ignore them and their needs (simply look at the power structures involved). This has often been reflected by Westminster outrage when Scotland decides to similarly ignore the agents of those Westminster governments – and begins to vote en masse for an alternative. Straw Man #1 is the premise that ‘Scottish independence is about being anti-English’ – and one might surmise from Khan’s modifications on the day of his conference presentation that he had started to realise that this might not be a safe argument, and that he perhaps had to some degree been set up by his hosts as a comparatively uninformed stooge. But this is a standard British nationalist/unionist error, or trope, and I cannot help feel (having seen British nationalism unfold over many years) that the narrative that we hear from that side telling us that Scottish self-determination is identity politics, is simply because they cannot themselves imagine any other reason why someone would want to be independent from Britain (because, why else could you ever wish to leave such an oh-so-perfect union?) – except for despising the dominant and controlling nation of the UK.
But whereas Khan set the first hare running, the rest of the Straw Men from last week were planted by Claire Heuchan.
Claire presents Straw Man #2 by attacking the concept of “a fairer Scotland”, a commonly cited aspiration for the Yes movement. Through her myopic prism of ‘othering’, she can only interpret this as being a statement about being ‘fairer than England’ – the more obvious conclusion that the aspiration is for a Scotland fairer than it is just now, simply does not occur to her…or perhaps does not fit with her argument, as such an aspiration is not an unreasonable ambition for any country. (It seems too obvious to go into the idea that perhaps the current lack of fairness in our society might in some way at least in part be due to the actions of the controlling partner of the Union over the preceding 300 plus years – but I digress.)
Straw Man #3, however, may be the most offensive – that those who campaign for Scottish independence are white and therefore have never experienced racism. Putting aside the very clear racism deployed against Catholics in Scotland, as elaborated on by Paul Kavanagh (see https://weegingerdug.wordpress.com/2017/02/28/lets-talk-about-racism-in-scotland/), which affected a great deal of supporters of Scottish self-determination, that assertion is simply not true, either. It follows Heuchan’s wry yet smug (and more than a little patronising) comment that “there is a certain irony to white people with progressive politics rubbishing what an Asian man has to say about racism”.
When Heuchan’s opinion piece initially came out in The Guardian, I was shocked by the vociferous criticism it received by dignified and respected journalist Ian McWhirter as “pig ignorant…piss poor”. But having read – and reread – it, I began to understand why he reacted that way. From initially thinking that the writer was simply well-intentioned but hapless, I began to believe that her piece was fundamentally racist or discriminatory in and of itself. For a long time, Scots complaints against discrimination within the UK were dismissed – ‘it cannot be racist because you are not a race’ was the laughing response – and yet now we have the insinuation that as a group we can ourselves be racist to English people? One rule for one and another for another? Well, that would be consistent with our experience in the Union thus far, I guess…and the silencing of people in Scotland as ‘others’ who can have no legitimate reason for protest is furthermore extended within the accusation of Claire’s article: if you are white, you cannot contest this, because you lack a common frame of reference. (Again, Paul Kavanagh gives the lie to that observation in his blog referenced above on anti-Irish racism.) Maybe it was all just a light piece of PhD thesis task avoidance behaviour by Claire, to troll using The Guardian and (as one observer put it) call the best part of 2 million Scots racist, then disappear off Twitter for 5 days – but she cannot expect to give her opinion without it going unchallenged. Playing the race card in this cynical way is nothing but an attempt to gain exceptionalism and exclusivity from criticism: the naivete of the statement “white SNP supporters and allies have never been subject to racism” is hackneyed and rings hollow. Heuchan listens only to her own prejudices, rather than objectively commenting on the Yes movement itself, and her remarkably thoughtless article has, however unwittingly, done more to silence discussion about racism in Scotland, than to enable a discussion about it – despite perhaps purporting to do exactly the reverse. But then, as we will see, enabling discussion and resolution may very well not be her demonstrable agenda behind writing the piece after all.
But before that, let us look at Straw Man #4, equating national self-determination – a movement for all who live in Scotland – as being one of exclusion (an argument that could only be made for a nationalist movement in a controlling position within an already existing state – which Scotland most certainly is not). Here, Claire goes beyond the ‘standard’ error of describing self-determination as an issue of identity: her contention of the ‘othering’ of difference is precariously and utterly reliant on being able to describe Scottish self-determination as being about identity in the first place. She expresses it in terms of the fear of differentiation as a means to argue against self-determination…but I cannot help wonder if she would have the same reservations when speaking to those in the United States, India and much of Africa about making the same decision to determine their own future and leave the rule of a government based in London. Surely she does not give legitimacy to one and not the other…because of skin colour, or religious differences? Or…does she think that the case for Scottish self-determination has some fundamental reason why it – as opposed to the many other self-determination movements that have led to the diminution of the British (and other) empires – lacks legitimacy? Why would it be so exceptional?
After Heuchan’s comment piece was published, her past tweets (as Sister Outrider) and the nature of her political activism began to emerge during the following days: not only had she been a ‘Better Together’ activist (you will see her at the very start of this BetterTogether advert https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxbAu3LphYM – as the first of ten ‘students and young people’), but also repeatedly using the phrase ‘British and Proud’ for her observations – including rebuffing an approach from the Afro-Caribbean community. This phrase is a somewhat typically British Nationalist mantra. Shortly after these tweets began to be publicised, Heuchan went off Twitter, citing abuse and threats.
As I have said, as much as I wanted to believe that Heuchan’s piece was well-intentioned, I came to wonder more and more about whether it was fundamentally racist in and of itself. Khan is no political novice, and definitely no backroom student keen to take part in activist videos – he is a clever and savvy politician, and had to be to get to the office of Mayor of London. As such, it is profoundly depressing to think of how much his remarks demonstrate his ignorance of broad discrimination – and how much it validates the perspective that the London commentariat really have neither the first clue about, nor any interest in, what happens in Scotland. To appropriate Theresa May’s terminology, he is only capable of understanding a simplistic “narrow idea of” racism, and struggles to imagine anything beyond that (in spite of the plethora of evidence to the contrary), revealing his dearth of understanding of discrimination where it is on a non-colour basis. To an extent, Sadiq Khan looks like he was simply used to deliver someone else’s message, and has come out of it looking a trifle gullible and more than a little foolish. In contrast, I cannot find Claire Heuchan to be such a victim: she very clearly appears to have intended to exploit Khan’s error in order to make political capital to further her ‘Better Together’ agenda.
Eric Joyce notes that Heuchan (as an apparently committed unionist) ignores any context of unionists ‘othering’ outsiders to give any comparisons (much as she woefully fails to present any substantive evidence or examples for her argument – which is somewhat concerning in a would-be academic). We have already looked at the statistics of voting patterns with regard to racism and immigration for both Scottish Independence Referendum and EU positions, to show that Yes and Remain were positions very much against ‘othering’, in stark contrast to those favouring BrExit and ‘No’. Even beyond that, taking the way the Scottish and the UK governments – symbolising the Yes and the unionist movements, respectively – approached the constituencies to which they put the questions in those two referenda is enlightening: the openness of the Scottish Independence Referendum (where the franchise was not determined by where you were born, but simply if you lived in Scotland, without question of time of residency), was without any question a far more inclusive stance than that taken for the EU referendum, where EU nationals were simply denied the vote. Evidence and polling data aplenty was available – but Heuchan was not making a critical analysis, solely wishing to focus on Scottish independence supporters, without context of their opponents, lest the Yes movement start to look a lot more pleasant in comparison.
At Edinburgh Students Against Racism, like most student groups, we had invited speakers. Local MP Alistair Darling was (perhaps ironically, now) one, back in the day when he did not feel that he had to remove his beard if he wanted to rise to power and ermine. Another was the broadcaster Muriel Gray, who was then Rector of the University of Edinburgh, and she came to one of our early meetings. I remember one anecdote she related to us there, about riding the London Underground, watching a black man reading the Daily Express, and wanting to shake him and shout “why are you reading that, that paper HATES you!!”. Labour campaigned against Scottish self-determination on the basis of its xenophobic ‘fear of becoming foreigners’, with the inherent underlying exceptionalism that nothing could be worse than waking up one day and ‘not being British’. Since then they have emphatically endorsed immigration control, and echoed the most discriminatory policies of the Conservative government. Even the UK government’s approach to permanent residency applications comes across as significantly more discriminatory than most other EU member states: in Europe, under the same EU law, the UK government requires an 85 page form to be completed, at a cost of £65 for such an application – whereas in Germany, it is 2 pages for €8 and in Eire it is 5 pages and free. These barriers to migrants are all anathemas to Scotland, a country that is utterly dependent on increasing immigration in order to survive and thrive, and it makes me seriously question why Claire advocates a Union that speaks – not just through the rise of UKIP ‘values’ in the Conservative government, but also through a Labour opposition that comfortably embraces the terminology and tropes of ‘blood and soil nationalism’ – of foreigners in such negative terms. Her premise that Scottish self-determination is driven by ‘anti-Englishness’ may be delusional, but the UK Government and opposition seem to be remarkably at home with ‘othering’ – and perhaps that is worth her while reflecting a little more soberly on.
Within a couple of days of her comment piece being published in The Guardian, Robert Sommyne (a supporter of Scottish independence from a London Afro-Caribbean family) had responded to contradict her, using his experience with the Yes movement, and Claire Heuchan had left Twitter, citing online abuse. This posting is very deliberately not about abuse (which will be dealt with in another piece, as part of the new information-political landscape that we live in), and clearly deals with the assertions in the person’s writing, rather than criticism of the person themselves. Abuse should not be tolerated, and regardless of how insultingly your political movement may have been trolled in The Guardian to an audience of three quarters of a million people, it simply should not be done: any ad hominem comments or attacks simply look as though you cannot rebut the argument itself – so play the ball, not the player. But if you publish opinions and comments, you have to be prepared to be held to account for what you publish – someone studying for a PhD in particular should know that. Criticism of your published work is not abuse, and such not be conflated to be such – holding someone to account is not abuse – as Eric Joyce has noted, if you do genuinely suffer online abuse and threats, then that has no part in political debate, and you should report it to the police. As with the experience of the 2014 independence referendum, the Yes side is the only one which receives any scrutiny or examination – never the one representing the vested interests of the British establishment….and given Heuchan’s avowed unionist agenda, I would have been less bothered by her article if she or The Guardian had made it clear that her comment was coming from a far from neutral standpoint, but one with a very real axe to grind. But it was left for others to discover that through research, and to disseminate the hidden broader context of her opinions, and how her words played directly to her own very specific political agenda, rather than actually coming from a more balanced perspective, as they purported to.
As I have said, Scottish independence – in and of itself, by its very definition – relies on the idea of increasing immigration, as Scotland (inside or outside of the Union) will not survive and thrive without it. Indeed, the journalist Stephen Daisley once made a key distinction between the two ‘anti-establishment’ political parties at Westminster: “Reduced to its simplest terms, UKIP wants fewer people to be English while the SNP wants more people to be Scottish.” And yet somehow ‘anti-Englishness’ is bizarrely supposed to be the driver of the inclusive movement of Scottish self-determination. The audacity of taking a movement that demands higher levels of immigration and paradoxically trying to equate it with a “narrow nationalism” where there are those who belong and those who are rejected, is as bold as it is ludicrous. This is simply not the profile of a country that is ‘othering’. Scottish nationalism is described by its most poisonous critics as the “worst kind of nationalism”- one might ironically presume that this is because it welcomes immigrants, so does not really fit into the more common definitions of nationalism that the British state can more comfortably relate to. Therefore, in comparison with British nationalism, Scottish self-determination does not ‘tick the correct xenophobic boxes’. To use Claire’s own vocabulary, “purism” currently governs British identity, as evinced by ascendant politics in England, reinforced and ‘validated’ by the BrExit vote. “British and proud” is becoming less and less a phrase that one can utter without irony.
This incident may well be an early preview of how the next Scottish Independence Referendum will be fought: in the context of a likely wasteland where the UK is destroying its economy in parallel to ideological dismantling of the health service and the welfare state (which the Scottish government will not be able to stretch its budget to protect forever), thus undermining the previously-deployed empty arguments in the First Referendum about sticking with the UK for economic reasons, the fight to kill Scottish independence will have to move, to this time be an attempt to portray an anti-imperialist self-determination movement as nothing more than racism. This straw man in particular may be the first scarecrow of the new Project Fear. If that is how they want to win it, with all the implied damage that such a scorched earth policy will inflict, as a rerun of what Sadiq Khan himself described as the Leave campaign’s ‘Project Hate’, then that is a choice that shows how little they value the constituent parts of their “precious Union”. So be it – it avoids dealing with the issues, and the inherently difficult approach of making the mythical positive case for the Union, so one can see why it would attract a new ‘No’ campaign looking for a new bottle of snake oil in the bottom of its almost empty bag.
It is of course possible that Claire Heuchan stumbled unwittingly into this, not realising that she was effectively resurrecting this age-old refuted simplistic argument (although her previous activism for Better Together would lead me to question her veracity in that regard, if she were to make that argument…as does her selective deletion of over 16,000 tweets from her account before she came back online today), but regardless of that it is unlikely that the Yes movement is going to simply accept being tarnished as racists – and it is entirely unreasonable to expect them to do otherwise – as a way of trying to invalidate a movement for self-determination against a fundamentally imperial-style of control. Because it is anti-imperialism – not racism – that is closer to the character of Scottish self-determination.
In this light, it seems beyond credulity that Sadiq Khan – who warmly congratulated Pakistan and India on their independence days after his speech last week – could have come to Scotland and made such an ill-thought out comment on Scottish self-determination, and one cannot help but wonder how much he feels he was poorly-advised. Khan reportedly believes that nationalism as a concept is divisive by definition because it stresses differences, implies superiority and erects barriers to other people. I beg to suggest – and believe that the arguments above demonstrate – that the campaign for Scottish independence fulfils precisely none of these three criteria.
But British nationalism? Now that is a whole different story.
“It isn’t important where you come from, what matters is where we are going together as a nation.” (the late SNP MSP Bashir Ahmad (1940-2009) speaking in 1995)