A LIBERAL VIEW of historical progress means we tend to view reactionary politics as an anachronism, the power of which is rooted in slowly fading past.
A misreading of the recent statue protests, just one outgrowth of the US Black Lives Matter movement and its global echoes of solidarity, can lend weight to this analysis. Racism is of the past, equality the future, with the present tipping in favour of anti-racism. The tautology is confused; statues were not built in the past they commemorate, but afterwards. They are contemporary-ideological, rather than historical, artefacts.
Like them, racists belong to the present political and social context. They derive their ideas as much from modern antagonism as from historical mythologies. Both mattered on Wednesday night (17 June) when a protest by gangs of loyalists attacked a demonstration for refugee rights (note – not over statues, but real flesh and blood people) in Glasgow’s George Square.
Two entirely separate demonstrations were due to take place on 17 June in the square. The first, a demonstration organised by refugees in Glasgow through No Evictions Glasgow – a group set up by refugees and supporters several years ago in response to the threat the status of refugees in the city.
Its demands were a response to the activities of the Mears housing corporation, which has moved refugees from their accommodation to hotels, where refugees have complained of poor conditions including poor food provision, loss of financial support, and the threat of Covid-19 infection.
The second, a protest to defend Glasgow’s First World War cenotaph memorial – though from who it is unclear. No Glasgow war memorials or statues had been destroyed in the prior days of Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
Both the BBC and the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) not only missed the night’s events, but replaced them with a fabricated version of their own. The BBC’s original write-up (now substantially revised) was a clash between “rival” protests – they were nothing of the sort.
The SPF complained of “general thuggery” and said “Right or left; green or blue, nationalist or unionist; statue wrecker or statue defender” were jointly responsible. They didn’t even mention the refugees and their supporters who were attacked.
A better informed Scottish Trade Union Congress statement read: “Yesterday a small group of protesters were set upon by a mob drawn from fascist and loyalist groupings. These disgusting scenes, targeted at people campaigning against the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees during Refugee Week, were the latest reminder that well-organised racist formations continue to perpetuate hatred in Scotland’s communities.”
So what is going on? How have loyalists taken on the ad hoc responsibility of defending a housing corporation against the demands of refugees? How is the long history of anti-Irish Catholic mobilisation now meeting new political realities?
Liam Turbett, a journalist who covers far right activity in Scotland and who reported from the scene said: “The crowd was overwhelmingly comprised of loyalists – it was notable that the only song in their repertoire was a few lines from Rule Britannia. But Orangeism has been a significant presence in Scotland for a long time, and we’ve rarely seen scenes like this, with hundreds turning out to confront a demonstration – for asylum seeker rights – that could not be characterised as sectarian in any way. The occasional flashpoint aside, republican and loyalist groups have also generally left each other to get on with their parades without significant disorder, at least until last year.
“The militancy and numbers coming out over the last few days can’t be separated from the furore over parade routes that has emerged since Canon White was assaulted outside his chapel in the Calton . Combined with the unionist radicalisation we’ve seen since 2014, and the lack of any other outlet during lockdown, we maybe shouldn’t be surprised it’s come to this.
“Fascists in Scotland have been trying to capitalise on loyalism for a century, but they have usually failed to grasp the religious dynamic of bigotry in Scotland and seen little success from their efforts. Loyalist support for the Scottish Defence League’s regular protests was miniscule to non-existent – why would they bother when they have dozens of their own triumphalist processions each summer already? But it’s possible that we’re now seeing a closer convergence, with an increasing sense of victimhood among the loyal orders and their arms-length campaign group ‘Scottish Protestants Against Discrimination’.
“Wednesday’s demonstration pitched itself against ‘Antifa’, which may be more influenced by goings on in the USA than anything else. There is an extreme wariness of confronting this, although the widespread condemnation of the loyalist protest as ‘racist’ was welcome. As an example, the Scottish Government’s recent technocratic review of parades – a touchstone issue that is central to the growing militancy we’ve seen – makes little mention of power relations and ignores the historical context, with its main recommendation being that Glasgow City Council should strive to ‘repair’ its relationship with the loyal orders to resolve the current stand-off.”
Scotland’s far right is a modern phenomenon, made of real movements and ideological tendencies. Dealing with them is likely to be even more uncomfortable for politicians than street names and statues.
A popular response to the incident, galvanising broad layers of Scottish society, is both required and likely.
Picture courtesy of Simon Whittle