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By Jason Michael
The English observer would think that this was the outbreak of a race war and the Scottish onlooker would think it was the beginning of a civil war. It was neither. It was the cruel and cowardly murder of people – just like us – on the streets of London.
In every conflict it is the same, and in Scotland’s current constitutional debate it is no different; the first casualty is always the truth. A man identified as Khalid Masood, shortly after twenty to three in the afternoon, drove a car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge before crashing it and attempting to force his way into the parliament complex. By the time this horrific drama had come to an end four people were dead – two civilians, the unarmed police officer Masood attacked with a knife, and Masood himself. These are the facts and this is what happened at Westminster today, but in the frenzied public reaction that ensued almost all of this was shamefully lost.
Britain’s racists were quick to capitalise on the incident over social media, calling for the use of “overwhelming force against Arab savages” and bewailing the presence of this “foreign invader” in our country in statements of condolence for the murdered policeman Keith Palmer. Making sure to be on the scene of course was Tommy Robinson – the self-appointed spokesperson for England’s neo-Nazis – shouting into the cameras of a media all too willing to lap him up, “The reality is that this is a war. These people are waging war on us… this has gone on for fourteen hundred years. This is nothing new, and the whole time this is going on police leaders or political leaders want to invite more.”
Others on the British right found this to be the perfect opportunity to call for the arming of all Britain’s police, because apparently such violent crime doesn’t happen in counties with thoroughly militarised police forces. As social media feeds were filling up with scenes of carnage and heartbreak from London, with an assortment of patriotic, supportive, and off the wall racist hashtags, the sense of anger and frustration was unavoidable. Many were angry and frustrated because of the incident and the suffering it had caused, but many others were not. They were using this mayhem to give voice to other explosive angers and frustrations that have been long simmering in this disunited Britain.
In Scotland, where the Edinburgh parliament was preparing to vote on empowering the government to seek a Section 30 order, the reaction was breath-taking. Unionists of course took great relish in grandstanding their virtue signalling at the “nationalists” who were calling false-flag and conspiracy. There is nothing quite like a ready-made political opportunity. Many independence supporters did – and some still do – call foul. Scotland has an important decision to make, and there are a few on the Yes side unwilling to give Westminster the benefit of the doubt. On both sides the storm got out of control. People forgot, sometimes ignored, our sisters and brothers in London.
Even within the Scottish parliament there were points being scored over the misery on the streets just 300 miles down the road. Understandably, wanting to stop the debate out of concern over the events in London, parliamentarians began to ask that the debate be suspended – a small and simple request. All that was required was the nod from the Presiding Officer, a mere formality. Not content to allow this to happen in a calm, orderly fashion, the Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser tweeted – from a parliamentary session – “Not sure how appropriate it is for this @ScotParl debate to carry on given the shocking news from Westminster.” It wasn’t long before his audience over Scotland heard the dog whistle and replied: “Wholly inappropriate. But the SNP must force through their agenda.” The message was clear; the nationalists were pushing their independence agenda even “at a time like this.” Social media war erupted and continued for the day.
Not sure how appropriate it is for this @ScotParl debate to carry on given the shocking news from Westminster—
Murdo Fraser (@murdo_fraser) March 22, 2017
Fraser, and many now rallying to his call, knew well that the Presiding Officer was responsible for calling a halt to the debate. They also know that, in this case, the PO was a Labour MSP – a fellow unionist. What do facts matter when even the victims were being ignored for the sake of callous political opportunism?
In London the Metropolitan police tweeted: “We are treating this as a terrorist incident until we know otherwise.” Terrorism, whether real or not, was the default response by the police. It remains unclear if this was indeed a militant terror attack or the actions of a deranged lone assailant, but even if it is – and it looks likely to be – a terror attack the authorities have a duty to establish the facts. Given the extent of the racism that was unleashed in response, the police have to be mindful of the potential consequences of such assumptions.
Something truly awful happened in London today, and we have to bear in mind that all our discussion and arguments are happening in the context of a real human tragedy. We all have a responsibility to be sensitive and compassionate. Yet something else happened that we can’t ignore. We have seen amid all the shouting and opportunism that the fractures running through England and Scotland are deep and that the tensions are now at boiling point. For many in Scotland – on both sides – the murder became an opportunity to snipe and wage pitched battles over a widening divide. We have seen that no side has the monopoly on “divisiveness.” We must be better than this and put people before politics.