Scotland: Progression or Regression in the Face of Racial Inequality?
Monday March 29 2021
Recent events in Scotland have highlighted the progression in combating racial and religious inequality. However, is Scotland undermining its own progress? Despite such advancements, concerns remain around the growing threat of Islamophobia, and the lack of diversity within Scottish political parties.
In February, the Scottish Labour Party elected Anas Sarwar as leader following Richard Leonard’s resignation. After winning 57% of votes from party members and affiliated supporters, Sarwar was elected, defeating rival Monica Lennon. His victory means that not only is he the first Muslim and BAME individual to hold this position in the party’s history, but the first Muslim to be elected as leader of any major political party in the UK. The election of Anas Sarwar and the Hate Crime Bill’s recent passing could signal a gearing towards a much-needed cultural shift in Scotland.
The election of Sarwar as Scottish Labour Party leader and the recent passing of the Hate Crime bill could serve as trailblazing moments to address issues of racism, inequality and Islamophobia in Scotland. However, a significant problem that persists is the lack of BAME representation in the Scottish Parliament. Presently, only two seats in Holyrood are represented by MSPs from BAME background. That is just 1.5% of the Scottish Parliament, despite minorities making up 4% of the Scottish population – with that figure likely to have risen. According to Dr Lucy Michael, the “integration of minority groups in equality terms” can be measured by engagement in party politics and governance. While the Scottish Parliament has had a commendable record for female representation, there is a growing fear that progress may have reverted in recent times. In 1999, there were 48 female MSPs out of 129 MSPs; presently, this number is down to 45, none of whom are from BAME backgrounds.
Moreover, despite data showing a growing trend of Muslim engagement in politics, there remain significant concerns about barriers that exclude Muslims and other minorities from engaging in the political sphere. The Cross-Party Group on tackling Islamophobia found that 83% of Muslims had experienced Islamophobia in Scotland and 79% of Muslims felt that Islamophobia is intensifying in Scotland. Additionally, a ComRes poll commissioned by MEND in 2018 found that nearly half of people in Scotland felt there was more discrimination against Muslims than people of other faiths. Furthermore, a study conducted by Newcastle University and the University of St Andrews found that young Muslims in Scotland identified active engagement with Scottish electoral politics as a core form of political participation, but that everyday experiences of Islamophobia and racism were a barrier to further engagement, with Islamophobia detrimentally impacting their confidence to play a more visible role in society.
In 2019, Sarwar questioned the Scottish Labour party’s commitment to tackling Islamophobia. Following this, a Facebook account linked to the Scottish Labour Party stated, “there is no such thing as Islamophobia. It is the right of every individual to question a religion which claims to be peaceful, and yet is responsible for more terror attacks than any other.” The recent election of Sarwar could send hope in eradicating Islamophobia in the Scottish Labour party, however, it still remains a growing concern within the party, and across other Scottish parties.
Shortly after Sarawar’s election, in a further sign of progress, the Hate Crime and Public Order bill was passed after much debate. The new legislation adds to the list of protected groups, such as religion and sexuality, and criminalising acts such as “stirring up hatred”. While the bill represents progress in minority inclusion and racial inequality, it nevertheless carries controversy, with the bill’s final reading seeing the rejection of an amendment to include sex as a protected group. This could potentially threaten to undermine the steady progress being made in tackling inequalities faced by minority communities across Scotland.
Ultimately, despite signs of significant progress, Scottish political parties need to show they are serious about tackling racism and inequality. Political institutions should reflect the diverse communities that they serve. In these efforts, political parties must address structural barriers that exclude Muslims and other minority groups.
Leading up to this year’s elections, MEND calls on all Scottish political parties to commit to outlining their strategies to improve diversity within candidate selection ahead of all Scottish elections, and therefore reflecting a more diverse Parliament. Furthermore, we urge all political parties to continue to commit to tackling inequality through support for the new Hate Crime and Public Order legislation, its principles and implementation.