Sean Bell: The aftermath of Kenmure Street leaves challenges for us all

“Kenmure Street was a stunningly successful example of solidarity and nonviolent resistance. We should not be surprised if the authorities’ next moves attempt to make both of these untenable.”

IN THE WAKE of their victory, the rejoicing stretched far beyond Kenmure Street – as well it should have.

When protestors and residents of the Pollokshields neighbourhood first blocked the immigration enforcement van which had picked up Lakhvir Singh and Sumit Sehdev, then eventually forced their release by Police Scotland, it is no exaggeration to say that the world’s attention was caught. As they marched to freedom, there is no counting how many walked with them in spirit. Messages of solidarity flowed from Paris to Pittsburgh, affirming that the pride Glasgow felt in that moment was entirely justified.

Clearly, this wouldn’t do. In the face of such unsanctioned joy, something had to be done.

Predictably enough, the first response came from the Home Office, a source from which was quoted on 13 May by Newsnight policy editor Lewis Goodall as saying: “It is completely unacceptable for a mob to stop the lawful removal of people living in our country illegally. We 100% back the frontline in removing those with no right to be here.” Unapologetic, unfeeling and unconscionable, it was a perfectly emblematic statement for the Home Office, which trafficks in vitriol and recrimination more openly than any other UK Government department.

Curiously, it was almost the last official comment upon Kenmure Street to directly address those who secured Singh and Sehdev’s liberty – the “mob” in question. For reasons we shall return to, the UK Government and its supporters were keen to move on to other targets with suspicious haste.

This could be seen most plainly in our right-wing media, which in the immediate aftermath filtered the events of Kenmure Street through their standard catalogue of neuroses. HL Mencken once defined puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” British reactionaries are haunted by a more specific terror – that something, somewhere, might provoke self-satisfaction amongst liberals and leftists, particularly if they happen to be Scottish. Thus the Spectator, its monocles never knowingly un-popped, sternly instructed us that “Glasgow’s immigration raid stand-off is nothing to celebrate.”

Elsewhere, Reaction – the most accurately named media organisation in Britain – hit upon a more rewarding theme, honing in on Nicola Sturgeon and Humza Yousaf’s public declarations of support for the protest and its aims: “The SNP’s attempt to delegitimise the British state must be resisted”.

As is so often the case, the portrayal of the SNP by its more paranoid critics is a lot more attractive than the reality. To hear them tell it, here was an outlaw government, a rogue administration equally at home with law-making and law-breaking, prioritising principle over the rule of law and making common cause with a mob that might serve as its muscle, delegitimising the edicts of the British state and establishing an unsanctioned legal demimonde where the rules are forever in flux. Would that this were true.

It is telling that Priti Patel’s latest intervention has also picked up this argument. Speaking to Sky News on Sunday, the home secretary emphasised that immigration remains reserved to Westminster and accused “the nationalists in Scotland” of “trying to thwart the safety and security of the British public” (at the time of writing, what threat Singh and Sehdev supposedly posed to our national security remains mysterious).

“Quite frankly,” Patel added, “it is pretty clear that when it comes to the nationalists in Scotland they would much rather have an immigration policy of open borders, no checks when it comes to criminals coming to the UK and no border controls.”

Once again, you can almost hear the sound of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ playing in the background; when it comes to making the party look good, few SNP press officers can compete with the product of a feverish Tory imagination.

To put Patel’s comments in context, one should bear in mind that, post-Kenmure Street, the Home Office has several immediate targets. The first, obviously enough, is the kind of anti-raids activism that made the victory at Kenmure Street possible. The Home Office will likely do everything in its power to prevent such a humiliation from being repeated or setting a precedent.

For now though, their options are limited. No amount of bullish hyperbole or outraged press releases is going to make a dent in an organisation like the No Evictions Network – by all appearances, these are not people who care what Priti Patel thinks of them.

That said, as seasoned anti-raids activists will not need reminding, there is cause of wariness in the days to come. Kenmure Street was a stunningly successful example of solidarity and nonviolent resistance. We should not be surprised if the authorities’ next moves attempt to make both of these untenable, leaving activists with seemingly no other options but escalation – which will then be used against them – or surrender. The Home Office will, if it remains true to form, seek to cut off the avenues which were exploited in Pollokshields and try to render another Kenmure Street impossible.

In the meantime, their second target is the public itself. The task of making effective resistance against immigration enforcement impractical will be made immeasurably more difficult if said resistance enjoys mass-support. In order to crush anti-raids activists, the Home Office and the UK Government need them to be fringe radicals isolated in both deed and belief, rather than the instrument of feelings at large in the public – a public which, if the situation calls for it, may well step forward, offer assistance or, as the case may be, lie in front of a van.

Their third target, as Patel’s comments demonstrate, is the Scottish Government and the SNP. In truth, I doubt Priti Patel genuinely believes Nicola Sturgeon or her party want ‘open borders’ – indeed, cannier conservatives than her have pointed out that the SNP has in the past appeared pretty relaxed about the idea of immigration controls, especially in an independent Scotland. Of course, it is standard Tory practice to portray every attempt to relax or reform immigration in the UK as equivalent to abolishing the entire system, so such dishonesty is unsurprising. Still, in this specific case, what does Patel hope to achieve?

Patel may hope that her ‘open borders’ insinuation finds a receptive audience amongst those in Scotland who consider themselves in favour of immigration controls, damaging the SNP as a result. Putting aside the fact that the weeks immediately following a huge nationalist election victory is not the best time to test such a gambit, it also hinges on the stubborn right-wing belief that Scotland’s image of itself as more progressive, tolerant and accepting than the Tory heartlands is a lie we tell to both the world and ourselves. According to those who have an interest in never seeing it come true, Scotland is just as callous and right-wing as any other part of the UK – even if, inconveniently, we refuse to vote like it. The outpouring of support for Singh and Sehdev threw a spanner in the works of this theory, but there are doubtless those not prepared to give up on it just yet.

For many years now, the useful fiction has been perpetuated that anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK is a legitimate grievance which has been ignored and derided by the cosmopolitan elites in power. This is manifestly untrue – few groups in British politics are so heavily and nakedly pandered to as those who favour tighter controls on immigration and our borders. Labour especially is forever being told it must curry favour with this nebulous segment of the electorate, despite the fact that no amount of racist coffee mugs was enough to get Ed Miliband into Downing Street. If Patel’s intention was to put the fear of God into “the nationalists in Scotland” by suggesting they are soft or untrustworthy on immigration, it appears to have backfired.

For now, the SNP remains defiant, albeit in rhetoric only. Responding to Patel’s comments, SNP immigration spokesperson Anne McLaughlin said: “Scotland resoundingly rejected the dawn raids of the Home Office last week, we will continue to urge the Tories to bring these to an end.”

Perhaps anticipating the queries of those who know exactly how successful SNP attempts to “urge” the Tories to do anything usually are, McLaughlin added: “We cannot trust the Tories with Scotland’s immigration policy, it is not fit for purpose for the needs of Scotland. The only way we can re-establish an immigration policy that fits with Scotland’s economy is as an independent country at the top table of the European Union.”

The implicit argument that an immigration policy free from Tory influence can only be assured by independence is not wrong per say, but adding yet another entry on the ‘wait for indy’ list will not satisfy to those who have witnessed, or themselves been victims of, the callousness and cruelty of current UK policy. Until the break-up of Britain arrives, the question of what action can be taken is far from academic.

This week, Scottish Green co-leader Patrick Harvie went some way towards grappling with this, arguing on Monday: “Until Scotland has the powers to build our own system, we can continue to resist the brutality of the Home Office. We must resource our communities, so they are able to actively resist, and support those organisations who are operating on the front line to support asylum seekers, refugees and all migrants in our community.”

Harvie correctly identified that active resistance is the name of the game – a reality that many in the Scottish Government, for all their expressions of sympathy, prefer to dance around. The question of what form that activism should take is not one I can answer; I am in no position to lecture anyone on community organising or effectively resisting dawn raids and the wider system which permits them. For that, readers should turn to the No Evictions Network, which offers plentiful advice on such matters.

However, neither the essential nature of street-level resistance nor Scotland’s disempowered status within the United Kingdom should not let our political leaders off the hook. If the Scottish Government wish to hang on to the half-illusory and almost entirely rhetorical moral authority it mustered in response to Kenmure Street, then it should already be considering what exactly Scottish ministers will do when this happens again – because it will.

Their most evident challenge will also be the most superficial – fending off the disingenuous critiques of political opponents. Following Kenmure Street, the Tories – many of whom, albeit with somewhat more restraint and subtlety than their Republican equivalents in the US, have posed as doughty defenders of liberty in the face of draconian Covid restrictions – suddenly rediscovered their commitment to social distancing the moment the Hostile Environment was threatened.

In anticipation of Rangers fans’ now-notorious orgy of celebration last week, Murdo Fraser set the tone for the false equivalencies to follow, tweeting: “I hope all Rangers fans will celebrate responsibly tomorrow, esp given the spike in Glasgow Covid cases. Sadly I fear such calls are undermined by some politicians actively encouraging street protests yesterday. Can’t be one rule for some and another for others.”

The answer to this is simple enough: if you wish to prevent mass-gatherings such as the Kenmure Street protest, avoid doing things like dawn raids which are likely to trigger them. Instead, let the country’s immigration officers sit at home like so many of us have throughout the pandemic, learning to knit or binge-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. Granted, we may inadvertently realise just how unnecessary or actively harmful their regular presence is to our society, but tough cheese – that’s the cost of public safety. Bizarrely however, this option never seems to occur to those incensed by the Kenmure spectacle.

Instead, in the aftermath of the ensuing violence in Glasgow last week, Fraser’s fellow Tory MSP Liam Kerr demanded of Humza Yousaf: “Does the cabinet secretary agree with me that to avoid public confusion it is very important to ensure consistency by advising against all gatherings?” 

Responding to accusations that greater indulgence had been shown to a community rallying in nonviolent defence of their neighbours than belligerent and destructive revelry over one football team kicking a ball in a notable fashion, many understandably sought to explain that One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other. Yousaf, by virtue of not being an idiot, was one of them, pointing out to Kerr: “We didn’t see thuggish, loutish behaviour on Kenmure Street. Let’s not think there is an absolute equivalence between what we saw at the weekend, those scenes of disorder, and what we saw in Pollokshields.”

It would be nice if stating the obvious was sufficient, but for those prefer to see authority go unchallenged, the charge of hypocrisy is far too useful, even if it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. This may be why such Tory talking points were soon being parroted by Police Scotland, the role of which in all this bears careful examination.

The great Neal Ascherson once encouraged Scotland to behave as if it already were an independent nation, writing in 2017 with characteristic foresight: “If the Home Office prepares to deport another harmless foreign family, the Scottish Government should simply tell Police Scotland not to carry out the order, tolerating a “sanctuary” network which discreetly hid such families.”

However, attempting to put Ascherson’s proposal into praxis would likely come with complications. While it serves the interests of spluttering unionists and reactionaries to portray Police Scotland as the Scottish Government’s obedient private militia, I am not convinced that stolid, unimaginative branch of law enforcement would necessarily follow Scottish ministers even if they had the bravery to go off the reservation, or if they would have sympathy with any attempt to do so. The fact that Police Scotland was notified in advance about Kenmure Street by the Home Office, while the Scottish Government was not, only reinforces this suspicion.

Writing in the Sunday National, Stephen Paton typically made the point better than most: “Any critique of the British state must also be extended to the various institutions and organisations that have enabled it.

“On Kenmure Street, Police Scotland were prepared to smash their way through the protesters to assist immigration enforcement officers in their dirty work.”

Those who warn of the police being ‘politicised’ wilfully ignore that it is impossible for them to be anything else. The question of Police Scotland is not in which direction it should be pointed, but under what circumstances can it be most effectively dismantled, or at the very least reined in.

This will only become more relevant if the Home Office descends further into its trademark authoritarianism and – like Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion before them – seeks to treat anti-raids activists as criminals. At present, those who attempt to stymie immigration raids rarely face prosecution, largely due to the discipline and legal savvy of groups like the No Evictions Network and the Anti Raids Network. Nevertheless, it would be dangerously complacent to assume Patel and her cronies are not plotting how to criminalise opposition to immigration enforcement. As Angela Davis once put it: “A political event is reduced to a criminal event in order to affirm the absolute invulnerability of the existing order.”

Should that occur, it may complicate the question of we can all best participate in active resistance. For the Scottish Government, the challenge will be if and how it can nurture the sanctuaries that Ascherson envisaged, and whether it has the courage to embody the outlaw mentality swivel-eyed Tories attribute to it. The legendarily cautious SNP high command will not welcome this prospect, but they should not shrug it off; any sense of security they feel after their enormous electoral victory earlier this month should extend no further than the confines of Holyrood.

If the Scottish Government fails to stand with those who stood at Kenmure Street, they will have made enemies of those who beat back the Home Office, humbled the police and sent out a message which resounded throughout the world.

The Scottish Government should not want these people as adversaries – but if they want to be considered allies, it will take more than words.

In the meantime, to quote someone who knew what he was talking about: “All hail, then, to the mob, the incarnation of progress!”

Picture courtesy of duncan c