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Has the Scottish National Party become the ‘establishment’? An anti-racist perspective

Is the SNP failing on race, just like the Westminster parties?

Humza Yousaf, the one BME SNP MSP: humzayousaf.org

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has held the reins of power at Holyrood since 2007. By the end of the SNP’s third term in office they will have been in government for more than a decade. With the opinion polls suggesting that victory was all but assured, BBC Newsnight facilitated a discussion prior polling day about whether the SNP had become part of the ‘political establishment’. This debate gathered more pace following the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon being photographed with a copy of The Sun.

In considering this question there is an important area of debate, which is all too often relegated to the periphery of Scottish politics that we might want to consider: the SNP’s record on tackling both racism and ethnic inequality. Here there are several ways that we can assess whether the SNP are similar to Labour and the Conservatives: the party’s rhetoric; racism within the SNP; ethnic minority representation in the party and the Scottish government; and the progress the SNP have made in terms of tackling both racism and ethnic inequality after two full terms in office.

In the years preceding the 2015 referendum on Scottish independence, Alex Salmond and the SNP have sought to articulate an inclusive Scottish nationalism which is all too often contrasted to a ‘backward-looking’ ethnic sense of Britishness. Such a contrast must be treated with considerable caution. Not only is the SNP’s inclusive vision of Scottish nationalism a relatively recent phenomenon, it cannot be completely or cleanly separated from a historically founded imagining that equates Scottishness with whiteness. This can be traced back to the Scotland’s role in Slavery and Empire. However, as Brendan McGeever notes, research has shown that ‘Scottishness can indeed be imagined as something other than ‘white’.

In recent times the SNP have offered an important critical voice amidst the desperation and despair of the ongoing refugee crisis. This, of course, should be welcomed, if not commended. This has again reinforced the distinction between the SNP and the Conservative government’s inhumane response which, if anything, has only stoked the flames of anti-immigrant political discourse. The SNP’s opposition to the Conservative’s was again evident after parliament voted down the attempt by MPs to force the British government to offer sanctuary to 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe. It is in this context that it is regrettable that the current constitutional setup sees Westminster retain control over immigration. Had the 2001 Scotland Act devolved control over immigration to the Scottish parliament, would the SNP maintain or dismantle the racist immigration laws introduced by Conservative and Labour governments in Westminster?

Internal party racism and ethnic minority representation is another one terrain upon which we might consider whether the SNP are part of the ‘establishment’. Over the last few weeks and months, the Conservatives have used Zac Goldsmith’s London Mayoral election campaign to reveal their own deep-seated Islamophobia. At the same time, Labour has been engulfed by accusations of antisemitism which has led Jeremy Corbyn to set up an independent inquiry into antisemitism and other forms of racism inside the Labour party. In recent years, the SNP itself have faced similar accusations.

In February of this year, the inaugural meeting of the Coatbridge & Chryston constituency association heard North Lanarkshire SNP Councillor Dr Imtiaz Majid argue that he had repeatedly been subjected to racism from fellow party members. A month later, Yen Hongmei Jin, Scotland’s only Chinese councillor, resigned from the party claiming that party chiefs had ignored her complaints that she had been subjected to racism by a local party member. Not only this, local party officials were also said to have undermined Jin’s attempts to become a SNP candidate in both the UK and Scottish parliamentary elections. The previous year Sandra White, MSP for Glasgow Kelvin, apologised after re-tweeting an anti-Semitic image. When we put all of the above together, the SNP, like the established parties, are not immune to accusations of racism within the party.

The struggle to achieve electoral representation inside the SNP is also reflective of a broader problem in Scottish and indeed British politics. Despite making up 4% of the population in Scotland, there are just two ethnic minority MSP’s in Scotland, while a paltry 17 of 1,223 councillors elected at after last year’s Local Authority elections were from an ethnic minority background. In this respect, Scottish politics is very much similar Westminster where ethnic minorities make up just over 6% of MPs in the House of Common’s and Members of the House of Lords, despite the ethnic minorities making up 13% of the UK population. If we add the number of ethnic minority politicians holding prominent positions in the Conservative government and the Shadow Cabinet, it could be argued that the situation in Scotland is actually worse than in England. 

Scotland is far from being an anti-racist utopia. Police Scotland reported that racist incidents had increased by 3.9% in 2013/2014. Moreover, in the whole of 2014 there was 71 religious or racially motivated hate crimes were reported to the police. In the week following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November of 2015, 64 religious or racially motivated hate crimes were reported to the police. We must treat these figures with extreme caution. These figures do not account for the abusive comments, harassment and violence that are typically underreported. Police statistics only capture the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and define racism in very particular and limited ways. Thus they do not reveal the true nature and scale of the racism. And of course we have to take into account the problem of institutional racism within the police force. Recently the police in Scotland have been accused of failing to investigate a racist violent incident ‘at the reporting, recording, investigation, management and prevention stages’. 

In 2013, I was part of team that carried out research commissioned by the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism. I have previously blogged expressing my concerns about Police Scotland’s ability to police racism and sectarianism. Over the course of the last year my concerns have deepened in two respects. First, there has been no public inquiry into the death of Sheku Bayoh in police custody just over a year ago. Alongside the above, this particular incidence should warn us that institutional racism is a problem on both sides of the border. Second, Police Scotland’s decision to use its purposively formed FoCUS football unit to ‘monitor’ events commemorating the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland demonstrates further that this particular state apparatus has a limited understanding of sectarianism and how the legacy of empire still shapes contemporary Scottish society. It raises also questions about the efficacy of the Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism, and hints a limited progress in an area where the SNP have been responsible for devolved powers for almost a decade.

In addition to policing and criminal justice, it has been 15 years since the Scotland Act 2001 granted further powers to the Scottish Parliament in areas such as education, economic development, health and housing. It is therefore reasonable that it is upon this terrain that we should judge the SNP’s record on tackling racism and the impact that racism has on the reproduction of ethnic inequality.

Over the last few years, various reports have gone some way to exposing the nature of ethnic inequality in Scotland. In 2011, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that all ethnic minority groups ‘appeared disadvantaged on one or more poverty indicators’. Two years later the Scottish Government’s Equality Outcomes: Ethnicity Evidence Review revealed considerable levels of ethnic inequality in education, employment, housing, criminal justice and health. That same year, the interconnected nature of different forms of disadvantage was further revealed in the Mapping the Roma Community in Scotland report. This report found that the Roma population in Scotland live in inadequate and overcrowded housing, ‘with only limited capacity and connections to access local health, education and other services’. Academics at the University of Edinburgh also published a study in 2013, reporting that people from most ethnic minority groups ‘who went to hospital were shown to be significantly more likely to be treated under the Mental Health Act’. In 2014, the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights reported that ethnic minorities were underrepresented in the public sector, accounting for a meagre 0.8% of all staff.

Piecing together the evidence presented in each of these reports reveals a pretty damning picture of the nature and scale of ethnic inequality in Scotland. These reports draw our attention to the depth of ethnic inequality in areas where power has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament – areas where these inequalities persist under the SNP’s watch. The SNP’s 2016 election manifesto contained sections on diversity, equality and ‘protecting human rights’. In fact, the party has committed itself to appointing ‘a new Race Framework Adviser to take forward a range of actions to tackle existing inequalities within our ethnic communities’. Normally I would welcome these developments. However, as a friend of mine recently tweeted, ‘The word ‘racism’ does not appear once in the SNP's 76 page Manifesto’. This is not a glib point. It is imperative that we use the word racism and recognise the fact that racism is a system of oppression. Therefore, we need to ask the SNP the following question: are these developments a concrete expression of political will or are they just another tokenistic gesture that we have heard from established political parties many times before?

By the end of the SNP’s third term in office, they will have been in power for a time period comparable to the Labour and Conservative’s governments of Blair, Brown and Cameron. Over the course of the next Scottish Parliament, we will see whether the SNP has the political will to address the lack of ethnic minority representation and racism within the party. This window also presents an opportunity to assess whether the SNP has the political will to use the apparatuses of the Scottish state to address both racism and the deep-seated nature of ethnic inequality in Scotland, as well as whether the apparatuses of the Scottish State are fit to undertake this task. We must seriously consider whether the SNP are just like the rest of the political establishment in Britain: great at stating their moral outrage in response to racism; good at making symbolic gestures which hitherto have demonstrated limited efficacy in terms of achieving equality and social justice; not to mention being unable to recognise that the legacy of slavery and empire that continues to shape contemporary Scotland. The longer the jury is out considering its verdict on these questions, the further the SNP slide towards cementing their status as part of the ‘political establishment’.

About the author

Stephen Ashe was born and lived in Paisley for more than thirty years. He completed his PhD in Sociology at the University of Glasgow in 2013 and now works as a researcher in the Centre of Dynamics of Inequality at University of Manchester


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