I’ve been heading to George Square for as long as I can remember. Rallies, protests, celebrations – it carries with it a significance that goes well beyond Glasgow itself. The events of 1919 in the square are at the heart of the ‘Red Clydeside’ legend (and more than a little myth). They might have been inherited for me, but the moment I saw Nelson Mandela emerge onto the balcony at the chambers when, freshly released from prison, he arrived to collect his freedom of the city will live long in my memory.
We have this view of ourselves in Scotland, as progressive, outward-looking, and welcoming, in no small part to events like that. Many, myself included, have for years praised the citizens of the city who have come together to support, to defend and celebrate those who have sought refuge in Glasgow. I don’t think there’s a need to write an extended essay on the benefits that immigration in general has brought to the UK, but the decision in 2000 by Glasgow City Council to involve itself in the Asylum Dispersal programme has been one that not only did the right thing by those seeking help, but has brought communities that were otherwise dwindling back to life.
There’s no escaping it though, successive governments have treated refugees appallingly, and Labour certainly do not escape culpability. Blair and Blunkett played to the Daily Mail image of the ne’er-do-well asylum seeker, playing on our inherent generosity and keen to work the system for all they could get. Determined to cut asylum claims and a backlog inherited from Major, they chose the coward’s route and played along with the scapegoating rather than challenging it.
The result was those claiming asylum being barred from paid employment, being stuck with the woefully insufficient “azure card” to feed themselves, and local authorities barred from assisting destitute asylum seekers in most situations. If they told themselves that behaving in this disgusting way towards such vulnerable people would assuage the concerns people had, they were monumentally wrong.
Instead, New Labour merely set the stage for the next Tory government to kick the vulnerable even harder. In 2010, as political lead for the department that supported asylum seekers in the city, we were told the government was withdrawing the contract. An absurd argument about how much we paid for cutlery, and whether or not people needed bed-heads, ensued with the government. It ended with the contract going to a charity we knew would be only a stepping stone to full privatisation.
Throughout this, the public support for the human beings at the heart of this scandal was solid. Even those far from being fans of the council rallied around, knowing what was at stake. When SERCO started its evictions of asylum seekers a couple of years ago (a disaster that was entirely predicted by activists in 2010), there was a well-organised and far-reaching campaign that in the face of it all was at least in part successful.
The protest last night was the next stage of that battle, as Mears (the new contractor), started moving people it is paid to support into hotels without warning, without explanation, and using the cover of the Covid-19 crisis. A cynic would conclude that this action was to enable easier eviction later – but even now people are on hunger strike due to the poor conditions and food. That was the motivation for last night’s protest.
Many of those who organised around the exemplary “no evictions” campaign over the last couple of years gathered to show solidarity and support for people with no vote, no opportunity to work, no money, and living in a new country having fled conditions which were often the stuff of nightmares. Sadly, this was met with a “counter-protest.” Quite how anyone could protest against people being given decent food to eat should be beyond comprehension – but for the far-right, this seemed too much like treating people from other places and races with dignity.
Two sets of people faced-off. One set of working-class people who defended those who had nothing, who stood by the oppressed in the best traditions of the city – and another set defending the establishment, its grubby treatment of the most marginalised and its statues, including many of those in that square who would never have lifted a finger for the working-class in their lives.
It is galling that there will likely be some amongst the number of far-right protestors in that square last night who will be the descended from people who once occupied that square to fight for the shorter working week. Now, their great-grandchildren were out with different sets of priorities – “fuck antifa,” they shouted, as they defended the cenotaph, which commemorates, in part, those who fought against fascism in the Second World War.
A statement was issued today claiming that seeing a banner that said “antifa” on it was a provocation. It makes me genuinely wonder whether some involved in these so-called defence actions actually know that “antifa” means “anti-fascist.” Are they players, or are they being played? Behind them are the likes of Trump and Johnson, toy titans with a flair for presenting themselves as champions of the people – as they hammer the working-class in favour of the rich.
The frustration of the lockdown, the years of cuts to services, the decades of attacks on working people at home and in the workplace, the huge personal debt, and the sense of powerlessness that has come with globalisation – people are angry, and they’re right to be so. It is our job as socialists to engage and direct it. But we have to be steadfast in opposing anger in the service of fascism, anger directed at the marginalised and vulnerable, anger that would rob our people of their safety on the city’s streets. That must simply be opposed – resolutely.
One thing is for certain, the kind of centrist pandering on issues such as immigration and asylum that marked the Blair years achieved very little other than to feed the monster. Labour managed the incredible trick of continuing to be attacked from the right for growth in immigration and from the left for the draconian approach on asylum. It was a politics without principle. The irony of ironies, of course, is that asylum claims were falling until the humanitarian disaster of the Iraq war. A reminder that an underlying factor in all of our migration debates is the chaos our governments cause overseas.
But we can, at least, borrow a slogan from Blair: now is the time to be tough on fascism and tough on the causes of fascism. The immediate concern is dealing with the attacks going on in our streets, both in terms of physical attacks and in the claiming of space by fascist mobs. Reclaiming that space can be done by mass demonstration, showing the unity of the working-class against those who wish to sow division and hatred.
There are many organisations involved in such organising, the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) has worked well over the years with anti-racist groups, especially on the annual St. Andrew’s Day rally. But this work will now need to be ramped up. Individual trade unions have a huge role to play in this regard, too. The CWU campaign with Show Racism the Red Card is an excellent initiative, and we’ll need more work in that vein – not least because the chants last night and in London at the weekend made clear just how tied this far-right upsurge is to football. We must find a way to set factional concerns that have plagued anti-racist movements aside.
The long-term job though will be just as difficult. The necessary, lively, and long-overdue discussion of empire and its legacy is undoubtedly bringing out a defensiveness in some quarters. There will be those who respond to criticisms of the empire’s racist legacy with the lazy “if you don’t like it, leave.” We have to confront this with our own message, “if you don’t like it, change it.”
But there is a bigger picture here too. Far-right ideas grow in the desperation created by economic inequity and decline. The rules of the game have always been stacked against working people, every concession dragged out of the ruling class, but over these last four decades the concessions have been rare, and the retrograde step commonplace.
That must change, and many of us campaigned just a few months ago in the hope that it would. We lost that battle but we can’t afford to lose the war. There are other battles – in the workplace, the terraces, the streets, the community. We will move forward victory by victory.
Our job is to be part of demonstrating that collective action works, and in fact it is the only thing that has ever delivered for working people. It is through these bonds of common struggle that we suffocate fascist ideas, showing people the unity of workers and exposing the lies of racist propaganda.
The antidote to the sense of powerlessness, to vulnerability and to macho reaction is learning how to win again – as a class. Legends and myths aren’t enough. It’s been said that war is a rifle with a working-class person at either end. Perhaps if those words were more widely spoken and understood, those commemorated at George Square would truly find their peace.