Love your inner Ulster-Scot, US style…

ONE of the most important and closest battles in the recent US Senate elections was in Virginia, where Jim Webb eventually won his key seat for the Democrats by a small margin. Webb managed to tap into a vein of resentment felt by the so-called ‘rednecks’ he was appealing to, and successfully exploited his ‘Scotch-Irish’ (‘Ulster-Scots’) heritage to his electoral advantage. Unionist parties in Northern Ireland, including the DUP, have rarely played the ‘Ulster-Scots card’ (preferring the traditional Orange one), but would even the success of Webb’s rather one-dimensional “Love your inner Ulster Scot” message work in his ancestral homeland?When I say ‘one-dimensional’, his book ‘Born Fighting: How The Scots-Irish Shaped America’ – which attempts to debunk the stereotypical perception of the Scots-Irish in America as “Rednecks. Trailer-park trash. Racists. Cannon fodder” – wouldn’t be averse to generalisations either. Webb depicts the Scots-Irish as politically incorrect, individualistic, critical of authority, anti-establishment, God-fearing and prone to military service, while he himself has been criticised for his conservative views on, for example, women and homosexuality. Here’s a quote from some of his election literature:

“The Scots-Irish were pushed out of Scotland, battled Catholics in Ireland, came to the US where they fought everyone from native Americans to the French and were packed overseas to fight the Germans, the Viet Cong and the Iraqis and what do you have to show for it? You’re treated as Bible-thumping rednecks by cultural elitists in Hollywood, New York and Washington.”

But – like all successful political messages – it attracted voters because it was simple and hit a chord. Local author Billy Kennedy said “Down in Virginia – you go through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia rowing into the southwest of Virginia – it’s teeming with Scots-Irish/Ulster-Scots. They’re there in big numbers and that vote certainly is there, and I would have thought he tapped in well”, while one reviewer of ‘Born Fighting’ wrote:

The fact is that the Scots-Irish culture is so populist and assimilative that other ethnic groups have gravitated toward it. Accordingly it arguably has become America’s strongest cultural force.

Here’s a quote from Webb’s Born Fighting taken from the review I linked to just above:

The Scots-Irish (sometimes called the Scotch-Irish) are all around you, even though you probably don’t know it. They are a force that shapes our culture, more in the abstract power of emotion than through the argumentative force of law. In their insistent individualism, they are not likely to put an ethnic label on themselves when they debate societal issues. Some of them don’t even know their ethnic label, and some who do don’t particularly care. They don’t go for group-identity politics any more than they like to join a union. Two hundred years ago the mountains built a fierce and uncomplaining self-reliance into an already hardened people. To them, joining a group and putting themselves at the mercy of someone else’s collective judgment makes as much sense as letting the government take their guns. And nobody is going to get their guns.

Sean O’Driscoll wrote in his Tele article:

It’s a message that has proved to be political dynamite in the Republican heartland, leaving many Republicans and moderate Democrats to ask why they didn’t tap into this resentment a long time ago.

After Webb’s election, it’s unlikely that this plain-speaking section of the US electorate – which, IIRC, previously helped Bush into the White House – will be ignored in the future.

However, it certainly hasn’t been something that’s been played up much in Northern Ireland, with the perception of Ulster-Scots as a joke (see Lord Laird for details) and a political sop for uppity Prods who felt they needed a ‘balance’ against the Irish language lobby’s success in sucking out government funding. Where it has perhaps had a unifying effect on Webb’s voters, in Northern Ireland, unionists have never really been able to emulate the Senator’s ability to turn Ulster Scots culture into votes.

  • David

    Wir dae will come!

  • mark

    At last the plastic-presby (fundamentalist division) is born.

    The links and quotes are self endorsing but very funny, all based on the most important book of 2004. LOL (for real)

    The electoral influence aspect seems a little dubious given the defeat of these far right fundamentalists. But selling extremist protestant anti-homosexual, anti-gay, anti-women politics shouldn’t be blamed on the Ulster Scots, unless they want to claim him as their own.

    Would you want him as an advocate? Seriously?

    An excellent and well linked blog though – more please.

  • fair_deal

    Congrats to Jim Webb.

    While Senator Jim Webb is proud of his Ulster-Scots roots and it is something he has a deep personal interest in, I seriously doubt that it can be claimed to be THE cause of his success.

    Also the willingness of large chunks of the Democratic Party to listen to his analysis of a key group in the central and southern states of the USA is probably low. Even though if they did it would assure them of the White House in 2008.

    As regards the failure of the UUP and DUP to play an Ulster-Scot card the answer to that is simple, most Unionist politicians don’t understand or realise the power of culture.

    Inside the DUP, Nelson McCausland ploughs an often lonely furrow on the issue of Ulster-Scots and culture generally.

    The cultural viewpoint of the UUP is dominated by ‘Irish’ Unionists while Lord Laird wasted everyone’s time and taxpayers money during his years as the Agency chair and McGimpsey sat on his ass when he was minister.

  • james orr

    Webb’s politics aside for a moment, “Born Fighting” is the best summary of the Ulster-Scots experience that’s been written in the last hundred years – better that Woodburn’s “The Ulster Scot” (1914), Leyburn’s “The Scotch Irish” (1962) and Henry Ford’s “The Scotch Irish in America” (1915)

    Coupled with Jim Goad’s incendiary “The Redneck Manifesto”, put “Born Fighting” on your Christmas list. Absolutely superb.

  • Darren Mac an Phríora

    How much do it cost for a taxi ride from Belfast to Dublin again?

  • mark

    ^

    Seems they want to claim the bigot.

    Good luck with him.

  • Shuggie McSporran

    Belfast Gonzo

    “…in Northern Ireland, unionists have never really been able to emulate the Senator’s ability to turn Ulster Scots culture into votes.”

    What, in the name of heaven, are you talking about?

    Are you claiming Ulster Scots in NI are not unionists, and don’t vote unionist? That’s news to me (maybe they’ve been voting republican and I never noticed:).

    Or is it that they do indeed vote unionist (as everybody knows), but only for political reasons – whereas unionists politicians should forget politics and canvas the people who already vote for them on folkgates heirskip issues.

    Am I alone in finding your observation a bit surreal?

  • Billy

    This is a joke.

    Webb won his seat (just) because the Republican voters in Virginia were protesting mostly about Iraq and also some other issues that they feel the Bush administration is too liberal on.

    His opponent also dropped a couple of real “clangers” – one comment which was perceived as racist and the perception that he was disowning the Jewish element of his ancestry.

    This Ulster Scots rubbish is totally irrelevant.

    Virginia is traditionally a Republican seat. Once the Republicans sort themselves out and define an exit strategy for Iraq, this seat will revert back to them at the next election.

  • Frustrated Democrat

    Billy

    I suspect the election in Virginia wasn’t won on Iraq, it was probably won on the economy and falling living standards first and Iraq second, not to mention a bad Republican campaign.

    In addition the fact the Jim Webb is a man of the people and openly Scots Irish ‘Born Fighting’ candidate didn’t do him any harm at all and probably got him the extra 10,000 votes he needed to win.

  • Brian Boru

    I think that even if there was a potential well of support from this quarter for the Unionists, that their politicians are too insular and suspicious of the outside world to take advantage of it. Furthermore most of these “Scots-Irish” came over at a time when the ancestors of Presbyterian Unionists regarded themselves as Irish rather than British (e.g. in the late 1700’s when many were Republican), and in that context many would not identify with Unionism. And polls in the US show that the group identifying as “Scots-Irish/Ulster Scots” in the US is probably only 10% of those identifying as Irish-American.

  • Frustrated Democrat

    Brian Boru

    It is interesting to note of those who could call themselves Irish (about 40m) only 10m are of Catholic Irish decent the rest being Scots Irish.

    The main reason seems to be that the Scots Irish got there 100 years earlier and had 4 generations in place by the time of the famine.

    Of course the vast majority of Scots Irish do not cling to their heritage in the way that Catholic Irish do, maybe time has dulled their heritage.

  • Wilde Rover

    The ones that left produced presidents of the founding republic of the modern world, the ones that stayed produced monarchists who are loyal to their head of state as long as they remain Protestant.

    I fail to see any cultural connection.

  • darth rumsfeld

    The ones that left created the US constitution based on their negative experiences of an undemocratic Protestant acendancy and thus rooted power in the idea of a contract betwen governed anf government.
    The ones that stayed are criticised for their alleged conditional loyalty to the monarchy based on ..er the idea of a contract between the governed and the government.

    So no connection there then

  • kensei

    “So no connection there then”

    It just goes to show you can twist anything if you are deluded enough. There is no way you can compare the Republicanism and commitment to democracy in the US (at least within the country; they vote for absolutely everything), to the nonsense that goes on here.

    I would argue that there is a cultural connection but it’s more to do with attitude than ideology.

  • Rtj

    Billy,
    Some factual errors you may wish to correct

    ‘Webb won his seat (just) because the Republican voters in Virginia were protesting mostly about Iraq and also some other issues that they feel the Bush administration is too liberal on.’

    Webb won his seat the same way mosy politician do, by regaining the middle ground. It was the swing of the independants that got him the required votes, not turncoats Republicans. The war was the number one issue, but people were not protesting against Bush’s policies being ‘too liberal’, ratehr the opposite.

    ‘His opponent also dropped a couple of real \u201cclangers\u201d – one comment which was perceived as racist and the perception that he was disowning the Jewish element of his ancestry.’

    Lets set this straight. His comments about the maccaca, and disowning his jewish heritage ARE racist. There is no need for a perception to make his comments racist.

    ‘Virginia is traditionally a Republican seat. Once the Republicans sort themselves out and define an exit strategy for Iraq, this seat will revert back to them at the next election.’

    Wrong. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_Senators_from_Virginia
    Also remember that Webb himself is a converted Republican – he was on Reagan’s army staff.

    I also agree with James Orr, his book ‘Born Fighting’ is a great read. It summarizes the Irish immigration (in which I include both ulster scots and the multiple later irish catholic immigrations) and influence on American politics.

    Now in saying all this, I have several problems with his comments on homosexuality and women. However being politics, all we can really do is try to encourage the ‘least worst’ candidate to get into office and then discourage their bad aspects. It looks like Webb will be concentrating on a way to decrease the social divide (high minimum wage, better health care) and wrap up this war – both positive aspects.

    Rtj

  • Greenflag

    Webb was elected for the same reason that Congressman Patrick Murphy was elected in Pennsylvania -opposition to the war, opposition to the Bush presidency , greed and corruption in the Republicans etc etc .

    Congressman Murphy is the only elected member of the House to have actually served in Iraq -two tours of duty .

    Murphy although much younger than Webb also voted for Bush in 2000 .

    Some people learn from their mistakes .It would appear that Webb and Murphy belong to that category . As for Northern Ireland’s ‘unionists’ they seem destined to merely repeat them – the ‘mistakes ‘ I mean .

    Have not read Webb’s book but I may take a gander next time I’m in Eason’s .

  • darth rumsfeld

    “It just goes to show you can twist anything if you are deluded enough. There is no way you can compare the Republicanism and commitment to democracy in the US (at least within the country; they vote for absolutely everything), to the nonsense that goes on here.”

    Yes of course it’s attitude, not ideology. How many people “do2 ideology nowadays anyway? The attitue is one of conditional loyalty to the government by the governed. It is the common thread from 1798 to 1912 to 1985, and identical to the attitude of Webb’s campaign theme> Read his book if you don’t believe the same attitude infuse his brand of populist politics which was also Jacksonian democracy- and what was Jackson? an Ulster Scot!

  • “Born Fighting” is indeed an absolutely compelling read. But more than that, its message could have a big part in shaping American politics over the next 20 years. It is not just an account of the past but a manifesto for the future. But it amazes me that unionists politicos have not tapped into the rich vein of Ulster Scot belief as Webb has done.

    Keep your eyes on Senator Webb. I suspect we haven’t heard the last of him. Anyone want to bet against him as a future Presidential nominee?

  • Webb’s a nice man, and so like most nice men, won’t last a month in the presidential primaries. No President Webb do I foresee. Now Dubya, however, not so nice, but quality. Sort of cove one could have round to Castlerove and not have to worry about counting the silver plate after he had gone. And, natch, born to solid episcopalian stock. Though he has, I admit, gone off the reservation since. Frankly, I blame the booze – too much fast living always leads to a crash n’ burn, but, shudder, methodism?

  • GrassyNoel

    I love that scene in Godfather when Duvall is being thrown out of the film producer’s studio in LA, having been wined and dined and generally treated like a king for the previous 24 hours..
    (Not Exact dialogue)

    Producer: “Now go back to wherever it is ya came from and tell that boss of yours no greased-up ginny gumbah is gonna come here and tell me who I can & can’t have in my movie”

    Duvall: “I’m German-Irish, actually”

    P: “Oh yeah? Well listen to me, my Kraut-Mick friend..You tell Mr Corleone, I ain’t no band leader. Yes, I heard that story.”

  • kensei

    “Yes of course it’s attitude, not ideology. How many people “do2 ideology nowadays anyway? The attitue is one of conditional loyalty to the government by the governed.”

    Unionism is an ideology, for heaven’s sake, and so is the monarchism that goes with it. Even this “conditional loyalty” (which I think is bollocks but couldn’t arsed with the argument) is an idea, not an attitude. Not sure how to express this, but what I mean by the attitude is more like the mistrust of outsiders, whether they be East Coast liberals or the British Government forever selling Unionism out.

  • OK lads, one last time about the ulster scots experience in the new world.

    The ulster scots experience in America is largely the same as the Irish that came in the next century. They got the shit kicked out of them until they found a hidey-hole. It’s the same for any immigrant here. Get used to it.

    The ulster scots that bailed out of plantation Ulster were mostly dissenters and subject to some extent to the Penal Laws. When they got to America things weren’t quite so grim but the Anglo Escipicalians despised them just as much as the planter did. Big problem because the colonies were almost entirely Anglo.

    An exception was Pennsylvania whose Quakers toleration allowed them to settle against the foothills of the Appalachians. The group later followed the main valley south through the Shenandoah, shedding their Presbyterianism on the way, becoming Southern Baptists. The largest concentration of the old crowd is still in West Virginia.

    Time goes by and the farms on the slopes of the Appalachians gave out, we went through a couple of bank panics in the 1870’s and big coal emerged near the turn of the century to relieve them of their mineral rights if not to buy them out entirely. They found work in the mines below land they formerly owned and survived until the coal market collapsed.

    That’s about the time that Harrington wrote “The Other America” about the abject poverty in Appalachia which gave rise to the War on Poverty (you don’t think Southern Senators in the 60’s would vote to help black people, do you?). From there we got where we are today with mixed results. Ladies from the region have run from Jessica Lynch to Lynndie England.

    The born fighting aspect speaks more to Webb’s idea of himself than reality. Boone and the Kentucky bunch stayed alive more by cooperation than by confrontation while their numbers were small. The major Indian removal was borne not by the Scotch-Irish but by the United States Army after Jackson defied the Supreme Court and started the Cherokee “Trail of Tears”. Even then Indian engagements largely consisted on surrounding a village, attacking at dawn and slaughtering everyone, man, woman and child. It worked for them.

    Anyone wishing to read a more balanced view than Webb’s self adulation should pick up on Leyburns’s “The Scotch Irish: A Social History”. Leyburn was a professor of sociology at Washington & Lee University, Webb is, at best, a novelist. Do the math.