Scotland’s Culture of Colluding with Violence

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, March 20th 2019

Scotland was once infamous for its reputation and reality as a violent place. This was associated with all sorts of potent, demeaning caricatures of the angry, aggressive Scot, but underlying these images Scotland did have a problem.

We had a culture of all too pervasive violence, a high murder rate with Glasgow earning the moniker ‘murder capital of Europe’, a problem with knife crime, and a wider attitude that it was too often permissible to solve differences by violence, including widespread violence against children.

Much has changed and we have come far. But while we have had significant successes in tackling knife crime, in reducing our murder rate, and generally in addressing violence in Glasgow we still have in too many places an attitude that excuses and accepts violence in our society. This can be seen for example in the ongoing debate about smacking children.

A parliamentary bill before Holyrood, being championed by Green MSP John Finnie and backed by the government, aims to ban the smacking of children. This has started a major national debate – some of it informed, insightful and shaped by a concern for what we do to best bring up our children, to build relationships of support and compassion, and to put in places resources to aid parents, families and the wider community to aid this.

Sadly, though not all of the public debate is informed by such noble aims. Kevin McKenna, writing in ‘The Herald’ recently, took exception to the smacking ban calling it ‘part of an insidious and long-term exercise by Holyrood’ which is ‘about seeking to form Scotland in the image of a humanist fantasy.’ In the strange world of McKenna’s imagination, ‘decent parents would be criminalised, children’s lives would be damaged and the law brought into disrepute’. You get the idea – children would be ‘damaged’ by this law if it was passed, not by being beaten or subject to violence.

Outflanking the above was Stuart Waiton in ‘The Times’. He is Scotland’s lone representative of ‘Spiked’ – committed contrarians for libertarianism and against state control and the descendants of the discredited ‘Living Marxism’ journal who had to shut up shop after claiming that ITN had fabricated stories of Serbian genocide in the Yugoslav civil war.

Waiton’s piece had the usual ‘Spiked’ tropes, going on at length about ‘a separation between the mass of the people and politicians who think it is their job to make us “aware”’. He states that one of the arguments for this law is that ‘it will help change our beliefs and behaviour’ and asks: ‘since when was it the job of politicians to determine our behaviour?’ This is a leading question: determine no; but lead, shape, and cajole, as they have done from time immemorial – from the first factory acts to the welfare state and the creation of the NHS. The sort of thing ‘Living Marxism’ used to dismiss with arrogance as reformist deviation.

The numerous professional groups and experts who gave evidence to Holyrood are dismissed by Waiton. Listen to them, he writes, and ‘we get a sense of a new rather aloof elite in Scottish society. Many of these experts are what some have described as ‘glove puppets’ – individuals from organisations that are set apart from the public and who are funded by the government’. Now here there is a genuine issue about how a small sized country does democracy in practice and the issue of co-option and incorporation, but the answer isn’t, Michael Gove-like, to dismiss expert opinion and instead draw on anecdote.

What McKenna and Waiton don’t cite, either because they don’t know or don’t want to, is the transformative change that has been going in Scotland – in society, in attitudes and behaviours, and in professional debate. Therefore, in the last decade Scotland has become a major success story in how it has reduced the murder rate and dramatically cut the prevalence of knife crime. Glasgow has gone from being ‘the murder capital of Europe’ to being known for turning itself around.

As telling in a host of other related areas, Scotland is making startling progress. We now spend less monies on murders, hence resources can be shifted to prevention and addressing causes not symptoms. We have led the field in breakthroughs in understanding and challenging violence, while locating that in work on the importance of trauma, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and resilience.

A leading influencer in this has been the psychologist Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk, who is passionate and committed to the potential of Scotland becoming what she describes as an ‘ACE aware nation’. Talking to me about the debate on smacking children Zeedyk says:

In effect, our culture isn’t kind to children.  It is grown-up interpretations that count, not children’s.  So we end up treating children as if their humanity matters less than our own.  It turns out that many of our relations with children are based on power and control.  We have even told ourselves that it is permissible to use physical force to retain that control.

How a society treats its children reveals a lot about the character and values of a country. For many decades Scotland liked to turn a blind eye to the fact that we were not only not children friendly, but actually hostile and scared of them, wanting as adults and institutions to keep them in their place and punish them.

If anyone thinks that is too much of an overstatement, Scotland only banned belting children in state schools in 1987 and this came about as a result of two mothers threatening to take the authorities to the European Court of Human Rights. And this culture and set of attitudes isn’t all in the distant past. Only last year, the esteemed ‘Guardian’ writer Ian Jack made light of the damage caused by belting and being systematically violent to children in the education system in the past: an outlook which provoked responses by myself and Carol Craig and an avalanche of commentary, which seemed to indicate a tsunami of repressed sentiment on the subject.

A recent survey in the ‘British Medical Journal Paediatrics Open’ found that 22% of children in Scotland regularly experienced violence, the vast majority at the hands of their parents at their home. Here is the sort of proof that the opponents of the smacking ban deliberately close their eyes to. That we have come far, but still have a long road to travel in overcoming our long, dark legacy of violence and brutality to each other and to children, either at the hands of the state or in the quiet of people’s homes.

Dr. Zeedyk thinks that we have made immense progress, but still have much to do: ‘Our thinking has changed over decades and it is no longer acceptable to hit any other ‘group’ of human beings, yet we are still discussing whether it is acceptable for big grown-ups to hit little children.’

She believes that in too many places we are content to tell ourselves that we are the good guys and that what we do doesn’t cause harm or inflict long term damage on children, who it is our duty to protect: ‘We tell ourselves it doesn’t hurt them, over the long term.  Ironically, we don’t tell ourselves the same is acceptable for grown-ups.’

Our society is still in too many places scathing of listening to and respecting the rights, interests and voices of children. We are too scared to open up and address the decades and indeed centuries of violence, neglect and abuse, which authorities – from the state education system to professionals and churches – inflicted systematically on generation after generation of our children, and at what cost to them as individuals and us as a society.

This is as important a subject as whether Scotland becomes an independent country: how we look after and care for our children. And still in too many places, including in supposedly progressive independence and left-wing opinion, we have deference to systems of male dominance and repression, which are founded on the idea that women, children and emotions are some kind of threat, and that the idea of humanism is a revolutionary Trojan horse undermining the sacred cows of religious authoritarianism. It also true that we still have to address the damaging effects of self-destructive masculinity on too many people in our country, and that some men would still rather shy away from this.

To do so is not a good stance for the Scotland of the 21st century. We have come a long away, banishing many taboos and repressive taboos, but still have much to do: exorcising ghosts, confronting the legacy of punitive authoritarianism, and challenging the illiberalism of those who still won’t confront what was done in our name in the past or change in the present.