Scotland’s Shame Needs More Than a Change of Street Names

Inspired by the series of events that followed the despicable, racist, and cold-blooded killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop, a debate has opened up in Scotland that has become focused, for now, on street names in central Glasgow.

At time of writing, there is a growing demand to rename roads, including Buchanan Street, Glassford Street, and Ingram Street, that were named after the ‘Tobacco Lords’ (Glaswegians who made their fortunes in the slavery-centred tobacco trade) with the aim of erasing the links with these less than ethical 18th century businessmen.

What separates this from the legion of other petitions and demands that ultimately end up on and don’t go much further, is the call to rename these streets has received the early backing of Scottish Government trade Minister Ivan McKee who, when asked about the subject, said that “George Floyd Street is a good way to start”.

There has been boots on the ground action in Glasgow itself with activists attaching the names of prominent black historical figures, including Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman, to the signs displaying the names of the streets.

This is grassroots political action, Glaswegian-style.

The ‘should we/shouldn’t we’ bit of the debate over road names is  raging right across Scottish Twitter, with all the good taste, intellectual rigour, and composure that one would expect.

Glasgow will either embark on a programme of street renaming and expunge the names of those who made their money off the second-hand brutalities of Empire, or it won’t.

There is a much more interesting discussion to be had over all this. The question of the effectiveness of what is – with the best will in the world, an entirely symbolic gesture that will cost Scottish Taxpayers a lot but deliver very little in return. 

It is my view that without real and lasting policy change to address Scotland’s role in Empire, a set of new street signs are not worth whatever material they will use to make them. 

Worse still, in Scotland we have a habit of glazing over our social problems with symbolism, compounded with the twin mistaken beliefs that we are some kind of progressive Scandinavian country whose people talk with a twang and were somehow dragged along by the English in colonising large parts of the World. 

Regrettably Scots were front and centre of the story of slavery within the British Empire. 

Sure, the English may have paid for it, but it was the Scots who administered it.

Our tendency to glaze over problems and use a sticking plaster when invasive surgery is required is well evidenced. Did you hear about our attempt to solve our own centuries-long sectarian conflict by curtailing the soundtrack of football games? . In progressive Scotland white Christians even manage to hate other white Christians! – Pathetic, huh!

The concern is that we will simply see a few changed street names, and have a quick chat about how awful our role was in Empire was – even through, secretly, we all know it was those awful English who made us do it. We’ll all feel so very, very bad about it, and then… well, we’ll all forget about it over a cup of tea and an Eccles cake. 

As the sentiments of the Black Lives Matter protests have made clear, that just won’t do.

To much less fanfare and without government endorsement, a second idea has been doing the rounds. That of putting black history, the British Empire, and the role of Scotland in it, within the Scottish school curriculum. This has one of those petitions too.

There is no reason to suppose the two proposals are mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible to teach these harsh truths in school while renaming Scottish city street names.

The two diverge where one is a symbolic gesture that would be easily implemented and ultimately achieve very little at a huge cost. The other is a difficult, arduous, unsexy, and time-consuming endeavour that has the potential to change society but without a headline-grabbing moment or much in the way of symbolism.

I worry that we Scots will fall back on our instincts and choose the romantic and grand over the practical. Because, as much as we like to think of ourselves as a hard-nosed, realistic, canny population, we are, in truth, a nation of dreamers who often choose our own myths over the harsh reality of life.

I hope we can be the best of ourselves in tackling this problem and not revert to the worst of our cultural habits. 

Please, Scotland, prove me wrong.


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