In 1989 local and international events impacted on Scotland’s cosy and corrupt political world. In the German Democratic Republic, dissident protests intensified after the China’s communist party’s massacre of protesters in June. With the opening up of Hungary and Poland, mass demonstrations took place in the GDR which led to police assaults, riots and thousands of arrests. In the end the rulers of the GDR chose not to use the Chinese solution. People power and mass mobilisation had toppled a communist regime and inspired social justice and human rights campaigners around the world. In the same year, and with no sense of irony, Margaret Thatcher began to test out the Poll Tax in Scotland - a year before it was to be imposed in the rest of the UK. Of the then seventy two MPs then representing Scotland in the UK parliament, only ten were Conservatives.
In Scotland, the SNP’s Jim Sillars had made non-payment of the Poll Tax a central plank of his by-election victory in late 1988. Many labour councillors were also initially vocal in their opposition to the Poll Tax. A mass movement aligned to the wider UK Anti-poll Tax Federation organised demonstrations and protest across Scotland leading to a massive and effective campaign of non-payment. Yet Scotland’s political establishment quickly resorted back to its usual default mode. The SNP leadership huffed and puffed and eventually came out with a half arsed aye, naw, mibbe, if only we wur independent blah blah blah response. Fuelled by its own fear and hatred of dissent, the Labour Party machine’s response was far worse: those who would not pay would be forced to pay, even if that meant breaking into people’s homes, removing their goods and selling them at auction.
These poindings were not particularly cost effective, but that was not their primary function. The function of a poinding was to publicly shame an individual and spread fear to other non-payers. Inevitably attempted poindings were met with mass resistance and most were abandoned. Tommy Sheridan’s leadership in the campaign led to his being arrested and jailed. In response, Glaswegians elected him a Glasgow councillor. As the hatred and resistance to the Poll Tax increased, Labour party councils became more reluctant to confront dissidents. Some poindings did succeed. But only temporarily. One of the scariest moments for me during that time was when I helped liberate goods from an auction house whilst on bail for campaigning against the M77 motorway.
Another issue facing Scots in the 1990s was the new trident nuclear warheads being stockpiled in Scotland. Contempt for human rights and dignity is monstrously amplified by the stockpiling of nuclear weapons. The history of the fifty years from the end of the Second World War to the mid-1990s showed one thing above all others: having a nuclear arsenal gave a nation the freedom to use massive conventional violence without fear of sanction or intervention. This violence could be used directly by the nuclear nations or through client regimes. But the lynchpin to the tens of million murders and maimings of the second half of the twentieth century were those massive nuclear weapon stock piles. Since the 1960s, the United Kingdom’s nuclear submarine fleet and its stockpile of weapons had been stored in Scotland. In 1994 the new Trident system replaced the older Polaris weapons. As convoys of the new nuclear warheads travelled through Scotland they were met by protests and blockades that grew bigger as the decade went on.
But before examining the 1990s in detail, it is well to remember that state power impacted, and continues to impact, on people’s lives in ways that refuse to be fitted into a Scots government versus UK government dichotomy. Away from the big street protests, blockades, and occupations, there were other events in Scotland that showed with terrible and awful clarity that issues of tolerance and social justice were not just a vague political abstraction: they were in fact matters of life and death. The death of Shkander Singh in Stewart Street police station in 1994 suggested a deep rooted and violent racism was embedded in Scotland’s police service. Equally, the suicides in Corton Vale prison pointed to a contempt and hatred of vulnerable women in Scotland’s prison service. These deaths and the issues raised by them were felt across Scotland – though it is arguable that no adequate response has yet been made by the state insitutions – and across political lines. One of the most moving responses to the Courton Vale deaths was the speech by John McFall, Labour MP for Dumbarton.
Now read Part Eight: People Power
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