In Scotland, Loyalists lead a Black Lives Matter backlash

Racist ideas have connected Scottish sectarians with the global far right

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David Leask
13 August 2020, 4.25pm
Protesters 'guard' statues in George Square, Glasgow
Jane Barlow/PA Wire/PA Images

In the early days of this summer’s wave of Black Lives Matter protests, police in Glasgow put a statue under 24-hour guard. 

The equestrian monument, first erected in 1735, was dedicated to “our glorious hero and deliverer (under God) from popery and slavery”; to William of Orange, the monarch revered to this day by Scottish Loyalists for guaranteeing, as they see it, their religious freedom from the Catholic Church.

By mid-June this horseback “King Billy” had been vandalised twice, his plinth daubed with pro IRA and Black Lives Matter graffiti. 

Why? Because the monarch believed to have delivered protestants from ‘slavery’ was also a slaver; personally profiting from shares in the Royal African Company. 

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This was a not a new flashpoint; but it was a new flash issue. The fear among local authorities? That Black Lives Matter and statue rows, like Old Firm football or the independence debate, would become another proxy war for those on the extremes of Glasgow’s rival sectarian traditions.

These concerns proved well-founded. This summer police repeatedly had to intervene to prevent clashes between what they coyly called “football risk groups”, Rangers and Celtic hooligans, in Glasgow’s central George Square. 

And all this while, as in England and around the world, BLM campaigners faced counter-protests from self-styled statue defenders with a firmly Loyalist edge.

This was a cultural and political cross-over moment, when the fringes of British unionism and loyalism in Scotland found themselves in lockstep with a broad alliance of ultra-conservative, chauvinistic, nationalistic and white supremacist forces in Europe and America.

The result: Scottish Loyalists, to the dismay of both mainstream unionists and Scottish nationalists, are increasingly echoing global far-right narratives and spreading racist disinformation.

In Glasgow statue defenders were at least partly organised by a group called Scottish Protestants Against Discrimination – or SPAD – forged amid heightened Glasgow sectarian tensions in 2018. 

Initially aping the language of minority rights, SPAD focused on what it saw as discriminatory policies from Glasgow’s city council, since 2017 in the hands of Scotland’s ruling pro-independence national party, on Orange marches commemorating King Billy. 

The SNP, SPAD argued, was biased against Loyalist or protestant groups – and for Irish Republicans and the IRA. So, its supporters claim, was the SNP government in Edinburgh and what they saw as a compliant Scottish media.

With each month of 2020 – a rare year with no sectarian marching – the SPAD rhetoric was ratcheted up. 

By August its monthly Newsletter had become a diet of racist talking points. 

BLM campaigners, it said, were “Marxist drones” whose “real purpose was the defamation of great men”. 

Citing the African National Congress removing Apartheid- and colonial-era monuments in South Africa, SPAD said communists were using BLM “to tear down Christian civilisation”. This, it concluded, was a “demonic offensive”.

SPAD, citing anonymous police sources, went on to blame a rise in sex crime on what it called the ‘migrant crisis”. There is no evidence for this. 

So far, so boilerplate. 

But the same newsletter also published crude disinformation about asylum seekers that suggested it was trying to weaponise racism against its constitutional adversaries in SNP.

And this leap from sectarianism to anti-BLM bile into the politics of independence has got figures on both sides of Scottish politics worried.

Glasgow is one of the UK’s dispersal cities for asylum seekers. This is a scheme under which foreigners seeking protection – usually when they arrive in the UK in southern England – are bussed north for accommodation. 

In Glasgow, Mears, a private firm acting on behalf of the Home Office, houses and supports foreign nationals claiming refugee status. 

Local or Scottish authorities have little or no role in any of this. Yet SPAD links what it claims is a rise in asylum applications in Glasgow to local and Scottish SNP leaders. 

It repeatedly and falsely claims that asylum seekers are housed by the SNP-run council.

“Despite Covid-19 European-wide travel restrictions being in place, there has been a noticeable increase in asylum seekers arriving, particularly, in Glasgow to be housed,” SPAD claimed. “Could this be the result of the SNP policy of welcoming ALL asylum seekers?”

It is quite easy to answer this question: Scottish authorities have no immigration powers. So, no. 

Figures for UK asylum applicants bob up and down depending on what is happening in the wider world. They were higher in 2019 than in 2018 but remain way off their 2002 peak. Glasgow got around 4000 people under the dispersal scheme in the year through last summer, more than any other city. This programme, after two decades, has had a dramatic effect on the demographics of a city that was overwhelmingly white right till the end of the 20th century. 

SPAD in its most recent August Newsletter made a series of untrue, unfounded or unsubstantiated claims about asylum seekers.

No city source was able to corroborate any of the reports in the SPAD newsletter, which were attributed to unnamed sources.

One said: “This cannot be insider information because whoever provided it so obviously has no understanding of asylum policy.” 

There are specific reasons authorities are worried about asylum disinformation.

Death of a refugee

Last month a troubled Sudanese asylum seeker, Badreddin Abadlla Adam, was shot dead by the police after stabbing six people. He had been housed by Mears in a hotel in the centre of Glasgow. 

This happened ahead of a weekend when more BLM protests and SPAD counter-protests were expected. Tensions were high. The last thing local authorities needed was some incendiary language about “aggressive” foreigners from Loyalists.

SPAD, in its newsletter said said that Adam’s death was the “culmination” of its own distorted view of asylum in Glasgow. In reality, it was a sad and isolated event.

The newsletter concluded: “It has not escaped our notice that these sinister events have more or less been conveniently covered up by the Scottish media and those responsible for the running of the city.” 

In fact, the shooting received wall-to-wall news coverage. So too did its aftermath, including criticism of Mears for using hotels for asylum seekers during lockdown, and widespread concern about mental health services for asylum seekers.

Martin Docherty-Hughes, an SNP MP who has campaigned on refugee and immigration issues, said: “The links between the far right and Loyalist groups have been an open secret for some time, and it is now concerning to see that they have adopted this type of slick political messaging to appeal to disaffected mainstream unionist voters.

“We are proud of Scotland’s reputation as a welcoming place for the most vulnerable people, while not being ignorant to the possibility that these messages may find a receptive audience. It’s time for all political parties in Scotland to be clear that, while there may be legitimate criticisms to make, aping the language of the far right cannot be allowed to be mainstreamed in our discourse.”

But it is not just the SNP which is concerned about SPAD rhetoric. So are mainstream supporters of the British union. 

Pamela Nash is chief executive of Scotland in Union, a cross-party unionist umbrella group. Asked to respond to SPAD language, she said: “Seeking to divide communities goes against everything that the campaign for remaining in the UK stands for.

“Those of us who passionately believe we are stronger together do so because of our beliefs in solidarity and unity. In contrast, it is nationalism that seeks to divide people.

“Fringe groups like this with their intolerant views could not be further removed from mainstream Scotland.”

Glasgow Labour MSP Anas Sarwar has a track record of setting aside partisanship to challenge racism. He echoed Nash. “In recent years we have seen the rise of Scottish exceptionalism – the idea that somehow we’re less intolerant than our neighbours. It is not talking Scotland down to expose this as a myth,” he said.

“Intolerant groups like this do not speak for the majority of people in Scotland, and their distasteful, extreme and hurtful views are polar opposite to the beliefs held by those who support Scotland’s future in the UK based on solidarity and togetherness.

“But we can’t be complacent, and we need to challenge hatred and prejudice wherever it is found.”

openDemocracy asked SPAD to comment. It did not respond.

The organisation has emerged just as Scottish Loyalist tradition hits an historic low. 

Polls suggest enduring support for independence and rising interest in Irish re-unification. More widely, sectarianism is believed to be on the wane, even on the Clyde. 

SPAD is a product of this weakness, as well as a contributor to it. The idea of “Loyalist bigot” has long been an easy trope – but not always a fair one. SPAD plays up to this stereotype. It is the perfect bogeyman for independence supporters. 

But SPAD, above all, marks an assault on the main Loyalist and unionist marching organisations, especially the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland. It lives off what the staunchest Loyalists see as the failures of classical Orangeism. 

Disaffected Loyalists think the Orange Order was too “kumbayah’, explained one city insider, because it entered into negotiations on parades.

There is no suggestion that SPAD is behind violence in Glasgow. Yet it is SPAD which is most openly lacing Loyalist narratives with anti-BLM ones. And this concatenation of Scottish and wider global Culture War issues has impact on the street.

Speaking during the central Glasgow clashes earlier this summer, the Scottish government’s sectarianism adviser, Michael Rosie, summed up this new street leadership role for what was once very much a fringe.

“The Orange Order is not in George Square but there is the same cast of characters, the same extras who are bystanders to a big Orange parade, Rangers football hooligans,” he told The Herald.

“Nobody is forcing them to be violent racists but they are encouraged by the other lot who are knocking about and vandalising pubs and statues. 

“There is a lot of nasty provocation going on at the moment, and it is around football, but football in Glasgow is never just about football.

“Part of me is very concerned that Black Lives Matter, which is really important, is being used now as a political football between Rangers and Celtic hooligans.”

As Docherty-Hughes said, there has long been a far-right fringe among the most nationalistic defenders of the union forged between Scotland and England in 1707, just five years after William of Orange’s death.

BLM protesters in Edinburgh focused on the 150ft Melville Monument to Henry Dundas, the 18th century politician most historians blame for prolonging the slave trade. They were countered by a rally from the ultra-unionist group A Force for Good. Its leader Alistair McConnachie is a rightist agitator thrown out of UKIP for Holocaust denial.

But there is extra spice in Glasgow Loyalists rallying behind King Billy and spewing the international buzzwords of race hate. 

Because in Glasgow sectarian history is not just academic; it is visceral and it is now. And that makes the aftermath of even a perceived Black Lives Matter threat to a monument to a dead king so much more dangerous. 

“The statues we’re seeing pulled down elsewhere don’t really have any current resonance, outside of people’s position on the Black Lives Matter campaign,” a senior Glasgow local authority source told The Times earlier this summer. “But King William does; there are people to whom he really matters, for good or ill, and I can’t think of a parallel for this anywhere else.”

The myths about asylum pushed by Scottish Loyalists

  1. SNP Council behind a rise in asylum applications in Glasgow.

The council does not provide asylum services, the UK Home Office does, via private contractor Mears. Immigration is controlled by Westminster. Applicants for asylum are distributed around Britain in a centralised system.

A spokesman for Mears acknowledged that lockdown had delayed some asylum claims. 

He said: “The number of asylum seekers arriving in Glasgow is not rising significantly. “However the ability to process asylum claims has been slowed by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown.”

He added: "Asylum seekers in Glasgow are provided accommodation by Mears at the direction of the UK Home Office. 

“Glasgow City Council is not responsible for asylum seeker accommodation.”

  1. Council asylum workers are abused by activists

Mears has had disagreements with refugee support groups but said claims its asylum staff (the council has no role) had been abused by such critics were “unfounded”. 

The firm acknowledged lockdown had been difficult. It said: “Any serious abuse will be reported to the police. This is an unprecedented set of circumstances and we thank our staff in Glasgow, who as key workers have maintained asylum accommodation and support working across the city throughout this difficult time for all concerned.”

  1. Asylum seekers threaten to kill themselves to get housing

SPAD has claimed a young male asylum seeker with a rucksack repeatedly demands preferential treatment by saying he will end his life.

Mears said it was unaware of any such incident. 

  1. Adult men posing as children are housed with or next to vulnerable children

Mears said “did not recognise” such claims.

It added: “If it was brought to Mears’ attention that an asylum seeker had been placed in an unsuitable location, Mears would review moving the individual on a case by case basis.”

  1. Council puts up asylum seekers in hotels, next to homeless people and released prisoners

This is false. The Mears spokesman said: “The asylum seekers Mears are supporting in hotels are not sharing accommodation with homeless people. 

“Glasgow’s homeless are being housed by Glasgow City Council in separate hotels.”

  1. Council is about to empty asylum seekers from hotels on to the streets of Glasgow with ‘nowhere to go”.

This is false. A spokesman for Mears, the housing provider, said: 

“Mears has begun moving asylum seekers from hotels into private housing.

SPAD also in Glasgow there was “a ticking time bomb of aggressive male asylum seekers with clear mental health/addiction issues being evicted from their temporary place [of] residence to walk free among normal citizens”. That is not how asylum accommodation works.

  1. The SNP is bullying its council asylum workers

In the alternative reality created by SPAD, not only does the SNP run asylum services, but it bullies council workers who criticise an imagined influx of foreigners.  “A great number of staff are very unhappy with the whole asylum situation,” it said. “All are too frightened to disclose these feelings, for fear of being branded racist, by management and….staff members who openly support the SNP and all of its policies.” 

SPAD even suggests whistleblowers are frightened to lose their jobs and pensions, which it describes as a “tactic used at by the SNP”. This is imaginary. The SNP does not run asylum services and has no power over those who do.

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