Something just didn’t seem right about the scenes we saw on the south side of Glasgow last week. As I surfed through all the video footage posted on social media about the ‘Battle of Kenmure Street’, what struck me was how far from spontaneous this seven hour stand-off seemed. Not just a bit staged but all carefully choreographed was how it came across, especially when captured from above by drones. The UK Border Agency enforcement van surrounded by a perfectly positioned squad of Police Scotland officers who pushed back the crowd with almost balletic precision and co-ordination. The all-too-neat and photogenic placards proclaiming ‘Refugees Are Welcome’. This was more the sort of creatively directed protest scenes you might see in a TV drama than on a news bulletin. Then I realised that’s what it might be – a slick co-production brought to all our varied screens by the Scottish Government and the police force it ultimately, and increasingly, commands.
Scene Two: the First Minister makes frantic calls to the Home Office to register her disgust at “doing this on Eid, in the heart of our Muslim community, and in the midst of a serious Covid outbreak” – even though the two Indian immigrants arrested for deportment were Sikhs and the social distancing rules were ripped up by the demonstrators, not the border guards. Not an entirely appropriate response to the actual events that unfolded. While the community uprising in Pollokshields no doubt quickly gathered its own natural, mass momentum, the rapid response of the FM and the Justice Secretary (to whom a nationally unified police force reports as to no other politician in Scottish – or British – history) seemed very prepared.
Personally, I don’t think either Nicola Sturgeon or Humza Yousaf were totally horrified by the scenes played out in Pollockshields. I believe they both would have both looked upon them with some partisan glee. When it drove into one of the most combustible parts of Clydeside, that immigration van met a perfectly-executed political ambush. The fact that it did so in Nicola Sturgeon’s constituency gave her added justification for loudly denouncing this country’s “appalling asylum and immigration policy.” It was as if she was reading from a prepared script – possibly because she was.
Much as I am inclined to use a guid Scots word like stushie or stramash, I consciously describe what occurred in Kenmure Street as a spectacle. Those at all familiar with the Situationist writings of the modern French philosopher Guy Debord will be familiar with his most famous concept the “society of the spectacle”. I believe the following observations are as relevant to Sturgeon’s Scotland as to anywhere in our increasingly media-controlled world:
Spectacular government, which now possesses all the means necessary to falsify the whole of production and perception, is the absolute master of memories just as it is the unfettered master of plans which will shape the most distant future…The flow of images carries everything before it, and it is similarly someone else who controls at will this simplified summary of the sensible world; who decides where the flow will lead as well as the rhythm of what should be shown, like some perpetual, arbitrary surprise, leaving no time for reflection, and entirely independent of what the spectator might understand or think of it.
Make no mistake, all those electronically captured images from the Spectacle of Kenmure Street will be carefully stored in the Scottish Ministry of Truth by our political masters and their massive spin machine – until they have served their political purpose. They will be strategically reactivated in our national public memory when our Nat chieftains are endeavouring to extract a spectacular concession from the Anglo-British state – separate control of immigration. By so doing, the Sturgeon regime would not only enhance its powers but might also (at least temporarily) placate those who feel it hasn’t made a single inch of progress towards Scottish independence. If all goes to plan – or, rather, script – this will occur after the Prime Minister’s promised summit with the leaders of all three devolved administrations to discuss “our shared challenges and how we can work together in the coming months and years to overcome them”.
Any lingering doubts about what will be Ms Sturgeon’s agenda at this four nation conclave were dispelled when I picked up the Sunday Times and spotted a column headlined ‘Immigration policy will test Johnson’s commitment to teamwork.’ It came as no surprise that the author was Kevin Pringle, for many years the SNP’s chief spinmeister. The key passage in his article was this:
Current Home Office policy is not the only way to run an immigration system, and it is far from the best way. If the prime minister wants to show that he is genuine in his proposal to work with devolved administrations, he should start by ensuring that immigration policy in Scotland reflects the demographic needs and political attitudes that predominate here.
Echoing this was another lengthy piece in the same edition headlined ‘Partnership of equals will teach people to love Union’. That one was penned by Michael Keating, Professor of Politics at Aberdeen University, and the key sections were these:
Westminster can’t wait out the fervour for a referendum. It must share power to win hearts…What could be more helpful to the unionist cause would be a more thorough rethinking of the Union itself….Instead of a hierarchical system in which Westminster “lends” power to Scotland, the Union might be seen as a partnership of equals.
Ceding power over immigration would be the most dramatic way of doing what this prof advocates. No nation can really claim to exercise anything close to sovereignty unless it controls its own borders. Nor, without some say over who gets to visit or stay within its territorial boundaries, can a country ever begin to confront the monumental challenges of an ageing population or the limitations to economic regeneration posed by severe skill shortages in parts of the labour market.
Is it practically feasible to devolve control of immigration to one only part of the United Kingdom? Absolutely, although it could have some dire consequences – especially when you consider this SNP Government’s record of screwing up almost everything for which it is currently responsible. Just ask any Québécois politician. Alone out of all of Canada’s ten provinces, Québec has been permitted to set its own bespoke criteria for selecting immigrants. Originally designed to reverse outward migration to investment magnets such as Toronto, the Ministère de l’Immigration, de la Francisation et de l’Intégration (MIFI) has always made a special effort to attract French-speaking immigrants in order to consolidate La Belle Province’s distinct cultural identity. Initially most of the francophone influx stemmed from Europe, but in recent years more have arrived from North Africa. One upshot has been sharp tension, especially in Montréal, over the amount of assimilation necessary. Hostilities reached a peak two years ago when the Québec government proposed to ban the wearing of veils by its Muslim employees.
Controlling immigration in a comparatively prosperous economy can be a constant nightmare, as any of the many former UK home secretaries can attest. To his credit, Kevin Pringle openly recognises this fact, acknowledging in his Sunday column that “such a development wouldn’t necessarily be pain-free for SNP ministers, as it would draw them into making decisions in what is a difficult, controversial area.” Devolving control of immigration from the Home Office to St Andrew’s House could bring some extremely tough judgement calls and excruciating dilemmas down the line for first ministers and and whoever they appoint as Cabinet Secretary for Immigration, Integration and Inclusivity (or some such PC ministerial portfolio). Don’t be surprised if we one day see repeats of the drama in Kenmure Street – but with Scottish, not home office, ministers cast as the arch villains. Maybe even, on occasions, hundreds of Scots amassed in the streets and creating a very hostile environment for unwanted immigrants.