Scotland Is Not as Woke as It Thinks It Is

So argue the authors of a new book, 'No Problem Here: Understanding Racism in Scotland'.

by Francisco Garcia
Jul 31 2018, 12:10pm

Photo: Findlay / Alamy Stock Photo

When "People Make Glasgow" became the city's official slogan in the run-up to the 2014 Commonwealth Games, it felt a perfect fit.

The largest city of a small country, it was – and still is – proud of its inclusivity and the warmth of its welcomes. This pride was bolstered by the Scottish independence referendum that took place in September of the same year – widely reported as a flowering of radical politics, healthy discourse and the birth-pangs of a new "civic nationalism" – and then reinforced by the landslide vote to Remain in the 2016 EU referendum, which helped to cement the notion of an inherently left-leaning Scotland at odds with the excesses of its English neighbour.

However, a new book edited by Neil Davidson, Minna Liinpaa, Maureen McBride and Satnam Virdee of Glasgow University has kickstarted a critical examination of this characterisation, which the four argue is based on powerful yet flimsily-founded myths. No Problem Here: Understanding Racism in Scotland presents the idea of Scottish exceptionalism as a fantasy, built up on a mixture of political convenience and well meaning ignorance.

From the rate of race-related murders (higher than the rest of the UK, at 1.8 per million people between 2000-2013) to the structural barriers faced by BAME candidates in employment (1.1 percent chance of appointment to a public sector role, in comparison to 8.1 percent for white candidates) and housing (they are nearly four times more likely to live in overcrowded homes) – as well as the inevitable incidents of everyday racism – they argue for a more complicated vision that trades complacency for leadership in tackling the "gross racial inequalities" in Scotland.

I meet Maureen and Minna for a coffee in Glasgow's West End. Both of them are keen to stress that the book doesn't represent a full-stop, but a conversation starter. "I think we go a little way into countering the idea that there isn't a problem here, but there's much more to be said," says Maureen, particularly when it comes to illuminating some of the incidents of direct racism experienced by different groups. "We need a lot more research and attention focused on the subtle, exclusionary practices as well as the more overt incidents."

This isn't to deny the positives that do exist, of course. The political language around immigration is undeniably healthier in Holyrood than Westminster, with the recently published New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy seeking to address some of the underlying issues around housing and access to services. In 2017, Nicola Sturgeon spoke of her pride at Scotland meeting its target of housing 2,000 Syrian refugees three years ahead of schedule, while a network of community-led charities such as Refuweegee provide welcome packs to Glasgow and essential everyday objects.


Hammid arrived in the UK in 2000 as one of the first intake of Sudanese refugees fleeing the conflict in his home country. When we meet at the Scottish Refugee Council offices he tells me he's lived in Glasgow and worked as a taxi driver for the duration, apart from six months spent in Doncaster. Broadly speaking, he says that his experiences of racism have been "fairly low level" during his 18 years in Scotland.

This isn't the same as saying life is easy. The cab can be rough work, "meeting more than 30 people a day, talking to them and all that, and maybe in the beginning you'd have people asking where I'm from and what I'm doing here – but it didn't really feel like it was in a racist way. They just wanted to know."

Though, it's not always been harmless curiosity. "When I came there weren't any black or brown people," says Hammid. "I was sitting in George Square one day and an old man came up to me to ask if I was Mike Tyson. They don't know what the world is like. Glasgow isn't London or New York. We're the first generation to have these discussions, about discrimination and racism, here."

It’s true that Scotland – and particularly Glasgow – has become substantially more diverse since Hammid's arrival. The most recent census, in 2011, revealed ethnic minority groups make up 12 percent of the city's 598,000 population, a big enough number to mean a visible BAME presence.

This – as No Problem Here argues – might help to partially explain how the myth of Scottish exceptionalism took shape. Compared to England, the post-WW2 influx from the Indian subcontinent or Caribbean was minimal, meaning the negative experiences of those who did come were easy to muffle. Historically, the largest group to have migrated to Scotland were Irish-Catholics, though the discrimination they faced has been placed under the banner of sectarianism rather than racism.

Hammid tells me that, apart from the occasional flashpoint, ordinary people are not the problem. Officialdom and bureaucracy are what have left the sourest taste. He mentions run-ins with both the council and the police that have left him feeling a lack of equality with his Scottish peers. The aggressive traffic officer who stopped him after he'd driven through an amber light with a reminder to "remember how we do things in this country", and what feel like constant obstructions in navigating the labyrinthine housing association network.

Housing is a live, critical issue for asylum seekers. Just as it is in much of England, it's one in the hands of Serco, the controversial private contractor with an, at best, patchy track record. Last week, the company "blind-sided" Glasgow City Council by announcing it would start evicting 300 failed asylum seekers, sparking fears of a humanitarian crisis on the city's streets, as the council is legally prevented from housing people with no leave to remain and no recourse to public funds.

Location matters, too. Most recent arrivals now find themselves housed in the city's sprawling East End, the loose constellation of areas containing some of the most deprived wards in the UK – Carntyne West and Haghill, Easterhouse and Parkhead North, to name a few. Areas where the housing stock is attractively cheap for Serco.

Photo: Steven Scott Taylor / Alamy Stock Photo

David Jackson is a support worker at Cranhill Development Trust, a community initiative based in the area that bears its name. There are all sorts of issues besides the quality of accommodation, he tells me over the phone: "The East End is a big geographical area, but it's also quite sparse. You have a lot of different communities that are very different and very separate from one another."

Cranhill is a good example, he says, being cut off by a slice of the M8 motorway that runs through it. Transport is a key issue, as "while the West End and Southside have train links and subways, the east has a few bus routes and they aren't always great. A big problem, particularly for people in the asylum process, is that the Home Office is based in Govan, which is pretty much the other side of the city. It means getting several buses, which adds up. And that's just to get to an appointment."

It's a case of the small things becoming costly, he says. While there are instances in which people can approach charities like the Refugee Council and community groups for help, there's a limit to what these charities can provide, and though the Refugee Survival Trust have recently embarked on money-raising drives for bus passes for pregnant asylum seekers, it's "just the tip of the iceberg", according to David.

"You'd think if, as a state, we can provide bus passes for the disabled – which we absolutely should – then it wouldn't be that hard to provide them for asylum seekers," he says.

It's a shame, as Hammid put it during our earlier discussion. "People want the chance to integrate themselves into society. To learn and find a job, an education. Now, it happens that maybe the school is too far from home for their kids. They don't have a car or enough money to get a taxi. It can feel like there's no way out."

For Daniel, who arrived from the Middle East in 2013, the picture is just as complex. Though his experience of Scotland has been much more positive than his time in either Greece or England, that doesn't mean it's been perfect. Institutional and street level racism have both been present in his life here. He tells me about his efforts navigating the welfare system, a profoundly frustrating experience without the added discomforts of his race thrown into the equation.

"I could see how friendly [my advisor] was with the Scottish people in front, laughing and joking. His face would change entirely when it was my turn," says Daniel. "It's not something you can use as evidence, but something you see and feel. The only explanation is the tone of my skin, otherwise why?"

Daniel was sanctioned by the DWP for not applying to a role in a kitchen on the other side of the city, despite his voluntary work at the Scottish Refugee Council and Scottish Homelessness Network in aid of building a career in the human rights field he tells me is his passion, and in which he now works full-time.

According to the Citizens Advice Bureau, volunteering can be considered a reasonable step towards employment, but whether it passes with the DWP rests on the discretion of the person on the other side of the desk. And though Daniel's adviser didn't use the word outsider, he couldn't have done much more to convey it.

"He asked me, 'Do you know how many migrants come to this country?' and, 'If migrants don't look for jobs then do you know what happens?' Would they say that to a Scottish person looking for a job? He wouldn't apply pressure with regards to their nationality or their colour. They can make your life hell, for six or eight weeks. Humiliation, poverty, destitution, food banks. The whole plan of your life disrupted. It's damaging to your dignity and your sense of drive, of purpose."

Though Daniel is quick to acknowledge his relative good luck since, he adds, "Other people aren't so fortunate. People who aren't young, single, able-bodied males with a good level of English. I can't imagine how difficult and frustrating it must be for a single mother without the language, or someone with an illness. I made it, but with a great deal of difficulty that didn't seem necessary."

It's not the only structural absurdity he has encountered. Under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the Home Office has a duty to provide asylum seekers with accommodation if they have nowhere else to stay while their claim is assessed. After Daniel arrived, he was placed in a hostel with people suffering from severe drug and alcohol addiction. Racist incidents were a daily occurrence there, not from the staff or management, but his co-habitants – matters compounded by a regular diet of abuse in public, he adds.

This was a situation where the risk of racist abuse was high. Daniel doesn't want to apportion blame to individuals, many of whom were extremely damaged people trapped within the same cycles of poverty and institutional misery. It's the state system that locked him into those situations that rankles. "They don’t," as David from Cranhill put it, "call it a hostile environment for nothing."

During each of these conversations it's "complacency" that's continually cited. When it comes to rhetoric and political will, Scotland may be more welcoming to its immigrants than others, but that doesn’t prove the absence of racism or that the country is a utopia in the making. There is much still to be done, with deep-seated issues to address, as No Problem Here and the experiences of Hammid and Daniel make apparent.

Mind you, when Daniel sees the Scottish flag, it evokes a different feeling than its English or British equivalent, though he isn't exactly sure why. "If I see people protesting, I feel comfortable to join that crowd" he says. "That tells me that the society in general has helped me feel confident and free. That's the overall experience, if not always the day-to-day practice."


This article originally appeared on VICE UK.