There’s a nasty borderline between nationalism and racism and it’s now being muddied in Scotland.
When I took up my job as Director of Glasgow Art Galleries and Museums in 1989, a handful of protestors marched in the street against me. I was the first Englishman ever appointed to this post.
The Glasgow Herald (as it was then called) asked me what I thought of the demonstration. I said ‘it’s Glasgow’s way of saying hello.’
I loved the feistiness of Glasgow but have to admit that there were a few occasions – in the street and some pubs, though never at work – when I thought it best not to open my mouth.
Any one with any sense doesn’t stir up trouble but I knew the sound of my English accent, even if I did come from a council estate in South London, was unlikely to calm a potentially explosive situation.
I didn’t think of this as racism, though it had a racist edge, but more as the legitimate expression of frustration after centuries of cultural oppression.
But with the Nats in charge the boot is now potentially on the other foot. I’ve recently had an uncomfortable experience of the first nudging kick.
I’ve been campaigning for months now to persuade the obdurate Edinburgh City Council to do something about the terrible new plague of amplified buskers that is turning the city centre into a living hell for residents and workers alike.
Last week, I asked a busker to stop playing because his terrible din was flooding through all the rooms in our flat. Buskers are supposed to stop immediately if they get a complaint.
This one, as most do now, refused bluntly to move. I said I’d have to call the police. He said I was free to do what I liked (except not listen to his music, of course).
I rang 101, the police complaints number. They assured me officers would attend as soon as they could.
Two and a half hours of torture later, I happened to be at our main door dealing with another enquiry when I noticed two police officers standing idly by looking at the busker.
I went over to ask if they’d come to stop him. They said there had been a complaint but they were deliberating as to what to do. I suggested stopping him. They told me they hadn’t got the powers to do that but could ask him to move on.
I enlightened them as to their powers and asked them to stop him playing.
They said they’d have to ask me some questions first since the complaint the police had received was from a woman, not me.
They took out their notebooks and began by asking me how long I’d lived in the Grassmarket. When I told them 27 years, one quipped ‘you must be used to this then.’ I explained the recent problems of amplification of which they seemed to be unaware.
Then one of them popped the question, ‘Were you born in Scotland?’
My first thought was to ask what relevance has that? But they still hadn’t stopped the busker and I didn’t want to offend them. So I replied, very feebly I think in retrospect: ‘No, but my wife was and she is having to listen to this hell as well. Can you stop him, please.’
They went over to talk to him and I went back inside. I then thought about what had just been said and went back down pencil and paper in hand.
They were still talking amiably to the busker and, seeing me, they came over to tell me he’d agreed to stop. They were smiling. They thought they’d done a good job.
They didn’t see the busker behind grinning at me as he raked in the considerable takings he’d made after playing uninterrupted for two and a half hours.
For the first time in my life I took the two officers’ numbers and asked for their names.
I emailed their senior officer, who I’d been in correspondence with about busking for several months, to complain about these officers’ ignorance of their powers and the slowness of the police response.
I added that they’d thought it necessary to question the status of my nationality but realise now that this should have been my prime complaint.
The senior officer replied saying that ‘there is clearly learning on the part of these officers and myself as to how the relevant legislation should be applied’. But nothing about the questioning of my nationality.
The first shoots of racism have to be stamped out especially when they are manifest in the arm of the law.