When Stirling University PhD student Claire Heuchan, who is black, wrote this comment piece for the Guardian, some independence-minded folk criticised both her and the Guardian. At the core of her piece was:
“Equating racism with Scottish nationalism is a massive false equivalence, yet both perspectives are reliant on a clear distinction being made between those who belong and those who are rejected on the basis of difference”
For a lot of Scots, Heuchan missed the fundamental point that the ‘difference’ she refers to in respect of independence has nothing to do with ‘othering’ within Scotland. It’s that many folk want Scotland to be different from England, and they want that for everyone in Scotland.
England is on a journey to the far right and a lot of Scots don’t want to be part of that. UK government departments are comprised entirely of English politicians responding to their own constituents’ imperatives. England voted decisively to leave the EU and for the right wing conservatism which dominates that place now. England is likely going to get the tough, low-tax, low-spend economy and society it voted for. There is no meaningful political opposition in England and so if Scots permit it, England’s dominant neoliberal values will be forced upon Scotland for years to come and this will change Scotland’s culture forever. So there’s that.
The Guardian followed up with this very well-put together piece by Edinburgh’s Robert Somynne, who is also black. Somynne’s well-constructed counter-piece to Heuchan’s makes the points above and others, of course. But because Heuchan’s piece was wobbly doesn’t reduce her right to put her perspective as a black woman living in Scotland. In fact, when a woman from a black and minority ethnic background writes about inclusivity and colonial heritage then it really is incumbent upon the rest of us to pay attention to what she’s saying. And of course she was correct about Scotland’s colonial heritage – it’s just that this obviously isn’t disputed by independence supporters.
Wee Ginger Dug says all of this and more in a typically intelligent response, which is at once both passionate and thoughtful. Notably, he points out that Heuchan was a ‘Better Together’ activist and the notion that her piece is underpinned by academic method is not sound at all. Academia is often mis-used in this way in the Scottish independence debate; phoney professors abound. Perhaps most importantly, Wee Ginger Dug points out that if you’re looking to link nationalism in Scotland to the ‘othering’ of ‘outsiders’, then you really do need to cast your eye to Scottish unionists like UKIP and others. Heuchan, as an apparently committed unionist, says nothing of this.
The Guardian has a lot of readers in England who support Scottish independence, by the way. And the point of then Guardian editor CP Scott’s famous 1921 line – “Comment is Free, but facts are sacred” – is borne out in the Guardian’s CIF (‘comment is free’) pages today. The Guardian’s editorial line is usually not discernible in the comment pieces, which are commissioned to reflects all sides of intelligent debate. That what makes CIF often so compelling.
Where the Guardian might be criticised is in running a news piece headed; “Woman who linked racism with Scottish nationalism quits Twitter over safety fears”, which contained no actual evidence of the tweets or messages which would have reasonably led to the safety fears the piece refers to. It isn’t abusive to attack a person’s argument – that’s presumably why a person writes a CIF comment piece. And is it really necessary for the Guardian to explain to anyone submitting a piece that if they read below-the-line comments or look at social media they’re likely going to see themselves being called rude names? Discriminatory language won’t be published by the Guardian, and of course it’s to be condemned on social media. ‘Dickhead’, though, is definitely fair game in open public discourse.
The Herald followed-up the Guardian piece with a little more detail. Although journalists have not yet seen evidence, Heuchan says she had racist messages posted on her blog and that she was terrified because people were trying to work out her location. To be fair on The Herald, and indeed the Guardian, the allegation of racism is a very serious one and therefore newsworthy. Yet it’s true, of course, that some folk may well have been trying to identify whether she was writing the piece from personal experience of Scotland or was instead doing what many in the London media do and banging out their strong opinions without bothering to buy a train ticket. That, too, is fair game and doesn’t imply a threat per se.
It’s quite clear that Claire Heuchan is an intelligent commentator with a strong opinion which should be accommodated by media outlets – if that’s what she wants. Some academics might take the view that such activity might distract from PhD completion, but in any case she says she wants to be a cultural critic and Scotland can only benefit from her black, feminist activist perspective. It’s to be hoped she’s back up and blogging soon.
Meanwhile, though, independence supporters just have to accept, as ever, that where they post anything which can be presented as being out of line then it’ll be monstered by the media. When unionists do it – not so much.
Rigorous criticism mustn’t be shut down. Being called a tosser isn’t the end of the world, and folk who feel passionate about independence do so because of the great magnitude of the historical decision soon to be before Scotland (we hope…). Meanwhile, of course, some No voters are just waiting to be persuaded to vote Yes and where we can be nice about it, well, that’s good too…..
[Thanks to Steve and Morag for corrections….]