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Racism and Nationalism after the Scottish Referendum and 2015 General Election

This post was contributed by Dr Brendan McGeever of the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck)

Racism-Nationalism-in-the-UKOn Friday November 13 the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research very generously hosted a one-day colloquium on the theme ‘Racism and Nationalism after the Scottish Referendum and 2015 General Election’. The event brought together seven speakers to address the relationship between racism and nationalism in the Scottish, Welsh, English and Northern Irish contexts. The rationale for doing so was born out of a desire to reflect on the historic events of the past year or so – the Scottish Referendum of September 2014 and the General Election of May 2015.

With the dramatic electoral surge of the Scottish National Party and the prospect of the EU Referendum to come, the British state, it seems, has entered a new phase of constitutional crisis. In these changing times, with UKIP also on the rise electorally and the future of the Union seeming uncertain, the colloquium offered a timely opportunity to explore the extent to which racism across Britain is finding expression through the assertion of new nationalisms.

‘Non-racial’ Wales, and Unionism in Northern Ireland

The day was split into three sessions. In the first of these, Dr Bethan Harries (University of Manchester) presented on racism and nationalism in Wales, and Dr Robbie McVeigh addressed the Northern Irish context. Dr Harries began proceedings by showing how a discourse of national ‘innocence’ has led to an erasure of Welsh complicity in colonialism. The dominant political narrative in Wales, Dr Harries argued, is not ‘post-racial’ but actually ‘non-racial’, and it presents serious barriers to the elaboration of an anti-racist politics in the here and now.

In the second presentation, Dr McVeigh offered a stark picture of Northern Ireland, where the decline of Unionism as a political force is leading to the articulation of a specifically defensive type of racist politics that is not just colour-coded, but anti-Catholic as well. Dr McVeigh further argued that as Unionism continues to be rooted in a shrinking demographic base, the politics of racism and British nationalism will likely come to be posed in ever sharper terms.

Ethnic and national belonging in Scotland

The second session was dedicated entirely to Scotland, and included presentations by Dr Nasar Meer (University of Strathclyde) and Dr Brendan McGeever (Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck). In his presentation, Dr Meer surveyed elite political discourses in Scotland on ethnic and national belonging, showing that despite the real advances that have been made in recent years, there remains much to do.

By referencing various interviews with members of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government, Dr Meer showed how implicit hierarchies continue to shape elite understandings of Scottish nationhood. In a paper co-written with Professor Satnam Virdee (University of Glasgow), Dr McGeever suggested the question of racism has been largely occluded from the national conversation that has been taking place since the beginning of the Independence referendum campaigns, and that this has further consolidated the longstanding Scottish myth that there is ‘no problem here’.

This national re-imagining of Scotland as a uniquely ‘tolerant’ society acquires its powerful appeal, argued McGeever, precisely through its capacity to define itself in opposition to that which it is not (e.g. British/English). According to McGeever, not only does this project Scotland’s disproportionate role in Slavery and Empire onto England, but it arguably prevents any serious discussion of racism in the country today.

England, north and south

The third and final session consisted of two papers on England, the first given by Professor Anoop Nayak (Newcastle University), who explored racism and nationalism in North East England, and the second by Dr Steve Garner (Birmingham City University) who discussed south England. Professor Nayak’s contribution took the form of a historical-geography of the North East, showing how its transition from being a region of production to consumption has been accompanied by further transformations in the politics of racism and identity. Professor Nayak argued the case for decoupling whiteness from nationalism, and suggested that English nationalism is not of high capital in the North East and that local and regional identifications remain much stronger. This, he argued, is reflected in both the politics of racism and anti-racism.

The final paper by Dr Garner presented a quite different picture of South England. Based on a range of qualitative interviews with white working class participants in Bristol and Plymouth, Dr Garner showed how English national belonging is deeply racialised, and is structured by a ‘moral economy of whiteness’. Garner examined the affective and emotional routes through such racialised nationalism is articulated, showing how ‘nation’, ‘welfare’ and ‘immigration’ provide the frame through which racism and (localised) English nationalism come to be expressed.

Finally, Professor Claire Alexander (University of Manchester) gave a set of closing remarks that offered insights into each of the presentations. Professor Alexander closed the event by inviting participants to reconsider Englishness and English nationhood, and to question why minorities in England continue to find them so difficult to claim as their own.

With Britain’s constitutional crisis remaining far from resolved, it seems that the various issues discussed in this colloquium are unlikely to go away any time soon.

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(Homepage slider image caption: ‘UK Grunge Flag’, CC Nicholas Raymond via Flickr)