openDemocracyUK: Feature

‘It’s not often you defeat Priti Patel’: Will Glasgow be a wake-up call?

Last week’s events on Kenmure Street raised questions about who makes the rules in Scotland, in whose interests, and how they’re held accountable

Gerry Hassan
18 May 2021, 3.46pm
Two men are released from a UK Border Agency van, after an hours-long protest in Glasgow's Pollokshields
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Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Alamy Stock Photo

On Thursday last week Pollokshields, a residential area on Glasgow’s Southside, made headlines worldwide. On that morning a UK Border Agency van came down the narrow confines of Kenmure Street and officials swooped to detain and deport two young men, Lakhvir Singh and Sumit Sehdev, Sikhs originally from India.

Within minutes a young activist, known only as ‘Van Man’, from Glasgow’s No Evictions Network lay under the van. Another local resident, Declan Blench, who had been working from home, ran onto the street and behind the van, tweeting and alerting others to the incident.

Blench told The Guardian: “I just thought ‘You’re not going to do that in front of me.’ There is due process and this is not it. I’ve never done anything like that before, so I was quite nervous. But every time I turned around there were more and more people.”

The quickfire actions of Blench and Van Man bought time and allowed the community to be mobilised. Within minutes, people started emerging from the surrounding tenements – first in Kenmure Street, then neighbouring streets. For eight hours the number of protesters swelled, blocking the street as the van sat motionless with the two men held captive inside and a growing police presence around it – until the police informed the UK Border Agency that in the interests of public safety the two men should be released.

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Thursday culminated in emotional celebrations, as befits an uplifting moment of people power, responding in crisis, and representing for many, the best of Glasgow. A local community – of all ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and identities – was mobilised and brought together by the actions of the British state.

A banner reads 'If this is Team UK we reject it'
Residents of Kenmure Street hung banners from their windows, displaying solidarity against the British state | Gerry Hassan

Aamer Anwar, the human rights lawyer who negotiated the release of the two men, told me: “It’s not very often that you get to beat Priti Patel’s Home Office, but Thursday was a significant victory on many fronts. A combination of uncompromising people power and a realisation that the Scottish government would not back down to the Home Office meant Police Scotland had no options left other than to liberate the two men.”

But what were the characteristics of the community that made this possible? What does it tell us about Scottish politics? And what will happen next time the forces of the British state come for Scottish residents? For there is little doubt there will be a next time – the reaction of the UK Home Office and Conservative politicians and commentators, demonstrates that.

The best and worst of Glasgow

For centuries, Glasgow has seen itself as an arrival city for communities from around the world – Irish, Italian, Pakistani, and Sikh, to name only the most obvious.

Pollokshields is thought to be Glasgow’s and Scotland’s most diverse, multi-cultural community. It’s home to the country’s largest (and in many cases prosperous) Pakistani community and to the Glasgow Gurdwara, spiritual home of the Sikh community, where the two men volunteered. Charandeep Singh, head of the Glasgow Gurdwara is rightly proud of the community’s outgoing, socially engaged reputation, with an exemplary programme of outreach during COVID.

The area is also home to a rich mix of arts, culture, and younger folk – some of whom worked, pre-COVID, in places such as Tramway, the pioneering centre for visual and performing arts.

This is my community and home turf. I moved to Kenmure Street nearly 30 years ago, and now live one minute away. When I responded to the call out for people to make their way to protest, I was met by friends and acquaintances I have known for three decades.

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Protesters surround the van, waving placards showing support for refugees | Iain Masterton/Alamy Live News

Activist Adam Benmakhlouf reflected on the day: “I saw neighbours, colleagues, friends, crushes. I hadn’t felt so immersed in community in almost a year.”

Thursday’s direct action also drew on Glasgow Southside’s proud tradition of opposing racists and fascists. The area has been consistently singled out by the far Right – who have been consistently humiliated. In the 1997 UK election, when Mohammed Sarwar was the Labour candidate for Glasgow Govan for the first time, the BNP won 149 votes; in the Scottish parliament elections earlier this month a fascist candidate formerly of Britain First, standing in Glasgow Southside, won an even more pathetic 46 votes.

Ongoing threat, and the voices of reaction

But the story does not end here. Lakhvir Singh and Sumit Sehdev have only won a temporary victory.

Charandeep Singh told me: “Thursday's orchestrated actions by the Home Office were reckless, inhumane and misjudged. The people of Glasgow stood up with a sense of power and purpose which has reverberated around the world. On this occasion, the protective hand of Glaswegians helped Lakhvir and Sumit.”

But he also cautioned: “We know the Home Office will double down on its heavy-handed approach. That's why we urge the Home Office to abandon its policy of forced removals and adopt an immigration policy based on human rights and dignity. Glasgow's response to the Home Office should serve as a wake-up call to the UK government."

The Scottish dimension

Significantly, the raid took place in the Glasgow Southside constituency – represented by Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon – just seven days after the Scottish parliament elections returned the SNP for a fourth term with a pro-independence parliamentary majority. During the campaign Sturgeon had made explicit that the SNP was seeking a mandate for a second independence referendum when the COVID pandemic subsided.

Differences matter and were fully on display in Kenmure Street last week. The police officers from Police Scotland, accountable to Scottish ministers, were on the whole polite, friendly and at ease with protesters, openly talking about how they disagreed with the Home Office actions, and that they did not have the power to stop their actions.

Anwar told me the events of last week “exposed...a tension that lies at the heart of a reserved immigration issue. For future deportations we can be assured that the Home Office will get its act together and call up the police first for back up. The ball is in the court of Police Scotland, and the question really is whether next time they will they do the bidding of Priti Patel or recognise that public safety and community relations serve a higher purpose We won this time, but I suspect a bruised Home Office will return for another battle, which we cannot afford to lose.”

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Protesters in Glasgow hold signs reading 'Home Office go home' and 'Free our neighbours' | Iain Masterton/Alamy Live News

Indeed, the UK Home Office showed no contrition, with a source stating: "It is completely unacceptable for a mob to stop the lawful removal of people living in our country illegally. We 100% back the frontline in removing those with no right to be here.”

Some said far worse. George Galloway, once a radical left-winger who challenged the British state and stood for anti-racism as well as Scottish self-government, marked his long descent into a hard Unionist position. Amid the protest last Thursday, and having just run in the Scottish elections under the ‘All for Unity’ banner to “stop separatism”, resulting in a derisory vote, he commented: “Immigration and asylum are UK government matters. A devolved Assembly has openly and unlawfully defied the implementation of a UK government decision. This is an act of rebellion.”

Scottish Tory MSP Murdo Fraser, a lifelong Rangers fan, made the connection between Thursday’s peaceful, respectful protest in Kenmure Street, and the then impending Rangers celebrations on Saturday, when the club was presented with the trophy for winning the Scottish Premiership. “I hope all Rangers fans will celebrate responsibly tomorrow, esp given the spike in Glasgow COVID cases,” Fraser tweeted, “Sadly I fear such calls are undermined by some politicians actively encouraging street protests yesterday. Can’t be one rule for some and another for others.”

It was a poor comparison as events unfolded. Kenmure Street involved non-violent direct action, no one drank alcohol or fought each other, and after the community protest, local people cleaned and tidied the area. No such statement could be made about how a section of Rangers fans chose to celebrate winning the title. Unable to attend the match they gathered in the city’s iconic George Square at the heart of the city centre and engaged in hooliganism, violence and thuggery for the second time in as many months. And what condemnation did it bring from Rangers or the likes of Murdo Fraser? Nothing but the most general, perfunctory statements.

Iain Martin, who runs the right-wing commentary and news site Reaction UK, attempted to make the protest synonymous with the SNP and senior politicians in it, tweeting: “Immigration protests: the SNP’s attempt to delegitimise the British state must be resisted.”

In reality, the protest was a spontaneous reaction of the local community and supported across the political spectrum, with prominent Scottish politicians urging solidarity, including Nicola Sturgeon, justice secretary Humza Yousaf, Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar.

Some saw Kenmure Street as nothing to do with the constitution, others wished the direct action had been made more explicitly about independence, but protesters got the balance right: putting their community and fellow neighbours first. Underlying our action was something profound which is the nature of power and our collective agency in the face of the British state. And in Scotland those questions are intimately connected to the question of self-government. Who makes our rules as a society, in whose interests do they make those rules, and how are they held accountable?

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