Here we go again

With the prospect of a second independence referendum beginning to dominate the already crowded political debate in Scotland, I had in recent days been dusting down my keyboard to prepare to enter the Scottish political blogosphere once more.

My first post was going to be about the chief reason for the return of independence as a question: last year’s vote for Brexit. And I will write about that in a later post.

But it’s been temporarily overtaken in the news and in my mind by a second issue which, I had hoped, had been well explored previously and wouldn’t be a feature of any second referendum’s narrative. Sadly, however, the issue has returned, and I feel moved to address it.

The issue in question is racism.

Racism sadly dogged the first referendum campaign in 2014. I say sadly, not only because racism is ugly and it is sad when it appears anywhere. But it was also sad because it polluted what should have been (and, to be fair, on the whole actually was) a fascinating, enlightening, interesting, mature and exciting debate. I blogged about it a couple of times through my series of referendum-shaped blog posts, principally here and here, in which I argued that racism was  repeated and unpleasant feature of the No campaign’s arguments.

As I say, I had hoped this argument had died a death, but it had a resurgence out of the blue in recent days from a most unexpected source – the widely-respected Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. He spoke at the Scottish Labour conference this past weekend, and his controversial speech hit the headlines because of his conflation of racism and nationalism (or what he called nationalism, and which I would suggest is more accurately called secessionism).

He said, according to the BBC News website:

“With the world becoming an increasingly divided place. Brexit. President Trump. And the rise of populist and narrow nationalist parties around the world.

“Now’s not the time to play on people’s fears.

“Or to pit one part of our country – or one section of our society – against each other.

In that respect 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.”

I feel like we’ve been over these arguments before many, many times, but there is simply no way in which the movement for Scottish independence (which contains nationalists, but also many other ideological standpoints – just as the No side also contains nationalists and others) can be cast in the same light as Brexit, Trump and political movements such as the growing far right in France, the Netherlands or elsewhere.

On a very fundamental level, a movement which is about secession for a territory is ideologically not the same as one which wants to divide people by, as Khan puts it, background, race or religion. But on a more empirical level, there is no sense in which the movement for Scottish independence has anything to do with such right-wing politics. Far from it. Calls for independence have been dominated by voices from the left, calling for social justice, inclusion, internationalism, civic equality, and bitter reactions to the narrow, protectionist, racist politics emanating from London in recent years.

Admittedly, Khan went on to say that…

“Now of course I’m not saying that nationalists are somehow racist or bigoted – but now, more than ever – what we don’t need is more division and separation.

…but that really doesn’t help. The idea that independence equals division and separation is a lazy and ignorant one. Yes, on a purely abstract level, a secession does indeed lead to an international boundary that didn’t exist before. But given that the world contains over 200 independent countries whose divisions and separation that Khan appears not to have a problem with, the issue surely is not the inherent existence of division into independent countries, but the nature of those divisions and the behaviour of those on either side of them. And as I got rather bored of arguing in the past, for instance here and here, there’s no evidence to suggest that relations between Scotland and other near neighbours would be anything other than positive.

I’ve seen better dissections of Khan’s arguments elsewhere, mainly on Twitter, but it left me sad and angry that a Labour Party in Scotland that has allowed itself to be destroyed and corrupted by its hatred of independence has learned no lessons.

Indeed, Khan’s speech seems to have paved the way for others to jump on a similar bandwagon. Earlier today, the Guardian chose to run with Khan’s arguments rather than counter its obvious fallacies. It published an extraordinary article following on from the Mayor of London’s comments titled “The parallels between Scottish nationalism and racism are clear“.

The author of the piece, Claire Heuchan, wrote so many tragic errors in the article (in amongst a few sadly overshadowed valid points) that it is hard to know how to tackle them, except perhaps in the order in which they came.

In the first paragraph, she argues:

“There is an obvious overlap between nationalism and racism: both mentalities are defined by a politics of us and them. Equating racism with Scottish nationalism is a massive false equivalence, yet both perspectives are reliant on a clear distinction being made between those who belong and those who are rejected on the basis of difference.”

This is absolutely false. The desire for Scottish independence is absolutely not reliant on a distinction between those who belong and those who are rejected. All corners of the movement rest on the idea of a civic interpretation of the nation – all in the territory belong, wherever they are from. In Scotland, we are all the “us”. This is in stark contrast to the UK government which is hellbent to deport our ethnic minorities seemingly in the face of deep connections and long-lasting residencies.

Nobody is or was in the 2014 debate “rejected” from Scotland; except for the inherent fact that all those not living in Scotland would (obviously) not be citizens of an independent Scotland, but of wherever else they lived. The idea that you’re racist for believing that people in other countries aren’t legally your fellow citizens (until they move here, of course) is bewildering.

Next, Heuchan argues:

The SNP is fond of talking about “a fairer Scotland”, playing on the popular notion that Scotland is by nature more egalitarian than England. But this raises one unavoidable question: fairer than what? England, of course.

This is so offensively wrong it is actually hurtful. What does the SNP want Scotland to be fairer than? The Scotland that exists at the moment! An oil-rich developed nation with scandalous levels of poverty, inequality and infrastructure development, and with nuclear weapons on our soil, can and urgently must be fairer to all its citizens. It’s hardly rocket science: every party wants its country to be better. To single out one party in one country, with no supporting evidence, as seeing politics as a competition with other nations is to bring a nasty undertone into a debate that desperately doesn’t need it.

Her next howler of an error was to write that:

Scottish nationalism in its present state rests on a fundamental contradiction: seeking separation from the United Kingdom, and unity within the European Union.

Again, this is a total misunderstanding of the facts. For a start, the UK is a unitary state, and the EU is a union of sovereign countries. They are not like for like. The former you are a part of to the subjugation of any previous status; the latter you join with full rights as a participant. But also the author misses the point about an independent Scotland’s intended relationship with the EU – this isn’t about “uniting” with the EU or transferring power over, but about merely gaining responsibility from the UK for the decisions it already helps to make at a European level.

Elsewhere in the article, Heuchan makes valid points about colonialism and Scotland’s role in it. Scotland – especially the Highlands – suffered awfully as a result of what has happened to it in recent centuries, but the writer is absolutely spot on to say that Scotland pounced on the opportunities presented by imperial adventures. On the one hand, Gaels were dispossessed and cleansed, and on the other, Scottish merchants and soldiers were responsible for the deaths of thousands across the world. Fair point, but in a sense one that is irrelevant to the specific question of whether Scottish independence would be a good thing or not today.

She writes also about racism in Scotland, and she is right to draw attention to it. Admittedly my eyebrow raised at the idea that there was racism and insularity in the Yes campaign. I saw no evidence of this myself, but as a white Scottish man I’m certainly not going to start telling a black Scottish woman what she saw or felt. And yes on a general level there is no doubt as much racism in Scotland as in any comparable country – perhaps in some ways more, in some ways less. We have racism against the English and Irish, the Poles and the Pakistanis, the Gaels and the Roma. But to portray Scottish nationalism – with its advocates from all over the world, and a spirit of strong internationalism – as inherently, fundamentally racist when it is a democratic, inclusive secessionist process taken by millions before us, actually runs the risk of distracting us from the deeper racism we should be concerned about.

And while for the most part the solutions to racism are on a human level and therefore arguably are distinct from the question of what mode of government we have, there is a key argument to be made about how the state can take a lead in creating an environment in which mutual respect and understanding can be promoted. Actions like respecting immigrants, protecting the rights of minorities, extending friendship and hospitality to strangers, refugees and asylum seekers, and hardwiring internationalism and respect into our education system, are all core to normalising equality and inclusion.

The question we need to ask ourselves is how we can be best placed to carry out those actions – under a UK government whose refusal to take more than a handful of refugees shames us all and whose march to Brexit is spreading fear among immigrant populations…? Or in a Scotland where such narrow-minded racism is repeatedly and widely condemned?

That is one of the many choices that will face Scotland in the coming months of discussion about independence. I hope in subsequent posts to explore what I think might be some of those other choices.

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