Why Edinburgh Council’s got it wrong on Henry Dundas – Nick Cook
I remember once being asked by a childhood friend why my mum’s skin was that bit darker than his mum’s. A question innocently posed. Yet I didn’t know how to react.
My great grandma was Indian and her genes were certainly present, to some degree, in my mum.
A person’s skin colour just wasn’t something deemed worthy of discussion in our house, so I’d never given it any real thought.
My mum and her siblings were called some of the racist names you might imagine would exist in a working-class Scottish town 50 years ago.
Thankfully society has come a long way, if not far enough. The prevalence of recent anti-racism protests on the back of the appalling murder of the African American man George Floyd show this.
The extremist elements of the Black Lives Matter movement are regrettable and the systemic racism pervading American society is a distinct issue. But the fundamental anti-racist message that many took to the streets to demonstrate is fundamentally important.
It is verging on the embarrassing then that here in Edinburgh, where focus has landed on addressing our Capital’s links with slavery, that the council can’t even take the time to erect a factually accurate plague beneath the Melville Monument.
Ever keen to jump on a bandwagon, the SNP/Labour administration instead opted to consult narrowly on wording to acknowledge the contentious figure that was Henry Dundas.
This despite having prevaricated for years on action to educate the public on the 1st Viscount Melville.
Controversy stems around Dundas’s decision to insert the world “gradually” into a 1792 parliamentary motion to abolish slavery and whether it was intended to maintain the trade – or offer a more realistic path to abolition.
Yes, sir Geoff Palmer was consulted, but substantive submissions were made to the council detailing the complexity of Dundas’s record by historians including Sir Tom Devine, Professor Brian Young and Michael Fry.
But apparently Councillors Adam McVey, Cammy Day and their colleagues really know more on such matters. Who knew?
The result is a plaque which at best offers an overly simplistic view and at worst, presents blatant untruths.
Moves are afoot to tackle or erase the legacy of other controversial figures too, like James Gillespie. Gillespie made his fortune selling tobacco from slave plantations. He funded the city high school bearing his name.
The mistakes of the past will only be properly rectified if they can be accurately understood by those in the present.
Having waited decades to begin to right the wrongs of society past, my Conservative colleagues and I have stressed the need to do two things.
The first, was to ask that the council’s new review group into the Capital’s slavery links recruits a chair in public and that its membership be approved by councillors.
The second aimed to ensure we don’t see a repeat of the debates that have surrounded the Melville Monument process. A breadth of historians must have their expertise engaged.
Sadly, Cllr McVey’s administration just isn’t listening, on account of who is putting forth the suggestions.
Rushing this important process will fail to properly educate most people. And moves to simply airbrush from history those figures with links to the slave trade will educate nobody at all. A mature, intelligent approach is essential.
So too the need to positively recognise BAME figures in Edinburgh’s history – like the story of former South Morningside Primary teacher Saroj Lal, which was recently covered in this paper.
Political parties, of all colours, must also do more to return a more ethnically representative Council chamber at the next election.
Cllr Nick Cook represents Morningside Ward. He leads on Policy and Political Strategy for the Conservative Group