Brian Wilson: Rewriting the past is never wise

Not everyone in Glasgow in 1981 supported Nelson Mandela, and we would be wise to acknowledge that, writes Brian Wilson

A vigil was held in Glasgow last week, highlighting the citys support of Nelson Mandela. Picture: Robert Perry
A vigil was held in Glasgow last week, highlighting the citys support of Nelson Mandela. Picture: Robert Perry

Thank goodness for Glasgow and its enlightened political leaders who gave Nelson Mandela the freedom of that city in 1981, long before it was either fashionable or profitable.

As a result, more than three decades on, all Scotland (it seems) can bask in the reflected glory of shared, long-term solidarity with the anti-apartheid struggle and the values of Mandela. I wish it was true but – just for the record and before another fable sets in – it wasn’t.

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I remember all too well the denunciations which accompanied that act and had not subsided by one decibel five years later when, in another imaginative European “first”, Glasgow gave the South African consulate an address in Nelson Mandela Square, to the great fury of apartheid’s apologists (of whom there were many).

There was a good blog the other day by “Glasgow Punter”, who noted: “Yesterday afternoon, I stood to give a minute’s applause with a crowd of 10,000 people at a football match in Edinburgh, marking the passing of a man once derided by our government as a terrorist. That struck me as both pleasing and bizarre.

“I thought back to the annual sponsored walk around Pollok Park that we used to attend as a family when I was a child, raising money for the Scottish committee of the anti-apartheid movement. The sum total of people interested in the well-being of Nelson Mandela at that time seemed to consist of my dad and his friends in the organisation.”

It was in that climate, rather than one of mass enthusiasm, that Glasgow’s Labour council acted as it did. But the city’s reputation as a beacon of anti-apartheid solidarity predated the Mandela accolade by at least two decades. In 1962, the Labour and Liberal clubs at Glasgow University united to nominate the president of the African National Congress, Chief Albert Lutuli, as Rector in absentia.

This was the generation of Donald Dewar, John Smith, Menzies Campbell and the like. It was a visionary idea for its time, and a great tribute to the students of Glasgow that Lutuli comfortably defeated both Dr Robert MacIntyre (Scottish Nationalist) and Lord Rosebery (Conservative).

In a sense, that symbolic election – to which much more significance was attached then than now – set a standard for Glasgow to maintain. And there were particularly fine people in the anti-apartheid movement in Glasgow, who made a lifetime commitment to the cause and, against most expectations, lived to see an evil system crumble.

It was they who suggested the “Freedom” award to Michael Kelly and Jean McFadden, then Lord Provost and leader of Glasgow City Council. Having faced down intense political and media opposition, it was only when the ceremony took place that Glasgow’s civic leaders understood the significance of what they had delivered.

Every Commonwealth country was represented, placing Glasgow at the centre of a great international cause. In contrast, a few years later, the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh were almost wrecked by the boycott imposed by half the Commonwealth in protest against the Thatcher government’s refusal to impose sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime.

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I cannot claim to have walked round Pollok Park, but my own introduction to Scotland’s decidedly mixed views on apartheid came in the late sixties during the infamous rugby tour by the all-white South Africans.

At Murrayfield, the police removed their numbers from uniforms, the more efficiently to beat up the demonstrators.

But whereas in Edinburgh, police and rugby club stewards created a barrier, in Aberdeen the tactic was to allow demonstrators to go onto the field and then arrest them. The first 100 were charged while the remainder were bussed to the city limits. I was in the first category which led to an amusing sequel.

Each of us was fined £15, which was a fair sum for students in these days. Some hopeless optimist wrote to John Lennon asking if he would do a concert to raise the £1500. Lennon wrote back saying he couldn’t do a concert, but here was a cheque for £1500. And that’s how John Lennon came to pay my fine!

Truth and reconciliation are great concepts but the former is the precondition of the latter. In Scotland as much as anywhere, a good starting point is to address our history and its legacies with a degree of honesty that is often missing. Yet, as the historian Tom Devine put it: “Every society’s history is light and shade, and a mature democracy faces its past, warts and all.”

A few days before Mandela died, I was reminded of this in another context when a friend told me about his interview for STV’s recent three-part pastiche of post-war Scottish politics “as seen through the prism of the national question”.

Having declined to evince enthusiasm for independence, he was asked: “But when other nations like the Gold Coast and Tanganyika were gaining their freedom in the ‘60s, didn’t you feel the same should happen for Scotland.” My friend’s response was: “Are you serious?” It was edited out.

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Sadly, she probably was serious due to ignorance, particularly of the disproportionate part played by Scots in the glories, or otherwise, of the British Empire. For better or worse, we were part and parcel of that history – in South Africa as elsewhere – and that legacy is part and parcel of what our own society is today. But that scarcely fits the current mood of myth-making.

For some reason, I was asked to propose the immortal memory at the first Burns Supper held in the South African High Commission in London following the fall of apartheid. It was a wonderful, humbling occasion. I will never forget the rendition by the High Commissioner, herself a poet, of The Slave’s Lament in which Burns, incredibly, translated himself into the mind of a terrified African en route to a life of bondage.

The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,

In the land of Virginia, -ginia O;

And I think of friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,

And alas, I am weary, weary O.

I remember it occurring to me that this would certainly not have been the first Burns Supper held in that building, stalked by so many ghosts, but under very different circumstances. We need to know a lot more about that history, just as we should resist the absurd impression that all of modern Scotland was implacably opposed to apartheid South Africa.

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While I don’t really care where that knowledge leads politically, I am absolutely certain that no good has ever come of rewriting the past in order to avoid inconvenient truths in the present.