STUC anti-Racism rally: First Minister’s speech - 25 November 2023

First Minister’s speech to Scottish Trades Union Congress’s (STUC) annual St Andrew’s Day anti-racism rally held on 25 November 2023.

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Thank you very much, Talat, for that very kind introduction. Can I congratulate you, pay tribute to you, to all of the STUC in particular, and of course the Black Workers Committee for the incredible work that you do, year on year on year. I am absolutely delighted to be here with you today. Not my first time at all by any stretch of the imagination, at the St Andrew’s Day Anti-Racism rally. 

I was reflicting on my very first STUC anti-racism rally. There was a certain chap, you might have heard of him, called Dave Moxham, who handed me a yellow bib - many years ago, my first one as a teenager. He handed me a bib and said ‘can you steward’, I said ‘I’m not a member of the STUC’, he said ‘you are now.’

I thank all those who have done stewarding duties today and who have organised today’s rally. I also am here not just because I've come in the past, but I think it's more important now to be here than ever before.

Because this annual event gives us the opportunity to rededicate ourselves, to recommit ourselves to the fight against racism and against fascism. And that's really important for us to do, because unfortunately, in the last year, we have seen horrific examples of the mobilization of the far right.

Talat highlighted some of those happening across the globe, and let’s be in no doubt whatsoever in Scotland and across the UK we too must be vigilant. But for me, coming here is not just my professional duty, to me it’s very personal. I've spoken about this before, but if you'll indulge me, perhaps once again, because I remember, and I suspect Anas will remember well, and anybody who is Muslim, that post 9/11 life felt really difficult for Muslims.

If you had a beard, if you were like my sisters and my mother and wore a hijab – my sister had stones thrown at her coming off a train. We were called terrorists, we were asked if we were related to Bin Laden, were we part of the Taliban. All that Islamophobia that we faced, I can see that post-9/11, the days, weeks, and months after 9/11, for the first time in my life as a teenager, I felt like I didn't belong.

I felt like Scotland maybe wasn't my home. And I remember organising anti Islamophobia demonstrations with someone might know, you might have heard of, called Aamer Anwar. Together we organised demonstrations against Islamophobia and who was right by our side every step of the way? The STUC and the trade union movement. Every single step of the way. At every single demonstration, at every single march, at every single town hall meeting, the trade union movement stood up and was counted.

And for that I thank you because you helped this Muslim, Asian, brown boy feel like he belonged once again in the only country he’d ever called home. So for that I'm very personally, eternally grateful. And why did you do that? Why did you turn up time and time again? Why did we all turn up, why do we attend rallies like this?

We do so because human rights, because equality is in the DNA of the trade union movement, and I would suggest it’s in the DNA of every good-minded Scot and every good-minded person and that is the vast, overwhelming majority of this country. And herein perhaps lies the  lesson that whichever community needs us wherever they are in Scotland or abroad, we stand shoulder to shoulder with them.

I will always - this is my commitment and my pledge to you - I will always raise my voice for those who are facing hatred who need someone to amplify their voice, whether it's at home or whether it’s abroad and I will do that even if I am the only lone voice. Thankfully with the trade union movement I very rarely am.

Let’s say that clearly to the people of Gaza, parents who have seen their children killed. The children didn’t die they didn’t pass away, the children that were killed. And to those children who have been orphaned. Be in no doubt whatsoever that Scotland, and our trade union movement, we stand with you. And not only do we stand with you, we demand more of humanity than a humanitarian pause. We demand more than after four days on day five the killing resumes again. We demand more than simply resuming the killing of children. And that's why I, and I’m pleased that I’m joined by the majority of the Scottish Parliament and I know the overwhelming majority of Scottish society. We demand a ceasefire and we demand one now. And we demand a ceasefire because we believe in peace.

I’m not naïve, nobody in this room is naïve, peace will very difficult. But you know what even if it’s hard, and the alternative is children being killed, if that’s the choice I choose the hard road every every single time. And for me, for the Scottish Government, a long term peace means a truly two state solution. And that's why now is the time for the UK Government and the international community, to immediately recognise the state of Palestine. Because we cannot say that we believe in two states but only recognise one state.

We must have a viable equal Palestinian state alongside, of course, a peaceful Israel too, coexisting in that peace. That is a good solution for Palestinians, and a good solution for Israelis as well. And while that conflict may seem very far away, thousands of miles away, we've seen the repercussions at home. Who couldn’t be moved by the testimony of the family of Bernard Cowan, killed in that terror attack by Hamas. Who couldn’t be moved by hearing of what a good character Bernard was as a husband, as a father, as a grandfather. Who couldn’t be moved by Dr Ibrahim Khadra’s heart-breaking testimony of losing not 10, not 50, but 70 members of his extended family. Who couldn't be moved? But so too then must we  be vigilant here at home of the ripples that have been caused by that devastating conflict. Because we know, as Talat rightly said, there will always be those in society who will look to exploit any situation for their own nefarious purposes. And they will do that here at home, in Scotland.

So to our Jewish community from this Asian, Muslim, brown boy who once felt alienated, who felt like he didn't belong, who felt like maybe the world was turning against him, let me say to our Jewish community, Scotland is absolutely your home and we stand with you against anti-Semitism and hatred in any form. For me, there is a very simple message, we reject hatred, we reject racism, we reject anti-Semitism, we reject Islamophobia, in every single form it exists.

And of course, we must be vigilant, as the scenes in Dublin showed us in the last couple of days, and I was there when those scenes were unfolding. We should be vigilant because of what we see across Europe and across the world. But so too must we be vigilant of racism here and I pay tribute too to the family of Sheku Bayoh. When I was Justice Secretary I was the one, and I was pleased to be able to instruct the public inquiry because justice had not been done for Sheku, so I applaud the efforts of the Sheku Bayoh family and I hope that you get what you deserve, which of course is answers. And that is all you've ever asked. And I met with Bayoh family on many occasions, all they ever asked for was answers. Of course I won't say more because it’s a live public inquiry, but I hope you get the answers that you so desperately deserve and require.

So let me end by saying to all of you here, you have my absolute personal commitment to stand with you against hatred, racism, in all of its forms that it exists.

Those barriers will not be broken down by any one individual, whether it's politicians or anybody else. The beauty of our trade union movement is that we are a collective. So it is a collective effort of every single one of us to explore, to acknowledge, to recognise the institutional and overt barriers that exist, that stop progress for minorities in this country in particular. And let me give you a solemn promise that as you dismantle those barriers, as you smash those barriers, then I will be with you every single step of the way.

Thank you very much.

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