Why were people so upset by Khan and Heuchan linking Scottish nationalism and racism?

Last the weekend (25/02/17), the mayor of London came to Scotland to address the Scottish Labour Party conference. His speech proved somewhat controversial as he drew comparison between nationalist politics, racism and bigotry.

‘There is no difference between those who try to divide us on the basis of whether we’re English and Scottish, and those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion.’

Sadiq Khan, Twitter

In the interests of full disclosure, I supported Scottish Independence, I am a member of the Scottish Green Party, which backs independence, and I did not like the implication that Scottish nationalism is underpinned by racism.

Following Khan’s post the Guardian published an article supporting Khan’s statement. I, like many others, found this particular intervention upsetting and frustrating. The article was written by an academic (PhD candidate), Claire Heuchan, at an institution where I happened to have studied. This makes the criticism seem very close to home, but the main sadness I felt was that the piece, like Khan’s speech, makes sweeping generalisations about the independence movement which cannot be supported.

Experience has taught me to expect politicians, such as Khan, to come to Scotland and make self-serving comments which reflect poorly on them but which might score political points with whatever constituency they are aiming their remarks at. From academics I would hope to see well-reasoned and supported analysis or opinion which, even if I do not agree with the conclusions, I can understand the basis from which the case is being made.

The Guardian article provided none of this. It simply ran through a number of clichés and built nationalist straw-people.

To begin at the beginning, the first paragraph of Heuchan’s article suggests that both racism and (Scottish) nationalism are reliant on clear distinctions between those who belong and those who do not, ‘those who belong and those who are rejected’. From my perspective, this is just not true. The civic nationalist movement in Scotland is open to all regardless of ethnicity, nationality or any other divider such as religion. This is evidenced by the existence of various groups such as English people for Scottish independence and Scots Asians for Independence.

The author may think these types of groups are somehow co-opted or misinformed, but if so then this argument needs to be made. It is not good enough to simply state that Scottish nationalism is reliant on drawing clear distinctions (just like racism), but not to explain what the clear distinctions of Scottish nationalism are, and how they play out to generate division. Only with this can we judge whether the argument is credible.

The author should have explained how she understands the nationalist movement in Scotland to be creating or enforcing race based difference. Like Khan’s comments, implying racism and the independence movement in Scotland can be equated, the assertion is made and simply left to hang there.

The author then targets the notion of Scottish exceptionalism, arguing the supposedly nationalist idea of a uniquely progressive Scotland is a flawed fairy-tale. Here, again, I struggle to understand what the author means. My interpretation of Scotland as an independent country is simply based on the idea that Scotland could self-determine like any other country of a similar population, such as Finland, Ireland or Denmark. I do not need to believe Scotland is Narnia, just similar to other European countries.

There is no meaningful or convincing evidence or reason provided at any stage for the views given by Heuchan. Each paragraph exhibits some fundamental flaw in reasoning.

Indeed, the author applies an impressive number of rhetorical fallacies for such a short piece. To add to the use of cliché and straw-men, there is the fallacy of composition, implying that the beliefs of some in a group applies to all. There is the fallacy of anecdotal evidence, the author picks one tweet from a prominent figure and asserts it implies a general condition. There is (ironically) the fallacy of division, suggesting that a group belief applies to all members of a group. The piece jumps to conclusions, drawing deductions without fairly addressing (any?!) evidence. There is the undistributed middle fallacy, implying that because two things share some properties it makes them the same (civic and ethnic nationalism).

It would be possible to go through the piece, point by point, tracing the inherent contradictions and flawed reasoning. That would be to treat the arguments with more respect than they deserve. The opinion is absurd and has, by now, been calmly debunked by several published responses.

The response on social media was less calm. The internet gives a platform for the most extreme and despicable views. In a follow up article the Guardian claimed that Claire experienced ‘safety fears’ and ‘abuse’. Let me be clear, I wholeheartedly condemn any abuse, racist or otherwise and threats to safety that occurred. Although evidence of threats and racist abuse were not provided.

The independence movement in Scotland has people who believe in racism and believe racist things. This is true of any country or large political movement.

I cannot know what it has been like for Claire Heuchan or Sadiq Khan, to have experienced racism. People are justifiably upset and traumatised, hurt, mentally and often physically, by racism and the people who believe racist things.

It also hurts to be called a racist if you are not, and, if you believe, with every fibre of your being, that racism should not stand. This is why many people were upset by Khan’s speech and Claire’s article. The article tells people who abhor racism that the movement they are part of inherently draws racist style distinctions.

This is understood by Scottish Young Labour, who condemned as disastrous Khan’s statement ‘linking far-right racism and hundreds and thousands of progressive Scottish voters’.

There was no sense in the follow up article that Claire or her associates (the Guardian or PhD supervisor) see any legitimate grievance among the huge response to the work. Instead Claire chose to highlight that it is her view that it is ‘very significant that the people most clearly against Khan’s comments, the majority were white. There seemed to be a contradiction between them claiming on the one hand to be in favour of progressive politics, but being unwilling to listen to what Sadiq Khan, an Asian man, said.’

I do not know what can be made of this, other than it is a statement designed to maintain the narrative that Scottish nationalism is broadly racist.

There is no contradiction between claiming to be progressive and being unwilling to listen to what Khan said. Khan came to Scotland and linked Scottish nationalism and racism. He did this for politically expedient and willfully hypocritical reasons. People were rightly upset by that. It is not because he’s an Asian man, or a Londoner, or English that most people are unwilling to listen. It is because he cynically insulted them. It is not healthy to take advice from, or listen to, people treating you so poorly.

Many people were upset with Claire’s article in the Guardian for the same reasons. Not because of her ethnicity or because she is a woman, but because she wrote a really poor article that insulted them. Not only did it insult them by implying they are involved in a racist style movement, it insulted their intelligence. The article was so weak, poorly argued and filled with fallacy and that hurt people. That such damming accusations could be made so carelessly, without even bothering to qualify or evidence the statements was dismaying and hurtful.

When it turned out that Heuchan had been a Better Together campaigner and identified as a British nationalist, the apparent hypocrisy added to the mix of distress and upset surrounding the Huechan/Khan statements.

The day following the publication of Heuchan’s piece Cat Boyd wrote a thoughtful nuanced article about the very real issues of racism in Scotland. Indeed, there are many such discussion on the nature of racism, bigotry and xenophobia in Scotland, and the independence movement in particular.

What should be made of it all?

Everyone must try and do better. It is not good enough. It is not worthy of an academic or politician to publish unsupportable, offensive general statements about highly complex issues. It is not good enough that the response to this may have included a racist and abusive element.

The Scottish independence movement has a responsibility to keep confronting the bigoted racist components in Scotland, and beyond. Elements which also exist on the Unionist side of the debate.

Khan and Heuchan have every right to continue to believe whatever they want, and to publish their beliefs in the public domain. When they do so they have a responsibility to do it carefully, in a well-reasoned manner.

If Khan and Heuchan believe the independence movement to be inherently racist they owe it to everyone to expose exactly and precisely the nature of this. It is not good enough to hide in the abstract of offensive, hurtful, damaging and ultimately meaningless generalisation.

In the end Khan and Heuchan will do no such thing.

Their arguments are not borne of a concern about right-wing, populist racism capturing politics in Scotland. Their aim was solely to denigrate the independence movement. They did this in order to protect their own British nationalism. The tools they used for this were cynicism, racism and hypocrisy. That a London mayor and a feminist academic would choose to do this is very upsetting.


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