Is it completely outlandish to ask whether Scottish Unionism has become a cover for our country’s racists and bigots? A quick survey of the history of the Union is enough to show us that racism is mother’s milk to British Nationalism.
Yesterday the Butterfly Rebellion published my article asking the question, after the abuse Humza Yousaf received for making his parliamentary oath in Urdu while wearing a fabulous fusion of Scots and Pakistani national dress, “Is Unionism the new cover for racism?” It goes entirely without saying that your average unionist didn’t appreciate this being asked, and nor should they. No one likes to be called a racist, and it certainly isn’t the case that all unionists are indeed racist. The article merely asked whether or not Scottish Unionism provided a safe space for racism to be expressed.
After the piece had done the rounds on social media Butterfly Rebellion and Bella Caledonia’s Twitter feeds were trolled with some pretty angry responses, and my inbox was flooded with some pretty colourful hate mail. All that poor Bella Caledonia had done was share the post. Ignoring the spiteful and nasty personal comments, the more reasonable criticism was that the article was a piece of “lazy writing,” based on “anecdotal evidence,” and wilfully ignorant of “the racism of the SNP.” Besides being unaware of racism underlying the Scottish independence movement, I didn’t know I was writing for the SNP.
Criticism is important for those who dabble in writing, and it is especially important for a minnow like me. It keeps us honest, and helps us to up our game. So what’s going to happen here is that we’re going to ask the question again, but this time we’re going to avoid the laziness and wilful ignorance of the hurried polemic and make sure that nothing is said without some sort of evidence.
We can all remember when Scotland on Sunday led with the image of young Scots claiming freedom with a digitally defaced saltire, framing Better Together’s No campaign as a fight against no less a foe than the Nazis. Every time Britain perceives itself to be in a struggle for its existence it returns, as Boris Johnson has demonstrated yet again, to this motif of the good versus evil titanic battle against Hitler and the Nazis. Arguably it was the last and likely the only just war the British Empire ever found itself in, so it stands to reason that every contest Britain hopes to gain the moral high ground in should be portrayed as a rematch.
In spite of its lack of evidence for linking the Yes Scotland movement with the horrors of Auschwitz and for its act of defacing our national flag in print, the Press Complaints Commission found Scotland on Sunday not to be in breach of any code of practice. From the outset of the campaign then those in favour of separation from London were roundly presented by an overwhelmingly pro-union press as racist thugs, while the only violent incidents during and after the referendum campaign were perpetrated by unionists – one being a nasty assault on a pensioner.
Is this to say that there are no Scottish nationalists who are racists? No, not at all! Racism remains a problem right across Scotland, as it does everywhere else. Recently the SNP councillor Julie McAnulty was suspended by the National Party after allegations were made that she told a colleague of her wish to “get the Pakis out of the Party.” It remains unclear if there is any truth to these allegations, but it is worth noting that the SNP wasted no time in suspending her until the matter has been cleared up. This, however, is beside the point. The question was whether or not the structures of Unionism were conducive to racism and the behaviour of the SNP during the McAnulty incident show that this, together with the multi-racial and multi-ethnic makeup of the SNP, is not the case in the Scottish National Party.
Let’s begin by asking the most basic question: Unionism means what exactly? In the case of Scotland Unionism is the political desire to maintain the 1707 Acts of Union, the acts of both the Westminster and Edinburgh parliaments that gave birth to Great Britain and the British Empire. This was a parliamentary union forged in the midst of empire, and guided by imperial imagination. Empire, the violent and repressive subjugation of peoples and nations by an imperial power, is not possible without an imagined sense of superiority – “the white man’s burden,” to quote Rudyard Kipling.
Yes, Britain was instrumental in the globalisation of the trade in African slaves, and indeed it was instrumental in the abolition of slavery, but nowhere does this change in practice demand the change in attitude. After all, Britain’s slave owners, like David Cameron’s own family, were compensated for the loss of their “property.” When the island nation of Jamaica requested financial reparations from the United Kingdom it was Cameron himself who told the Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller to get over it.
Unionism is about loyalty to the Crown, the British monarch, the Queen – an institution that has never been able to free itself from very real expressions of racism. Whether it’s the Duke of Edinburgh cracking “jokes” about not being eaten by the natives of Papua New Guinea, young Prince Harry in a Nazi Stormtrooper’s outfit, or the Queen and the Queen Mother giving a Sieg Heil salute in the garden with Uncle Eddie, the royal family is famous for its racism. Aye, we all read the Tory papers explaining that the Queen was only a wee lassie having some fun in the sun, but just over the water there were plenty of other little girls and boys giving the same salute, and no doubt they were having a great time. That’s how it works.
So when all of this is the environment and these the idols of Unionism the racism of the rank and file is altogether different from the common or garden racism of the ignorant angry racist on the street. The difference is that the Union and Unionism have both a history and a culture of overt racism. It comes as no surprise then that the expression of British Nationalism in every part of the United Kingdom comes with a whole package of racial superiority, racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and Islamophobia, and as we have seen this is not limited to the “white working class.” If anything the so-called white working class is being used as a scapegoat – all it is doing is emulating its masters.
So to be clear, there’s no argument here that all unionists are racists. Indeed not everyone who voted No in the last referendum would even consider themselves to be a unionist. People voted No for lots of reasons. What is being said here is that Unionism, as a loyalism to Great Britain, is a particular flavour of politics that was brought into existence within the racist ideology of empire, and that racism has never disappeared from the powers behind the veil of the British establishment. It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that the racism we are now seeing from many who identify themselves as unionists is nothing but a continuation of Britain’s earliest mode of thought.
Scottish MSP Humza Yousaf racially abused while selling The Big Issue