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Why Is the Far-Right So Weak in Scotland?

The racist right are even more of a joke in Scotland than in the rest of Britain. But are Scottish people really less racist, or is something else going on?

by Liam Turbett
01 April 2015, 10:45am

March's Pegida demonstration in Edinburgh (All photos author's own)

The far-right in Scotland are totally useless. Last month saw the first effort by Pegida, the European "anti-Islamisation" street movement that's been on the rise since starting in Germany last year, to hold a demonstration here. If all had gone to plan, the protest would have seen Pegida establish themselves as the shiny new face of right-wing populism in Scotland, following their 400-strong showing in Newcastle a month ago.

Except on this occasion, they forgot to show up. Despite screaming headlines about a "Pegida recruitment drive", just seven of their supporters came along, hiding in an Edinburgh pub while the police stood outside and hundreds rallied elsewhere to oppose them. "There's more horses than there are fascists" noted one anti-Pegida protester, referencing the huge police operation which swamped the city over the course of the day.

As it happens, this wasn't the first time that one of the rising stars of the anti-immigrant right has had a difficult time in a pub near the Royal Mile. Two years ago, Nigel Farage famously made an effort to stage a press conference in the city, showing up in a pub with the media in tow. It didn't quite go to plan either, with the UKIP leader bundled into a police van after protesters besieged the press call. That debacle has since become a byword for UKIP's fortunes in Scotland, where they've consistently struggled to achieve the same level of support as elsewhere in the UK. It's therefore extremely unlikely that any Scottish constituencies will be represented by someone in a purple rosette come May.

Until last year, UKIP had never come close to winning anything in Scotland. That changed when they got 10.5 percent of the Scottish vote in last year's European election, with David Coburn becoming an MEP. He's since become the most reviled figure in Scottish politics, with his frequent outbursts – like last week when he compared Scottish Government minister Humza Yousaf to convicted terrorist Abu Hamza – provoking justified condemnation.

A lot of the outrage over Coburn's antics, and the self-congratulatory backslapping over the continuing failure of far-right street movements in Scotland, verges into the territory of saying that racism just "isn't what we do" up here in our near mythical, progressive, Caledonian utopia. But can that really explain why the radical right in Scotland are so utterly hopeless? Is Scotland just inherently less receptive to organised racism than England?

I thought asking Pegida themselves might be a good place to start, so I dug them out in the pub they were tucked away in when they were supposed to be on the demo, in Edinburgh's Old Town. For a group which is supposed to be taking a defiant stand against the "Islamisation" of Europe, there was a distinct lack of defiance around their table.

"Nobody turned up. There was ten of us and we were given a Section 14 order by the police to disperse," said despondent Pegida UK organiser Emma Foreman, as she explained why they hadn't gone ahead with the demo. Although Emma had travelled up from Sunderland for the day, she appeared to be the main organiser, and promised that despite the derisory turnout it wouldn't represent the end for Pegida Scotland. "We'll be back. When I get back home tonight I'll be in touch with the other members," she insisted.

A BNP supporter in Glasgow in 2012

This is far from the first time that a big day out for the far-right in Scotland has ended in absolute farce. The Scottish Defence League, an EDL offshoot, have been drinking their way around the country for over five years, struggling to ever get more than a few dozen along to each leg of their glorified pub crawl. Similarly, organisations like Britain First, the BNP, the National Front and their interchangeable memberships have never gained serious traction north of the border. The fascist rump that remains has been driven to increasingly outlandish stunts, like the former Scottish BNP organiser now trying to set up "Britain's first fascist town" in Elgin in the Highlands, or the white supremacists waging a bizarre sticker war in rural Aberdeenshire. In Glasgow, ex-BNP members have formed something called the "Britannica Party", which frequently picks up literally tens of votes in local elections.

It's true that public opinion in Scotland is to the left of elsewhere in the UK, as confirmed by Yougov recently, but that doesn't entirely account for the failures of the far-right. The reality is both less clear-cut and less comforting, with a different dynamic of prejudice existing in Scotland, bringing its own set of issues.

During the referendum campaign, a few commentators made an effort to invoke the idea of a sinister, intolerant side to Scottish nationalism, with some even accusing the forebears of the pro-independence movement of being Nazi sympathisers. This line of argument was given some credence by the publication of a book, Fascist Scotland, by the academic Gavin Bowd. When Bowd penned an article for Scotland on Sunday on this theme, the paper illustrated it by sticking a swastika over a saltire. It had the desired effect of provoking outrage, but the point it was making was also pretty tenuous, because fascism in Scotland has nearly always been rooted in British rather than Scottish nationalism. There is some crossover with the sectarian religious divide in Scotland which, although much less prominent now, is still a factor in some areas. However, the parties of the British far-right have always found this difficult to successfully exploit – not that it's stopped them from trying.

Take this BBC documentary from 1992, in which Glasgow activists with Anti-Fascist Action – a militant anti-fascist group who spent the early 1990s physically confronting Nazis – discuss the BNP's attempt to gain a foothold among Rangers fans by playing to their loyalist sympathies. The narrator warns that Glasgow has become the "area of highest recruitment for the BNP", who were still in their neo-Nazi phase at the time, prior to achieving greater success after Nick Griffin "modernised" the party later on. Ultimately though, the BNP's efforts never amounted to much, with the party never gaining many members or an electoral breakthrough in Scotland. Similarly, just last year Britain First activists made a foray into Edinburgh for the Orange Order's march to save the union, where they handed out leaflets "honouring" the murdered soldier Lee Rigby and warning of the dangers of Islamic extremism. They too didn't make much headway.

The SDL in Glasgow in their 2012 heyday

Going as far back as the 1930s, Oswald Mosley , the British Union of Fascists' aspiring Hitler figure, attempted to pick up support in Scotland. His efforts floundered, with the party unable to get to grips with the idea that the Scotland's bigots were more concerned with hating Irish immigrants than the country's tiny Jewish population. While the BUF were chased off the streets every time they tried to organise, fervently anti-Catholic parties in Glasgow and Edinburgh were garnering mass support. What was true then remains true today, albeit on a lesser scale: for those craving a cultural identity, a feeling of supremacy, a uniform or a street fight, there's already a host of "legitimate" organisations to get involved with, without joining an explicitly far-right group imported from England. Take a trip to the west of Scotland during the summer months, when Protestant loyalist flute bands are out in force, and this becomes pretty obvious, so it's hardly surprising that groups like the BNP and SDL lack appeal.

Some protestant loyalists marchers in Glasgow last year

It's likely also the case that for others, Scottish nationalism is a more valid expression of their discontent with society than the solutions offered by the BNP, Pegida or even UKIP. With its civic rather than ethnic outlook, and broadly social democratic discourse, it's never really provided fertile ground for xenophobia to develop, with anti-English sentiment largely consigned to its extreme fringes. On top of that, the predominantly English identity and imagery attached to the British far-right – all St George's Crosses, bulldogs and Churchill memes – has not given them mass appeal in a country where most people identify solely as Scottish.

The Pegida supporters I spoke to on Saturday were keen to differentiate themselves from groups like the SDL and EDL, saying that they're not racist and simply concerned about "mass immigration and Islamism", and warning that people in Scotland need to "wake up" to this threat. While they insisted they'll be taking to the streets again soon, judging by the history of far-right organisations in Scotland over the past few decades, they can probably consider it a success if their attendance next time breaks into double figures.

Meanwhile, UKIP, as the more acceptable face of anti-immigration populism, do have a stable vote in Scotland and may well pick up a few seats in the Scottish Parliament next year, but they remain firmly on the fringes and a serious breakthrough looks unlikely.

@parcelorogues

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