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.
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.
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.