Scots record on racism shows that we are not all Jock Tamson’s bairns

Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary Bernard Ingham once said that “all you need to know about slavery is that Britain was the first country to abolish it.”

That’s actually not true – Denmark was the first country to abolish the slave trade in 1792.

But Ingham’s no-nonsense assertion reminds me that this is one of those stories that we like to tell about ourselves.

The story goes something like this: Britain and the British Empire were fundamentally moral creations and so we got rid of slavery because it was no longer compatible with British values.

That not actually true either, and Britain abolished slavery when it was no longer economically viable to continue to trade in human beings and the part played in this process by abolitionists with moral convictions, such as William Wilberforce, was negligible to say the least.

We Scots like to tell stories about ourselves too.

We like to think, for example, that we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns – that all of us share a common humanity and therefore that racism has never been a feature of Scottish life, and certainly not as much a feature as it might be in England and the USA.

Racism exists but somewhere else, both now and in the past.

So we turn a blind eye to Scotland’s participation in the slave trade and how Scottish industrialization in the 18th century was largely financed by money extracted from slave colonies in the West Indies.

Actually two eminent Edinburgh Historians – Emeritus Professors Tom Devine and Geoff Palmer are currently kicking lumps out of each other over this history.

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They’re at odds over the specific role played by Sir Henry Dundas, whose statue stands atop a 150 foot column in St Andrew Square in Edinburgh, in helping to abolish, or prolong slavery.

Allegations of “racism” have been thrown about, advice from solicitors has been sought and neither side seems keen to back down.

I can’t comment further on the history but as a criminologist I have known for a very long time that Scotland does have a problem with racism in the present, never mind the 18th century.

I won’t go into some of the cases that should be seared on the Scottish conscience that supports this conclusion.

There’s the racist murder of Ahmed Abukar Shekh in Edinburgh in 1989, or the murder of Surjit Singh Chhokar in Overtown in 1998 – a case which took three trials and 18 years before the killer was brought to justice – and would ask that you just to google “racist attacks Scotland” and see what you discover.

As a criminologist I would also ask you to consider that in 2020 an independent report outlined how black police officers were quitting Police Scotland as “racism was more prevalent within the service than within the community”, and that of its 18,000 officers there are only just over 250 ethnic minority backgrounds.

HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland reported in 2021 that this small number of black officers faced “daily racial micro-aggressions” and a “pack-like canteen culture”, and that currently the imprisonment rate for black Scots runs at 10.2 per 100,000 of the general population, whilst for white Scots it stands at 3.9 per 100,000 of the population.

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I also wanted to consider the Scottish Judiciary but on consulting their diversity statistics I discovered that they collected information about the age and gender of Judges and Sheriffs, but not about ethnicity.

So I can tell you that of the 120 sheriffs in 2021, 91 were male and 29 female, and that the majority were over 60. But how many are ethnic minorities?

I telephoned the appropriate number but was told to phone someone else who, in turn, referred me back to the original person that I phoned – it began to feel that I was asking about a state secret and after a frustrating day of being given links to meaningless websites and annual reports, I gave up.

So, how many of Scotland’s judges are black?

Eventually, I simply called one of my heroes – the Glasgow solicitor Aamer Anwar – and he thought the answer was that there are four sheriffs who come from an ethnic minority background, but that all of Scotland’s judges are white.

But who knows if this is true or not – I still can’t locate an “official” answer.

How does all of this change the stories that we like to tell of ourselves as Scots and what it means to be Scottish?

Let’s not pretend that we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns when some of those offspring are obviously treated very differently by the Scottish Criminal Justice System – even when they are part of that system, or claim that our independent judicial system is somehow better than everyone else’s if it really doesn’t have anyone on its senior benches who comes from a minority ethnic background.

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As for the history and Henry Dundas, I will leave that to Professors Palmer and Devine.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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