The Opportunities and Obstacles for a ‘Scottish Approach’ to Race Equality

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy.  Click here to access the article. 

Is there a particular character to race equality in Scotland that is different to elsewhere in the UK?  As ever much depends both on how this question is posed – and to whom.

While the primary legislation of public equality duties is set by UK statute, the secondary legislation that facilitates its operation across devolved areas is the responsibility of the Scottish Government. This means that, theoretically, the Scottish Government can go further than England and Wales (where the UK Parliament legislates both for primary legislation and secondary legislation). For example, within existing parameters, Scottish administrations have shown an interest mainstreaming race equality, in ways that lean against UK level disinterest.

Where or not this is about catching up is another question.

One civil servant describing the Scottish Government’s Race Equality Framework launched in 2016, for example, calls it ‘a point in the crossroads’ (Rjil3), part of a moment when something may (rather than has) facilitated divergence.  The Race Equality Framework is itself reflective of a type divergence in mood if not yet deed, as a UK wide equality practitioner puts it:

The atmosphere in Scotland … is much more conducive to the type of work and kind of thinking that we have. We are genuinely in a situation where we have far less concern about the direction of travel of the Scottish Government than we do about what is happening in Westminster. I don’t think that is hugely contentious (Roic4).

So this is a perceived cultural change that is said to mark both a contrast in where Scotland is today to where it has been in the past, and also, given the 16 year length of the Race Equality Framework, where it might go relative to England.

This last point is important but not straightforward, however, for it relies on a story of English regression as much as Scottish advance. In this scenario, Scotland ‘orbits’ around existing settlements, rather than necessarily setting off in a new course.

Beyond contingency, however, is there evidence of a distinctive ‘Scottish Approach’ to race equality; one that not only ‘diverges’ or ‘orbits’, but one which has an inherent characteristic in which there is a social policy ‘idea of [Scottish] community’ that is ‘connected with sets of political values’?

The picture is unclear.

It is striking that prominent reports and commissions concerned with social and constitutional reform in Scotland have made little mention of race equality as distinct from a generic concern with ‘fairness’.  This includes both the report of The Commission on Scottish Devolution (2009) and The Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services in Scotland (2011).  Hopkins has characterised this tendency as one of ‘disentanglements’, which ‘does not necessarily mean that racial equality is ignored completely; instead, it may be regarded as less urgent, not as important and less worthy of attention compared to other matters’.

One way to reflect on this is to consider the extent to which race equality stakeholders are being brought into the policy process in Scotland.  Here we note that in her race equality pathfinder, the Independent Race Equality Advisor concluded that ‘inclusive policy making is not yet embedded in the DNA of the Scottish Government or public bodies in Scotland’. This is despite a very self-conscious claim to the contrary by SG civil statements.

The way we approach what we do in government comes from that idea that Scotland is actually a nation that thinks about the nation as opposed to the state. So the Scottish Government in the devolution settlement actually are responsible, rather than to the Crown, they’re responsible to the Scottish people. (Rgid4)

Is this so for Race Equality policy too?

Well if it were to, it would need to address two obstacles. One is the desire to work through difficult topics, and the other is a commitment to cross departmental work we have seen in other areas e.g., talking health inequalities. Here’s how one SG civil servant presented this challenge to me:

So I suppose that’s moving into sort of the difference between formal resistance and just individual people’s personally understanding about equality and what they think is their role. of (Rjil7).

What emerges from this description is a recognition that the pursuit of race equality relies on civil servant capacity building and policy learning, as well as wider communities of mobilisation.  Noteworthy too, is that race is understood as a policy problem to be resolved rather than as a part of an emerging story of the very identity of Scotland.

Another way of putting this is to remind ourselves that race equality is also intrinsically critical of more than public policy, specifically because it takes on the discursive character of the very identity of society, and which goes beyond public policy and administration to invoke debates about national belonging.

Equally, which parts of the policy problem come to be included then is key.

This is reflected in one stakeholder’s observation that ‘if you talk about institutional racism people get scared and they withdraw. Because obviously it harks back to Stephen Lawrence, and I think people think that we have moved on from there’. (Rcis2).  Another elaborates this at length with the following story concerning a facilitation exercise between stakeholders and the Scottish Government:

One of our professional stake holders was a very senior police officer who spoke at length about institutional racism and believed that Police Scotland was institutionally racist.  We were not allowed to include a synopsis of it in the conference report because there was wide spread panic in Government that that would hit the press and look terrible. So basically unless public institutions are comfortable with the fact that things may temporally look terrible, we won’t be able to meaningfully have that public conversation because we haven’t got the issues into the open (Ryic3)

Minimally, we might say that if there is a burgeoning Scottish approach, this is also characterised by an active reticence to speak publicly about structural racism. This is not unique to Scotland, as illustrated by the findings discussed at the outset, but equally Scotland does not stand outside this.

Convention is the key here, to the extent that individual motives and objectives become much less relevant to sustaining and proliferating racial inequalities.

One of the features that characterised the Stephen Lawrence case was the coalition of civil society anti-racist mobilisation that marshalled and sustained a co-ordinated effort, in order to platform such issues as identified by the above respondent.  The response in that case prompts us to consider the extent to which Scottish stakeholders are working with sufficiently shared or overlapping objectives in policy networks, or what has come to be known as advocacy coalitions.

Key to this formulation is an overlapping consensus on values and beliefs about underlying causation, rather than general social, political or economic interests on their own, that are said to bring actors from competing positions together in the process of influencing policy decisions.

In the pursuit of race equality in Scotland, a recurring deficit is identified by respondents, and the following four responses are illustrative of its perceived character across the policy process.

Here is a both civil servant in the Scottish Government, who has helped craft the Race Equality Framework and other race initiatives, and race-equality activist discussing the same topic:

If we go to the gender movement and ask: ‘what are your three top priorities?’ They will say: ‘equal pay, violence against women and advancement at work’. If you speak to LGBT community, maybe 2-3 years ago, they would have said: ‘harassment, equal marriage and pensions’. Very clear, very focused. If you go to the race movement and ask the same question, and you get 40 different things… of course people will start to gravitate away from you because you lack coherence. (Roic5)

I distinctly remember this [parliamentary] evidence session, and there was one representative from a BME intermediary organisation who was very much saying something very different to the rest of us. […] There are problems between intermediary organisations which have not been able to be sorted out, which then spills over into what people think and say in these arenas. (Rcis4)

Contrary to a successful policy coalition, it is clear that race equality stake holders and policy actors are neither ‘clustered’ in ways that can ‘harness enough legitimacy around their policy ideas to avoid considering alternative approaches’. Indeed, the opposite would appear to be true, in so far as competing agendas jockey for position and key arguments can be fragmented.  These are noticeable tendencies when set against the lobbying of other equality groups.

The reasons for this include genuine disagreement on the root causes of race inequality in Scotland, and specifically the difference between people’s capacity and social structure, between education and training needs on the one hand, and institutional discrimination and indeed racism on the other.  No less relevant is that there is here a real challenge for organisations that receive funding for a variety of matters associated, but perhaps not directly related to, race equality policy work, to labour with agendas outside this remit.


About the author

Nasar Meer is Professor of Race, Identity and Citizenship at the University of Edinburgh

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