CONTEMPORARY SCOTTISH POLITICS may appear to be stuck in a perpetual loop – or a downward spiral. But there are glimmers of progress. Few seemed to notice, but the Scottish Government’s response to last Saturday’s Rangers riot marked a major shift in public discourse. Scotland’s leaders openly addressed what they called “anti-Catholic bigotry” without playing the equivocal game of condemning both sides of the “sectarian” divide.
The context was last weekend’s sorry spectacle, which painted Glasgow in the hues of John Carpenter or Mad Max. A section of Rangers fans seemed intent on “celebrating” by attacking everyone, their own kind included. One video, filmed outside Queen Street Station, appeared to show a posse of staunch Billy bears kicking at a fellow supporter lying prone on the pavement, allowing two young women in hijabs to flee the scene in terror. Another presented the unladylike spectacle of a Rangers supporting woman defecating in the street. And naturally, there were endless all-too familiar songs extolling famine.
Given all that, perhaps it’s not surprising that Holyrood is finally getting “woke” to our own problems. But sadly, even in acknowledging “anti-Catholic bigotry”, an element of convenient intellectual laziness endures. Much of the bigotry is less about Catholicism per se than about post-Famine Irish immigration. Given the overlaps between the two, this might appear as nit-picking. But the distinctions do make practical differences, both to people’s identities – that supposedly sacred concept of contemporary politics – and to understanding the underlying problem.
Like every Scottish person of Irish descent, I’ve experienced the gamut of name-calling: “taig”, “Fenian”, “gypsy” and all the rest. There’s nothing special about my case, except that my playground experiences had nothing to do with priests, Presbyterians or popes. I grew up entirely secular, went to a comprehensive school and first saw the inside of a Scottish Catholic church last week, at the grand old age of thirty-six. My “Irishness” was about my surname, my football team and my republican sympathies, not my religion.
I cite this merely as an illustration, rather than in an effort to elicit sympathy. The fact that I experienced anti-Irish bigotry doesn’t make my perspective correct or more valid than anyone else’s. I will also add that my own experience was neither especially severe nor equivalent to that of a black or Asian person in Scottish society.
But it does highlight the difference between anti-Catholicism and aversion to people of Irish immigrant descent. And such differences have political implications. Reduced to religion, it becomes a hatred equally bitter and irrational on both sides: a question of headbangers fighting cluelessly about the Reformation. The response becomes “anti-sectarian” legislation like the Offensive Behaviour Act. Questions of historic power disappear, in favour of a broad brush, cleansing sanctimoniousness.
Placed in its proper context of anti-migration hostility, Irishness becomes more troubling for the ruling ideology of “inclusive Scotland”. It becomes our own mode of socially-acceptable prejudice, drenched in euphemisms by a political class happy to condemn Brexit and performatively take a knee, but unwilling to expend political capital tackling bigotry against Scotland’s biggest historic migrant community.
It’s also too easy to moralise at the meatheads despoiling our streets. For this reason, I’m not inclined to punch down against the sad spectacle I saw on Byres Road of a man shouting, “No Surrender!”, one hand clutching a Tennent’s Super, the other groping down to an open fly. As Kevin McKenna observes, handwringing against the great unwashed, with zero sense of social context, only adds to the problem.
Scotland’s game of condemning “moronic minorities” risks shielding people in power. This was well summarised by Jim Spence, a football reporter whose media career suffered at the hands of well-connected Rangers elites. “‘Civic Scotland’ has ignored this, and thus acquiesced for too long,” Spence observes. “Oh and by the way if you upset them they still have ways of making sure you don’t pick up a microphone again with their connections. Their reach is long as is their memory and patience. If you think the morons on the ground are the only one’s responsible think again.”
It’s surely a stain on our society that we punish Celtic fans for what should be virtuous behaviours, like expressing solidarity with Palestinians, remembering their roots in the Irish Famine or celebrating immigrant identities. Glasgow must be the only city with a major Irish population that can’t have a St Patrick’s Day parade.
The fact that “multicultural Scotland” cannot swallow the identity of its biggest immigrant community should surely give us pause for thought. Doubtless there are Scottish Catholic morons just as there are Protestant morons, Jewish morons and Muslim morons. But that shouldn’t disguise inequalities of power between majorities and minorities.
Equally, if you’re making this about the drunk and disorderly, you’re missing the point. The problems here are backslapping suits on Scotland’s moneyed golf courses, and handwringing liberal elites who just want to inoculate themselves against the stain of complicity. “Anti-sectarianism” can also be part of the problem, especially when it blinds us to questions of social class and migration in favour of cleansing moralism.