Wednesday, 11 January 2012

1001 Nights

Yesterday, we were told, was going to be a big day for Scotland's future. In the morning we were to get a statement from Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore listing a deadline for the referendum and setting out Westminster's terms. Well, the morning became the afternoon, the statement was more of a ramble and the deadline – well, Mr Moore has put that on hold for the meantime. At least, he tried to, before Alex Salmond stepped in and stole his thunder by announcing, whilst Moore was still mumbling, that the SNP have plumped for Autumn 2014. Does that mean it was an eventful day after all? I'm not so sure.

The thing is – and I suspect Salmond knew this from the start – all this angst about a date is really a bit beside the point. There's horrified talk at Westminster about how Salmond wanted his referendum to coincide with the anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, which just shows how limited understanding of the Scots is there, because I'm pretty sure I've never met one who would care in the slightest. But the distraction worked, stole away focus, kept the unionists from looking at the issues on which they might actually win hearts and minds. Moore, to be fair, could filibuster himself on virtually any subject even if you gave him all day, and his intervention – forced by David Cameron's – has made it difficult for other unionists to make their voices heard. The consultation produced by the Westminster government is a lightweight piece of fluff (though I would still urge you all to fill it in – you can find it here and it'll only take you ten minutes). Yesterday was noise, signifying next to nothing.

The emptiness of the much-hyped announcement is clearly embarrassing even Moore himself, who looked shattered by the end of a turn on Newsnight, poor thing. And there's one of his problems. If Westminster wants to lead the unionist campaign, it has very few people to do the talking. A Cameron speech on the subject means guaranteed gains for the SNP (which may be Cameron's plan, since his party could benefit nicely from losing Scotland, or so he is liable to think). There's Jim Murphy on the opposite benches, but he's lost a lot of sympathy in Scotland in recent weeks and seems to have his ambitions fixed on Westminster now. Margaret Curran has stepped in but isn't quite singing the same song. So we can watch Moore get increasingly exhausted as the SNP rolls out an endless line of fresh, energised opponents for him – and let's not forget that the Scottish Greens support independence too.

The real problem is that the shift of control over the unionist campaign to befuddled Westminster politicians means that all they really can talk about are things like the date and the legal technicalities (whereby they seem to have confused legal weight with political weight). In Scotland, every commentator I speak to and most of the politicians say they want a Real Debate on the issues. Salmond's date, at least, should allow for that – I'll admit I was confused by Moore's simultaneous demands that the referendum be held as soon as possible and follow deep and meaningful consultation. Yet today the Westminster unionists, in a misguided bid for relevance, continue to flap about how the date must be changed.

Then there's the issue of devo max. On independence, Scots have very different views, and many have yet to make up their minds. Yet a large majority evidence a strong interest in further devolution. If this devolution is to be relatively minor, there's no need to take it to a referendum; it can fairly be sorted out between the Holyrood and Westminster parliaments. But if it is to involve, say, a shift of control over defence sector issues or the provision of an element of fiscal autonomy, it would seem appropriate that the people get to decide. Since referenda are expensive (as several members of the current Westminster administration have emphasised), why not have a question about devo max presented at the same time as one about independence?

I don't believe that Scottish voters would find a two question referendum too complicated, and I wonder at the smugness of politicians who suggest they would. Neither do I care if no political party is pushing for devo max as its favoured objection. Plenty of individuals within those parties are, and, more importantly, so are plenty of ordinary Scots. This is not and should not be a referendum about party politics and petty political allegiances. It must be a referendum that allows the Scottish people to express their views in a simple, fair, and inclusive way.

I would hate to live in a Scotland that remained bound to the United Kingdom against the will of its people. Similarly, I would hate to live in a independent Scotland that the majority of Scottish people didn't really want. It is important that we get this process right not just for the sake of ideologies but for the sake of doing right by everyone affected. This must be a listening process, a responsive process. It must not be about polarisation, about pushing people to absurd political extremes. Because one way or another, within three years, this process will be over. And whatever happens then, Scotland must find a way to bring those who have been disappointed into the fold, to heal itself and move forward as a whole nation.

We have roughly 1001 nights to go until Salmond's promised referendum happens. I think I can speak for the vast majority of my fellow Scots when I say please don't force us to listen to the same soulless story on every one.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Race and Justice

Today the killers of Stephen Lawrence were finally brought to justice. Tomorrow they will be sentenced. It is widely agreed that this verdict was far too slow to arrive, and with the racially motivated murder of Anuj Bidve still fresh in the headlines, it can hardly be seen as the end of the road. The question is, has anything really changed since Stephen's death? Is racism still every bit as endemic as once it was? It is my contention that, whilst deep problems remain, some things have improved and that is in no small part thanks to the efforts of the Lawrence family themselves.

I'm a year older than Stephen would be if he were still alive. I'd recently finished my A-levels at the time of his murder; he was in the middle of his. Four years before, I'd started working with an anti-racist campaigning group, SOS Racism. It had been a natural progression for me. When I was a child my mother volunteered for a charity called SAFTA which provided tutors to immigrant women who wanted to learn English in their homes. I helped out and quickly grew familiar with some of the prejudice they and their families faced. Coincidentally my primary school boyfriend was Arabic and the first time I ever encountered direct racism was from our headmistress – hardly a shining example of authority.

I know there are some people who raise their eyebrows at the thought of white people being involved in race politics at all, but there are ways to work outside the ugly colonial structures of the past. SOS Racism was a partnership between local people of various races determined to bring about social change. My white skin meant I was able to do certain things that would have been much more difficult or dangerous for a darker skinned person – namely research with other white people, sometimes including members of far right groups. I was young, slightly shy, wide-eyed; they opened up to me. They told me things that made me want to punch them and I kept smiling. I collected data that could be used to lobby for support.

In relation to that, I tend to agree with others who have summed up the change over the last twenty years as a shift from overt to covert racism. Though I no longer do the same type of research (I have moved on to work, at least primarily, on other equality issues), I still encounter racism. The difference is that I see far fewer direct expressions of hatred, far more excuse-making and attempts to justify discrimination as rooted in something more rational (belief systems, economic concerns or - ironically – a supposed threat to other social minority groups). This is not to say that incidences of direct aggression don't happen or, indeed, that covert racism is any more acceptable. But it's an interesting change nonetheless, in that it tells us the rational case against racial hatred has been successfully made. This is an achievement campaigners should be proud of. It's a step along the way; and it is now necessary to reframe some aspects of the debate.

As I noted, I now work on other minority issues, and over the last few years this has included research work with the police. Attitudes to the police in some minority communities are so polarised that it's hard to do any such work without being perceived as some sort of collaborator, so let me explain that I sympathise with the feelings behind that and I took on this work partially in order to challenge that in myself, to try and shed my own preconceptions and prejudices and see what was real. As a young queer person and an activist, I knew what it was to be afraid of the police, but I felt that research in that area ought not to be left solely as the domain of people who had no such hesitations – who might be too willing to accept that everything was rosy.

Everything is most assuredly not rosy. Of course there is still prejudice (and I continue to hear distressing stories from those on the receiving end). But just as wider society has changed, so has the police force, and in this case the change has more pronounced effects. The existence of police diversity officers and so forth may sometimes be mocked, but in practice it does mean there are safe ports of call for those who fear prejudice. It has also contributed to a much greater awareness of diversity issues among individual police officers. Forces vary, but in many the old macho culture has been substantially eroded, and with it the notion that prejudiced attitudes are the mark of the hard man. Admitting to prejudice is something officers are much more reluctant to do, whilst others like their work environment precisely because they consider it free of prejudices that have always disturbed them, including racism.

One of the difficulties in making change is that examples of successful communication and progress don't tend to get talked about, whereas a single bad experience may resonate for an individual for decades, and resonate socially too. This is often raised as a reason why ethnic minority officers are still under-represented in the police. It's tough to ask individuals to take risks for the sake of long term social improvement. More effective is change through modifying structures and rules, and where this has improved things within the police force, it can more often than not be traced back directly to the original Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. I would venture to say that (alongside rapid growth in the number of women serving) this has changed the police force more than anything else in the last sixty years.

Of course there is a long way to go. Nevertheless, we should celebrate these changes which are a credit to the bravery of a family who became important campaigners at a time of tremendous personal grief. Changing institutions must be part of wider cultural change (with society and the police force reflecting back on one another), but this change was no small thing.

It's just a pity Stephen couldn't have been here to see it. And it remains a great injustice that, though the world has changed dramatically in ways he could never have imagined, one thing he might have guessed with accuracy at the time of his death is that, in 2012, young men in the UK are still being attacked because others hate the colour of their skin.