I’ve watched Mo Farah compete as an athlete since his long white socks days and always thought he had a winner’s mentality. No one was more disappointed at him being caught on the line and relegated to silver medal position in the World Championship 10,000 km race today than the man himself. It was etched all over his face and I doubt he’ll allow it to be repeated at next year’s London Olympics.
His back story is fascinating – he is a living, breathing antidote to the racist overtones that dominate political discourse on and communities’ attitudes to immigration and refugees. Farah came to the UK at the age of ten, as a Somalian refugee. He is a Muslim – proud of his faith and openly demonstrates its importance in his life after every race. And he is proud to represent his adopted country, even though it has not always been kind to him and his family.
Farah personifies what a positive immigration policy can achieve, and what a country like Scotland can and should offer those who seek shelter and security here. A new life, safety, freedom from fear and violence, an opportunity to succeed, a better life – it’s not a huge amount to ask. Yet, as the tragic death of Simon San, and the subsequent handling of his murder case, has shown, the reality for many immigrants is far from our kailyard dream. We might have exported principles of equality and justice into other nations’ constitutions; we might also have applied such tenets to many aspects of our own law, especially since 1999; but we are very far from practising what we preach.
Far too many who come here and settle – for whatever reason – find and experience mistrust, abuse, isolation, poverty and violence. Racism is casual and slyly institutionalised in attitudes and practice, and is therefore much harder to pin down and eradicate. Policies and procedures talk the talk; agencies and individuals are reluctant to walk the walk, often because they don’t see why they should have to.
The reaction since Lothian and Border police concluded its investigation into its handling of the murder of Simon San has been illuminating. Its public apology was clearly heartfelt and well-meant, but is hard for the family to accept, representing “too little, too late”. Lessons have been learned, the police say, a review has been undertaken, changes have been made. Good. But why oh why does it always take a tragedy for our public institutions to do so? Race hate crime has been on our statute books for six years now, yet Lothian and Borders police officers apparently do not understand what might constitute an offence nor how to investigate it appropriately. Training is not a commonplace. Procedures for liaison with families where English is not the first language are loosely applied. No one bothered to check the quality of the San family’s interpreter.
None of this is expensive, none of it should be hard, but it is. We are talking about shifting ingrained attitudes, held by people almost sub-consciously, who do not see why such families should get “special treatment”, who see treating people fairly and respectfully as peripheral to the reasons why they joined the force. It’s an attitude not confined to the police and far too commonplace in other public agencies. Nor is it applied only to people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds – disabled people, older people, homosexuals and those with transgendered identities could all list similar instances where an agency or an individual in the public sector discriminated against them.
But at least the police have held their hands up and started the long slow process of cultural shift. The response of other institutions has been found wanting by comparison. The Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland QC decreed himself satisfied with the Crown Office’s handling of the case and that there was no need for an inquiry. Ergo, there will be no inquiry. Our Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill – in a trend that is becoming commonplace for this Scottish Government – had little to say on the issue, murmuring only that it was a matter for the Lord Advocate. I find it dispiriting that he can work himself into a lather over an attack by the Supreme Court on the independence of our legal institutions, yet have nothing to say or offer when those legal institutions are found wanting in how they serve the people of Scotland.
They may have thought it might all disappear but for the intervention of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice committee convenor, Christine Grahame MSP, who is calling for full explanations and threatening to drag the whole sorry bunch before her committee. Jim Eadie, MSP for Edinburgh Southern, has also stepped into the fray. Good on them and they must not stop at this single tragedy. For the suspicion exists – indeed, the anecdotal evidence suggests – that such failings might be at work in other parts of the country. A key issue to explore is what training is provided to officers by different forces and to pore over the detail of where hate crime charges are being laid, and where they are not being pursued by prosecutors. That little geographical and logistical exercise might provide a trail to follow.
This is uncomfortable territory for we, Jock Tamson’s bairns. But only by exposing failings, can we hope to change and to ensure that all our citizens know justice, compassion, fairness and equality, in all aspects of their lives. We’ve had Surjiit Chhokar and now we’ve had Simon San. Tragic and appalling cases – let there be no more.
In his speech to the SNP in March, the First Minister Alex Salmond suggested that the purpose of government was for “the rights of the ordinary to triumph over vested interests”. It’s time we started to see some evidence of that.