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.