Potential Consequences of Ill-founded Charges of Racism


by Sue Varley


Although the claim of Professor Tom Gallagher that “Michael Russell’s decision to single out English students for a massive financial levy is nothing less than racist.” has been well documented and commented upon on Newsnet Scotland here and his subsequent weak retraction and lack of apology here there is yet another side to this whole story that is worth taking a look at.

What are the potential consequences of making racist claims between the countries of the United Kingdom, how well Professor Gallagher has thought through the consequences of his claim and what prompted his retraction.

Racism is a very serious charge indeed especially when levelled at a government, and it is usually not to be openly detected at a governmental level until it is common amongst the population which the offending government is ruling over. At the moment there is some but fortunately relatively little, overt anti-Englishness noticeable in Scottish Society. Most of that which does exist is of the “Support anyone but England at football” variety. However, there is already a significant level of vicious anti-Scottishness to be found in certain sectors of English society. This nastiness is taught and kept fuelled by the jingoistic journalism in the English tabloids. Nor is it aimed only at Scots as it is also directed towards any immigrant people, whether they be economic migrants or political refugees, who are seen to be getting something at the expense of their English hosts.

Indeed in modern times, this anti-Scottish feeling amongst the English is a relatively recent phenomenon. It has been slowly growing since the early days of devolution gave the Scottish government the ability to make better choices for its people than those being made at Westminster for the residents in England. Its rate of growth has been accelerated since Scotland has had a government committing to putting the well-being of Scots at the heart of its policies. Legislation coming from the SNP government such as that protecting free personal care for the elderly, gradual reduction of prescription charges and the promise to scrap them altogether, free bus travel for the elderly and disabled has been greeted with outrage from certain journalists and their readers south of the border. Look at a few comments on any such on-line news article in the mainstream media and you will not have to read very far to find this.

It is a perhaps unintended consequence of the great subsidy myth spreading south: the English have been taught that these benefits are coming to Scotland at their expense, hence their anger. That anger and resentment is likely to grow even faster with the widespread cuts being forced upon the whole of the UK.

Instead of calling for similar beneficial government priorities for themselves, the niggardly response is to want the advantages to be forcibly taken away from Scotland by the economic control which Westminster keeps to itself. The British politicians encourage this response as it is not in their interests to spend money making the people’s lives better when that money could equally well be spent replacing trident and fighting illegal wars to keep up the appearance that Britain is still Great.

For the same reason they will not bring forth any legislation on reserved matters which would be of direct benefit to Scotland, such as the fuel duty regulator campaign championed by Mr Angus MacNeil MP for the Western Isles.

All this was before we came to the politically loaded question of university tuition fees. The media are presenting the Scottish government’s Green Paper on the future of higher education in a very negative light, focussing almost exclusively on the option whereby UK students that are not resident in Scotland may be charged tuition fees for studying at Scottish universities, although those residing in Scotland would be exempt from this. This is more of the same “Scotland benefits at England’s expense” rhetoric that is becoming so familiar to us, and keeps the anti-Scottish feelings simmering in England. But when leading experts in their field begin to level ill-founded claims that Scots are being racist against the English, it will only add further fuel to the flames.

Professor Tom Gallagher, chair of East European Studies in the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University has done much work on racial and religious tensions. On his page on the website for the University of Bradford he states “Much of my work has explored ways of preventing the politics of ethnic antagonism being used to erode human security and jeopardise regional and international stability”. He above anyone should know that it is a bad idea to stoke hatred towards any group of people. History shows us that this is especially dangerous when the hatred is coming from a majority group that has at least some level of control over the minority towards whom the hatred is being directed.

However there is a lot at stake for Prof Gallagher – he has a union to defend. Prof Gallagher thinks that the biggest challenge to the preservation of the unity of the British state currently emanates from Scotland. Many Unionists seem to think that the end justifies the means, but if Prof Gallagher’s desired end is indeed to preserve the union whatever the cost, promoting the ugly claim of racism between two or more of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom is a dangerous game for a Professor of Peace Studies to be playing.

Here we have an academic expert in the field actively teaching a majority group that they are being racially discriminated against by a minority they are already being groomed to resent. What can this do but to accelerate the growing levels of rancour that we see emerging? As Scots become more aware of this antagonism coming from England, it will cause them in turn to first become defensive then to retaliate in kind. It is strange and ironic that the main result of Gallagher’s unjustified intervention would be to increase the likelihood of creating the very situation about which he protests.

Of course setting the people of England and Scotland against each other in this way will only stress the union further, and may even hasten its demise. But if the union ends through mutual dislike and resentment deliberately inculcated in two nations of people who have every reason to be friends, it is likely to be highly acrimonious. Much would be lost and a fresh legacy of distrust and bad relations would come between our peoples that may take generations to overcome.

Maybe the danger of bringing about an increase in racial tension is what prompted Gallagher to recant, in which case he would have done well to explain exactly why he found himself “in the wrong on this occasion” or maybe it was because he recognises the threat to the union. Sadly he does not choose to explain his reasoning.