Thursday, 18 September 2014

Scottish referendum 'disorder'? Don't predict a riot!

As I write this, the polls are now open for the referendum on whether Scotland decides to become an independent country and thousands of Scots are queuing to cast their vote. As an Englishmen living south of the border, I will refrain from offering an opinion on how the vote should go (although I suspect the Cornish half of me may yearn for greater devolution for Cornwall if the 'Yes' campaign wins!), but I do find the media predictions of possible 'disorder' after the vote rather annoying and irresponsible to say the least. For instance, on 15/9/14, The Independent reported that Scottish Police will be on 'high alert' after the result of the vote is declared on the morning of September 19th. More recently, The Times on 17/9/14 ran with the almost hysterical headline, 'Fears of mob violence as pubs open all night for vote count', and even the normally measured John Snow from Channel 4 News was asking guests in Edinburgh if they thought there was going to be 'trouble' after the vote. Such media speculation is insulting to the vast majority of Scots from both sides of the referendum debate who have conducted themselves in an overwhelmingly civilised (if at times impassioned) debate over the pros and cons of independence, and this speculation reflects what I think is a deep mistrust of people coming together en masse.Therefore, I will argue in this post that riots in the wake of the referendum result are not inevitable (or even likely), and that exaggerating the risk could even generate a self-fulfilling prophesy that increases the chances of any such disorder happening.

Illustration: Monica Burns

Comparisons with English examples
In a previous post I looked at two examples of recent urban disorder in Tottenham, London (the 1985 & 2011 riots). I argued that while both happened in a context of tension and strained community relations (both involved deaths at the hands of the Police, with Mark Duggan's shooting in 2011 sparking four days of rioting across England), neither riot happened straight after the incident, and there were also specific events that happened in the aftermath of each death that triggered the disorder. For instance, I felt it was crucial to explore how the crowds that gathered in response to these deaths interacted with the police, and that there were mistakes that the police made in managing the protests in each situation that triggered a riot. However, there were other similar situations where riots did not happen. So I argued that disorder in such tense situations is not inevitable, but that creating an atmosphere that emphasises the potential for disorder can make such disorder more likely to occur. The current situation in Scotland is clearly different in that there have thankfully been no fatalities related to the referendum debate. However, what I think is also interesting is that unlike the incidents in London where I argued that the Metropolitan Police seemed to go along with a media narrative emphasising the possibility of disorder in the aftermath of Mark Duggan's inquest, the Scottish Police so far seem to be trying to avoid following such a position. For instance, the Chairman of the Scottish Police Federation issued a Press Release on 17/9/14 that attempted to play down any risks of possible disorder, as illustrated in the following extract;

It was inevitable that the closer we came to the 18th of September passions would increase but that does not justify the exaggerated rhetoric that is being deployed with increased frequency. Any neutral observer could be led to believe Scotland is on the verge of societal disintegration yet nothing could be further from the truth... police officers have better things to do than officiate in spats on social media and respond to baseless speculation of the potential for disorder on and following polling day”

Historical comparisons- a 'Scottish Approach' to policing?
A quick look back at the history of Scottish urban disorder also raises some interesting issues. While researching for this post, I really struggled to find examples of recent widespread disorder in Scotland (thanks to those who helped with this search). For instance, the riots seen in England in 2011 and the early 1980s did not spread North of the border, and while there were mass campaigns of civil disobedience in Scotland against the hated Poll Tax, there were no riots like the one seen in London on 31/3/1990. Furthermore, the 2005 G8 Summit at the Gleneagles Hotel did attract some of the largest protests in central Scotland's history (resulting in over 700 arrests in total), but these were largely peaceful, and none seemed to result in widespread urban disorder.The most recent example I could find of a large riot in Scotland was the Battle of George Square in Glasgow 1919, where the local Police lost control of a crowd of up to 60,000 workers on strike and the British government deployed 10,000 soldiers supported by tanks (see photo below) so fearful were they of the Russian revolution spreading to Clydeside. Apparently local Glaswegian soldiers were not deployed because of the fear they might mutiny and join the strikers! To find another large riot in Scotland, I had to go back to the Tron riot in Edinburgh, Hogmanay 1811-12, where the wealthy inhabitants of the New Town were attacked by youths from the deprived Old Town, resulting in the death of a police officer and five youths subsequently being sentenced to death for their part in the riots. 

Tanks deployed after the battle of George Square, 1919

These historical examples lead on to the question of why Scottish cities have not seen similar outbreaks of the urban disorder that has happened in England in recent years, given that the underlying social contexts (such as deprivation, inequality, youth alienation, etc.) are often similar or worse than in the English communities where disorder occurred. Some observers have tried to address this issue, offering a variety of reasons why riots are less frequent in Scotland. For instance, in the aftermath of the 2011 riots, Marianne Taylor from the Guardian considered whether it was policing, urban planning, different gang cultures, or even bad weather in August 2011 that meant they didn't spread to Scottish inner cities. Gorringe & Rosie (2010) also looked at how national identities were manifested in the policing of the G8 Summit protests in 2005. The senior police officers they interviewed believed that the particular 'Scottish approach' used at the protests (a less confrontational approach, and reluctance to deploy specialist public order officers in riot gear etc.) contributed to the lack of widespread disorder, and they felt this set them apart from English policing. However, this view was not universally shared, and a member of the Scottish Socialist Party they interviewed rejected this notion of 'Scottish policing', arguing that they could be just as forceful as some English police forces are and equally alienated from the communities they police in some inner-city areas. Gorringe et al (2012) later looked at the policing of the 2009 NATO summit  in Edinburgh and concluded that while the police stated their intention was to 'facilitate lawful protest', this approach was not ultimately effective in practice, and 'frequently reverted to styles of policing designed to contain protest' . 

It's always risky making definitive predictions about whether or not disorder will occur before an event as there's always the chance that you will get it wrong! I also have to confess that there may well be gaps in my own knowledge of Scottish public order incidents which limit my ability to offer much more to this debate. However, from my own studies of crowd disorder in England, I would argue that how crowds interact with the police at specific incidents is crucial to our understanding of these events. So, in the unlikely event that any disorder does occur, it will be vital to forensically examine the chain of events leading up to each incident, rather than assuming that disorder was 'inevitable' in such contexts. I would also suggest that just because we are seeing an impassioned debate by the Scottish people about the future of their nation, this does not necessarily mean that they will begin rioting when the result is announced. Furthermore, it is irresponsible for the media to suggest on spurious (or even absent) evidence that we will see widespread disorder and 'mob violence'  in the aftermath of the vote on September 18th, and merely reiterates the deeply flawed views of collective processes that are prevalent in social discourse in general. I worry that there's also an element of implicit xenophobia in some of the English media as they seem to distrust the ability of Scots to come together peacefully after the result. One thing that I have heard mentioned by people from all sides of the debate is how proud they are of their fellow Scots for engaging in such widespread debate on this issue (often from a grass-roots level). So, whatever happens in this referendum, I think those of us South of the border should be inspired by this exercise in mass democracy, rather than fearing disorder in the aftermath of the referendum.    

Gorringe H and Rosie M (2010) The 'Scottish' Approach? The discursive construction of a national police force. The Sociological Review, 58 (1) p.65-83

Gorringe H, Rosie M, Waddington D & Kominou M (2012) Facilitating ineffective protest? The policing of the 2009 Edinburgh NATO protests. Policing & Society, 22 (2) p.115-132.