A Fractured Scotland Limps Towards Liberation

Scottish academics who have studied of inter-cultural conflict in Scotland disagree over the depth, persistence and manifestations of the phenomenon. On the basis of his Northern Ireland experience and an extensive academic survey completed a decade ago, Steve Bruce thinks the matter is taken out of proportion. Indeed, its purported exaggeration to him is Scotland’s disgrace (Comment is free 24 April) .

His post attracted the biggest postbag of the day, the majority of respondents asserting that sectarianism, however loosely-based on religion, contimued to be part of Scotland’s social fabric. From school bus drivers in West Lothian yelling sectarian abuse at their passengers to an architectural manager bawling out a young staff member for supporting Celtic to a n interviewee at a firm of chartered accountants being told that it was pointless for him to be taken on as he just wouldn’t enjoy the party songs of his colleagues, it was a disheartening set of testimonies indicating the survival of rancor at the heart of a society supposedly on the cusp of momentous political change. .

In a book of mine published in 1987, Glasgow the Uneasy Peace: Religious Tension in Modern Scotland I took a middling position, perhaps tilting towards Professor Bruce’s perspective that modern living was squeezing the life out of this demon. But 24 years later, I believe that group animosities with a quasi-religious veneer possess real momentum.

They no longer derive from economic competition or genuinely-held, or opportunistically-embraced, religious differences; for 30 years the existence of an undeclared civil-war close to Scotland’s western shores indicated to some that the dynamic for internal friction came from Northern Ireland but that was a territorial conflict arising from genuinely-held differences over political allegiances.

If any government n Edinburgh was to tackle urban Scotland’s factional rivalry in the simplistic way that the Americans tried to suppress liquor in the 1920s, I don’t think it would finish off the problem. But that’s what might be on the cards.

Put simply, there is a deep-seated problem with behavioural norms in Scotland in which the social sanctions for being aggressive, intolerant ad outrageous in public places have been weaker than practically anywhere else in the Western world. The state has belatedly confronted the problem but it is at a time when girls and young women are being draw into this macho environment as fast-changing cultural norms encourage them to jettison what was once esteemed as feminine and beautiful.

No doubt I will be dismissed as a trouble-maker or a crackpot for daring to
assert there is a Scottish social malaise in these stirring political times . My position is not strengthened by the fact that I don’t know the exact origins of the problem. But I know enough of history to know that scarcity of resources in a poor country, factionalism along tribal lines certainly in the Highlands whose cultural norms are increasingly the dominant ones, the militarization of Scottish society, and the unusually brutal nature of the industrial revolution, may well have been important contributory factors.

I regularly find myself in city centres and also poorer neighbourhoods and I am struck by the suppressed tension, low-level violence and the frequency of provocative behavior. I also sometimes visit the Scottish parliament which at First Minister’s Question time at Noon on a Thursday often resembles a bear-pit of ugly and pointless anger. I have no reason to think it was much different in the pre-Alex salmond era and it is striking that it is felt to be educational to bus schoolkids from all over Scotland to observe this weekly affray.

It may be no coincidence that it was Scotland that gave rise to RL Stephenson’s character of Jekyll and Hyde. Glaswegians are warm-hearted and obliging but enough of them carry and use blades for lethal intent to give the city Europe’s worst incidence of knife crime. As inpre-1998 Northern Ireland where polling surveys consistently downplayed the true support for the hardline parties, not all respondents are likely to reveal their alienation or prejudice to Professor Bruce’s survey-gatherers.

I am amazed that he can be so laid-back in the face of the recent catalogue of alarming incidents. The two Scots who beat Neil Lennon unconscious several years ago were university students destined to enter two top professions, law and medicine. I wonder how they or their ilk might have answered his survey?

Catholics have contributed their share to violence but the community has been largely on the defensive over a long historical period. Two of its principal institutions, Celtic Football Club and the state-funded denominational school system are constantly branded as impostures. Except at rare moments, both the print and electronic media, whether state- or privately-owned have adopted an ostrich-like posture of myopia . Timidity and formulaic reporting sometimes gives way to slanted coverage and mischievous headlines such as the ones that have graced newspapers at the serious end of the media in recent times.

Phil Mac Giolla Bhain is a freelance journalist who, through dogged investigative reporting, has broken a serious of stories indicating that prejudice extends far beyond the lumpen proletariat to some of the power centres of Scottish society. But, except for the estimable Caledonian Review and Scottish Review, two electronic publications called into being by the mediocrity of the local print and broadcasting offerings, he has been embargoed by the rest , including BBC Scotland.

Despite writing the first historical account of community relations in the West of Scotland that offered a sustained profile of the Catholic community, I’ve never been asked to contribute my perspective on BBC Scotland even though I live but 10 minutes drive from one of their studios.

Opinion is filtered through establishment figures who sometimes prefer to place the blame on a violent underclass rather than on ingrained habits that reverberate beyond one social segment, one particular city, or a defined geographical area.

The debate needs to be widened up to avoid the simplistic solutions beloved of politicians. Shock-and-awe involving a draconian crack-down by the police is all too likely to be a seven day wonder as Scotland’s leaders return to their first love, the constitutional question. Mass arrests and jailings can create martyrs and create a huge potential for revenge later on.

If Alex Salmond really is Scotland’s liberator, he should be thinking not of quick fixes but of a long-term strategy to take the initiative from fans who use football as a channel for their pathological behavior. Great progress has been achieved by Celtic and there is evidence that those in charge of Rangers see the survival of the club as bound up with slinging out, or marginalizing, the mindless element in its following.

The Old Firm has the chance to move on and be an impressive event in Glasgow’s calendar . But it requires mature decision-making, not authoritarian quick-fixes or a belief that the whole issue is blown out of all proportions.

Tom Gallagher taught politics – related subjects at Bradford University’s the Department of Peace Studies from 1980 to 2011, specialising on identity conflicts in Europe and ways of managing them. He has written widely on the Balkans as well as several books on Scotland.

He is currently researching civil wars and averted conflicts in Western Europe and North America and what they reveal about the growing internal cleavages in England and their possible outcome.