Scotland’s Continued Shame
The Scotsman, November 26th 2009
The Scots like to think of themselves as a welcoming, friendly people who are less xenophobic, racist and prejudiced than others. At the same time, we know that the scar of sectarianism blights our land, and that racism and homophobia are equally prevalent and problematic.
There is a perception that there is a PC class and industry that have positions of power and influence that think they have the right to judge what we think, say and do. The Equality and Human Rights Commission in Scotland has done lots of good work, but in England under Trevor Phillips chairmanship it has been mired in scandal and allegations of conflicts of interest which have not helped its reputation.
The recent STUC report, ‘Sectarianism and the Workplace’ has acknowledged that Scotland has made ‘real progress’ in recent years. It also stressed that the problem ‘has evolved into a more subtle and disguised form’ with sectarian remarks now disguised by supposed banter and humour.
The same is true of racism and homophobia. Overt racism is now much less permissible than it was a couple of decades ago, but a whole host of other related anxieties and fears have come to the fore. One only needs to look at the political and media debates on asylum and immigration to realise that racism is still prevalent in large parts of Scotland, and the notion that we are somehow more progressive and enlightened here than England needs to be questioned.
Attitudes to homosexuality have dramatically shifted in recent times aided by the Scottish Government’s abolition of Section 28 – the first ever public discussion about homosexuality in Scotland – and thus a major watershed. Progress is evident with an ‘out’ gay leader of Glasgow City Council, Steven Purcell, several ‘out’ gay MSPs , and even a festival of ‘queer culture’, Glasgay!
Yet homophobic attitudes and remarks are still widely acceptable in large parts of society, where supposedly middle class men and women think it acceptable to talk about ‘poofs’ and ‘mincers’ and show their anger and fear of lesbians and gay men.
What unites the above issues is that while welcome progress has been made, it has proven nearly impossible to begin an honest, public conversation about these issues which involves politicians, media, leaders and wider society. This would address what are the motivations and fears which inform prejudice and bigotry and try to understand what hopes and anxieties lie underneath them.
What kind of society do we live in where people want to define themselves by being sectarian or racist or homophobic often against people rather like themselves? What makes Rangers fans at the UEFA Cup Final in Manchester last year, chant, ‘Black bastards’ to young Asian Rangers fans? What is it that allows middle class men to feel they can mimic what they see as the effeminacy and manners of middle class gay men rather like them?
There are notable exceptions who have stood up and made a difference. Jack McConnell’s period as First Minister saw him rightly prioritise sectarianism as one of the key issues which needs to change. James MacMillan did go over the top in his famous ‘Scotland’s Shame’ lecture, but at least he brought a whole host of concerns about the place of Catholics and extent of anti-Catholic prejudice out in the open.
Much worse, are the people in places of influence who collude with and continue to fire the flames of prejudices. There are many examples, but a special place has to go the infamous double act of Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan on their Saturday radio programme. They are happy week after week to give air to a pile of personal prejudices on sex, homophobia and a host of other issues, with the escape clause that Tam plays the bigot to Stuart’s liberal. It is about as funny as the old ‘Rat Pack’ repartee involving Frank Sinatra’s racist and anti-semitic jokes in the early 1960s.
The process of changing and challenging Scottish culture starts with us understanding where we are and agreeing as a society that there are certain forms of behaviour which are unacceptable. This has to entail Rangers and Celtic taking action against the significant parts of their support who chant sectarian abuse, and in Rangers case, revel in the opprobrium and condemnation which comes their way. Ultimately we as a society have to have the right to punish these two footballing institutions if they continue to tolerate such behaviour.
Public institutions such as the BBC have a major role and across a range of its outputs in its sports coverage and comedy, it encourages a sort of McLad phenomenon which encourages a pervasive homophobia, racism and sexism. Cosgrove and Cowan’s trite, clichéd chat is but the most obvious example, but its supposed ‘banter’ and ‘humour’ gives many others permission to articulate prejudice. A start for the BBC would be to make a public example, openly reprimanding them as BBC Controller Ken McQuarrie says he has done in private, and if that doesn’t work take them off the air.
Some will say this all sounds a little too much. Isn’t this just the narrow, intolerant agenda of a humourless, Guardian reading, PC class, who want to tell us what to do and think – the ultimate extension of ‘the nanny state’?
First, there is a PC mentality out there with its idiotic correcting of words, ‘differently abled’ rather than ‘disabled’ as I heard the other day. And there is an equality industry which has a built-in self-interest in perpetuating the problem.
None of that means that Scotland is not scared by the cancer of sectarianism, racism and homophobia, which too many people, including those with power, are happy to turn a blind eye to or collude with. Change is going to be difficult, and will have to involve a mixture of understanding and naming and shaming, but ultimately we need to ask what kind of Scotland do we want to live in?
Scotland is denying itself as a nation the potential of many its citizens and harming people and the wider culture of society. While we have several authors tackling sectarianism in novels and plays, where are the important works addressing race and sexuality in Scotland? They are just not there, so we need to look at what this inclusive, progressive idea of social justice Scotland entails, and who fits into it and who is still told that they don’t fit in.