Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow
© Getty Images / PA Images / Andrew Milligan
Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow
Politicians in Glasgow want to erase part of the city's history by renaming major streets. But this won't make up for the mistakes of the past, so why bother?

We can't change the past. That statement is so ubiquitous, it's become a cliche. However, it fits so much of what's happening now in the wake of George Floyd's killing.

Glasgow in Scotland was the Second City of the British Empire, back when it stretched so far across the globe the sun never set on it. Its positioning on a major river — the Clyde — meant it was a gateway for international trade to and from the Americas for the likes of sugar, cotton and tobacco.

The merchants who controlled the trade became extremely wealthy individuals. Their former mansions now define most of the modern centre of the city, and remain impressively imposing structures.

Glasgow's main shopping thoroughfare, Buchanan Street, is named after tobacco trader Andrew Buchanan. Other passages owe their names to merchants including Archibald Ingram, Alexander Oswald, Andrew Cochrane and John Glassford.

The city's dominating St Andrew's Parish Church, today hailed for its architecture, was paid for by these tobacco lords.

Calls for change

Now some in Glasgow want to see these gentlemen's names erased from all streets and buildings. They feel their fingerprints are stained with blood, because the goods that enriched them left the Caribbean to be sold via ships which then returned full of slaves from Africa to work on the plantations.

It can't be argued that the trade in humans was anything other than horrific. No excuses can make this right.

On Friday, the popular Glasgow Times newspaper featured a headline "City Must Be Honest On Slavery Merchants."

The article reported on an initiative by the Scottish government's Minister for Trade, Ivan McKee, to start the renaming process as part of the Black Lives Matter campaign. He said: "It has always been an issue, but George Floyd's death has brought it to the fore."

What is troubling is that no one in the city was ever dishonest about these merchants. A search online or a look at any history book lays bare who they were and what they did.

The wave of activism following the protests in America has no effect on history. Even if the world was completely free of racism today, it wouldn't change what happened hundreds of years ago.

So why are we bothering to discuss it?

Scared of the woke police

White politicians and leaders are naturally walking on eggshells, mindful of not saying the wrong thing so the woke police don't jump on them.

The thing is, for anyone with a sense of justice and integrity, it shouldn't be an effort not to be racist.

I come from Glasgow and have walked the streets named after all of these men countless times. At no point have I ever felt they represented me.

Should we bulldoze the Pyramids because they were built by slaves? Should we ban all Elvis records because he appropriated black music?

Once we start going back and retrospectively correcting things, we enter dangerous territory. What may be abhorrent to one group, may not be to another. Who would decide where that line was? Plus it's tokenism.

If we get new plaques manufactured and rip down the old ones on Buchanan Street, what does that do for the slaves?

Absolutely nothing.

The names being up there don't glorify slavery. The clamour for their removal just highlights the fact that many white people who initiate these kinds of campaigns want to be seen to be correcting a wrong. But they're hamsters on a wheel, going nowhere and achieving nothing.

By all means discuss history and highlight issues to kids in schools. Education is key. But this concept of the White Knight riding in to fix Black Problems makes it feel like we're back in colonial times.

Arrogant attitude

Black communities don't need the names of streets changed to prosper or feel respected. Attitudes like that smack of arrogance.

If racism exists in a society or organisation, it needs to be rooted out and extinguished. Trying to do that by changing the names of things is akin to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic as it sunk. Pointless.

A more positive step that could be taken is to embrace the legacy of someone like Sheku Bayoh. He was a black man who never regained consciousness after being restrained by Scottish police in 2015.

The officers responded to calls he had a knife, but when they arrived he was unarmed. However, CS spray, leg restraints and batons were used to subdue him. The incident is still being investigated.

After watching the arrest of George Floyd, Bayoh's sister Kadi Johnson said: "I relived the whole situation again."

Wouldn't a much better use of effort and resources be to bear this in mind the next time a major new road is being planned in Scotland? Then one day some young kid could walk down Sheku Bayoh Boulevard and ask their parents: "Who is that?"

We can't change the past, but we can make the future brighter. To find a better destination, you have to know where you're coming from.
Chris Sweeney is an author and columnist who has written for newspapers such as The Times, Daily Express, The Sun and Daily Record, along with several international-selling magazines. Follow him on Twitter @WritesSweeney