Brian Wilson: Windrush scandal echoes Scots' slave trade shame

Scotland's slave trade shame echoes in the racist treatment of the Windrush migrants, writes Brian Wilson

The formal opening of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Buckingham Palace (Picture: Getty)
The formal opening of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Buckingham Palace (Picture: Getty)

I had the privilege last weekend of attending a fine event at Prestonfield House called The Tumbling Lassie Ball, the title reflecting a very interesting piece of Scottish legal history with plenty of present day connotations.

For those of you as ignorant as I was, let me summarise. In late 17th century Scotland, the otherwise unnamed Tumbling Lassie was sold to an unscrupulous showman or mountebank – a great word that – to perform as a gymnast in a travelling show. Her unhappiness was spotted by a Borders woman who organised her escape and provided a place of refuge.

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The case came to the Court of Session with the mountebank claiming repossession of the girl as his property. The judges ruled against him on the grounds that “we have no slaves in Scotland and mothers cannot sell their bairns”. As Alan McLean QC said: “Those brief words encapsulate a judicial rejection of the whole institution of slavery at a remarkably early date in international terms.”

Not only is this a great story which should be taught in schools, it is also performed as an operetta, written by Alexander McCall Smith with music by Tom Cunningham, an unusual and superb piece of work. The Faculty of Advocates has adopted charities which exist to combat modern slavery as the beneficiaries of the annual Tumbling Lassie Ball.

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There is, of course, a darker side to the history of Scotland’s relationship with slavery. The enlightened views of the Court of Session were of little interest to Scottish slave owners who played a disproportionate part in the trade for almost a century and a half after that judgement. Many of them were noted for their exceptional brutality and gargantuan wealth.

As late as 1817, one third of the slaves in Jamaica were Scottish-owned. Much of the capital which created the new industries of 19th century Scotland flowed directly from the slave trade. That legacy lives on in the names of Glasgow streets and the opulence of city townhouses and country mansions. Much of Edinburgh’s New Town was built from the profits of the slavery. Scotland does not like talking about this subject because it raises too many questions about the present and challenges the endlessly cultivated self-image of a virtuous nation that has offered nothing but good to the world. Yet it is precisely on these grounds that the past should be brought to light, discussed and – most critically – learned from.

I noted this week that the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust seems to have reached much the same conclusion and is planning a guide to properties in the city that have connections to the slave trade. A group of its younger members want the Trust to lead “honest conversations” about matters which are not normally in the tourist brochures. Good for them!

The primary lesson might be that nationality is an utterly unreliable guide to collective morality. You cannot cherry-pick and define the bits you like as “Scottish values”. Every society contains its internal dichotomies and the question around each issue is, and always has been, “which side are you on?” rather than “what external force is doing something to us?”. We need more warts-and-all history and fewer “wha’s like us” platitudes.

If the same survey was extended throughout Scotland, it would become evident that just about every stately home owes its existence to the proceeds of crime, in one form or another. That is not a case for knocking them down or evicting the current beneficiaries, but simply for understanding more about the forces that have shaped our society, and continue to do so. Perhaps we could also stretch to explanatory plaques.

The legacies of past misdeeds are never far away as we are currently being reminded by the shocking fall-out from Theresa May’s bid to create “a hostile climate” towards people who cannot prove their right to be in the United Kingdom. Ghosts have been awakened by what began as a crude effort to appease right-wing opinion in 2012.

It is fortuitous that the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference is happening just now in London since this propelled the issue into prominence. The Commonwealth is a truly remarkable institution and the transition from Empire to a relationship of equals was one of the great achievements of the post-war Labour government.

John Bew’s recent biography of Clement Attlee says he hoped through the Commonwealth to rid Britain of the “stigma of racism and self-aggrandisement” and to “salvage something honourable from the morass”. All of that has depended on maintaining trust that old attitudes do not still prevail and this episode has not made that any easier.

Establishing the Commonwealth required a willingness to put aside past histories of slaughter, slavery and exploitation in order to focus on new-found mutual respect and shared future interests. These include the well-being of diaspora populations, enticed into the UK in decades past when the economy needed their labour. Until 1973, the right to citizenship was an integral part of the deal and that is what has been called into question. No wonder feelings run deep.

Strip away the history and this became a facile question of “immigration” with race and colour the unspoken factors. I doubt if many ageing offspring of Australians or white Rhodesians have been inconvenienced by Mrs May’s legislation, which turned fellow-citizens into informers. But place current events in the context of history and the issues at stake are of human rights, breaches of faith and trust in government.

When millions of EU citizens are required to prove their right to be in this country on pain of deportation, how many will choose instead to drop out of bureaucratic recognition? And what opportunities will that present to the latter-day mountebanks who prey upon the vulnerable? Modern slavery is a reality, not least in our own cities, which is in danger of being compounded.

Politicians who lack a sense of history are doomed to the errors of opportunism. Amidst the welter of apologies, let us hope there is also the humility to learn lessons, not least about how deep “the stigma of racism” runs through the centuries.