26 October 2009

Ethnicity, racism & the SNP

Scottish politics does seem like an echo room at the moment. Following that principle of mutual citation, to get this brisk, first morning of the week off to an echoic start, I wanted to draw the eye and bend the ear to this and that.

Firstly, I’ve made tapped nary a single key here to comment on the so-called British National Party hoohah and the easy effort of not being a racist or pandering to racists when you are on a Question Time panel. Rather more difficult, it seems to me, is sticking to those estimable sentiments when Labour Governments and Tory Governments are formulating and regulating their policies on immigration and the seekers of asylum – and representing these to the wider public. For me, as a quasi and occasional scholar of the historical phenomenon of racism in particular communities, what was particularly of interest (not strictly interesting, but of interest) was how different panellists constructed the question. What is this racism and why is it bad? Who do we think of as our archetypical racist, and what error is he or she making?

Some answers emerge from the language. An easy place to begin is the older discourse of race relations, still tacked to the top of the current U.K. legislation from 1976, elucidated sociologically by Michael Banton in his book Race Relations (1967). Implicit in this tack to the issue and “construction” of the “problem” of racism is the maintenance of the categories of race. This sort of approach is now far more common in America – and in its long penumbra, we sometimes find ourselves encompassed. The idea of being “mixed-race” has taken on a lurid prominence since Barack Obama became a real prospect for the American elected kingship. Numerous, utterly fatuous inquisitions follow. Is he really black? Is he white? In what sense is it justifiable to call him a black man? The more pointed answer to this is firstly to point out – race is socially constructed. Race has no given conceptual ordering, no benign, ininterpretative “truth” which can be found outside of our own, social and philosophical concepts. Once these sinister conceptualisations have slithered into our minds, the world begins to take on a racist shape. We ask questions of the world – like those asked of Obama – which assume the basic validity of race as a conceptual tool. In short, we become to dupe of the ideas we create and recreate day to day by seeing the world in a racialising way.

This, I’d suggest, from an anti-racist perspective is a distinct and continuing problem. Rather than scorching the roots of a false ideology, we merely trim the savage plant, constrain its growth within an orderly box, and hope all past blights cannot return. I’d suggest, as a sine qua non, we should stop talking about race as if it had a meaningful underlying referent. Period. Certainly, we might want to analyse the social phenomenon of race-thinking in public life – of which there are extensive examples – but as a political project and a conceptual frame, race and race relations ought to be hastily junked. I look forward to the day when our lexicons will read only:

race (n) (archaic)

However, a hasty change in our terminology won’t do of itself either. I’ve attacked social research before which draws on discourses of ethnicity, and promptly asks me whether I’m white or black – not, I notice the wobbly, peelywally pinkish hue typical of unsunned Scots. If our emphasis is cultural, and ethnicity recognises in the way a racist cannot that ethnic categories are socially begot and none the less valid for all that – then why do the guilty terms of black and white reappear, bashfully pretending they do not draw on a racialising discourse which might explain their presence. At which point, to the promised echo room. The august Lord Rector of the Universitas Academica Edinensis – first class – Iain MacWhirter has an excellent article this morning in the Herald which tied my tongue and stole (albeit without the reticent mens rea) much of what I had wanted to say about the inevitable kilting and Scotticism of the issues raised by wider awareness of the BNP’s platform and how that relates to the SNP. All of this particularly pertinent in the context of Professor Tom Gallagher’s suggestion that Darth Salmond is dabbling in the dreich arts of “mass manipulation associated with Europe in uglier times.” Other sceptical pronouncements include:

“This is replacing civic nationalism with the blood-and-soil variety. I’m angry that such ideas might see the light of day. How would an English child or an internationally minded Scottish one feel on such a visit?” ... “Scotland is a country where the texture of society is still authoritarian and certainly conformist” ...

“I find it creepy that a movement’s future is so bound up with such a talented, impulsive and autocratic leader. The SNP would get more value out of Salmond if they made him accountable for his policies rather than crowning him the unofficial King of Scotland at each party conference. If independence is full of disappointment, then weak democratic institutions could be menaced by a demagogue.”

While a reasonable tactic to popularise Gallagher spanking new (and presumably, hard sell) book The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism – we ought not to be too brisk to call the man a wobbling numpty. If there are answers to these claims, and easy answers at that, we ought to be able to produce them. Personally, I see in Gallagher’s suggestion about the force of the Maximum Eck’s mass manipulation a manifestation of the traditional Scottish cringe. Even our masses are crapper and less massful than everyone else’s, our manipulations rather … er … incomplete. I’m more interested in his suggestion about the conformist and authoritarian tack of Scots culture – that is an issue about which we can – and ought to have - a real discussion.

Yon article by Mr MacWhirter is not a bad place to start.


  1. I don’t think wither Tom Gallagher or Ian McWhirter has really put their finger on it. The answer to the question McWhirter puts of what would the SNP do if a flood of African-Caribbean people entered Scotland is simple. We would start to canvass them and sign them up as members.

    This is what I think makes people like Tom Gallagher go a bit bonkers, He cannot understand why the SNP “courts” non-white voters if not for some sinister reason which somehow involves us introducing sharia law at the same time as going all neo-Nazi and ranting about blood and soil. He misses the rather obvious point that we are courting every voter in Scotland. We are interested in winning votes from every single elector because we want to win an independence referendum. Everything that the SNP does can be understood if you grasp that simple point. No conspiracy theories required.

    Perhaps the more interesting question – and one which Tom Gallagher et al have failed to address – is why it is that incomers often have less of a problem supporting the SNP and independence than indigenous Scots. I think that is quite an interesting question. It may be partly to do with the fact that people from other countries perhaps have a better grasp of the idea of an independence movement and don’t suffer quite so much from the Scottish cringe.

  2. Indy

    Gallagher's finger is nowhere near. Here's some more objective analysis of his new book: