Scottish social media is yet again working itself up into a lather over sectarianism at a fitba match. The Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke was subjected to a torrent of sectarian abuse from a contingent of Rangers fans at a recent match. Yet again, a minority of Rangers fans have succeeded in confirming the image of their club, and of Scotland in general, as a pigswill filled bucket of antediluvian sectarian hatred. So thanks for that. There’s the ugly truth about British nationalism for you.
There are some who have been blaming Catholic schools for sectarianism. That’s a classic case of victim blaming. I went to Catholic schools, and do not look fondly upon the experience. Being a gay teenager at a Catholic school in Coatbridge in the 1970s was not a bundle of laughs. But Catholic schools are not the cause of sectarianism in Scotland. Catholic schools are a product of sectarianism, not the cause of it. Blaming Catholic schools for sectarianism is like saying that craving certain foods causes pregnancy. A symptom is not an etiology.
Catholic schools were established back in the 19th century when Catholic parents feared that their children were being targeted for conversion by the Kirk elders and ministers who controlled religious education in the supposedly non-denominational schools. Catholic schools were an attempt by a beleaguered community to preserve a small measure of its autonomy in the face of a deeply hostile British nationalist Scotland which rejected Scots of Irish descent as unwanted and despised alien intruders. They provided a space where Catholic children, who were overwhelmingly of Irish descent, could be educated in a space that protected them from the discrimination that was rampant in wider society.
I am no fan of religious based education, however other countries have faith schools and yet don’t have the same issues with sectarianism. Clearly something else is going on in Scotland.
It’s important to recognise that modern Scottish sectarianism is but a shadow of its former self. In previous decades, everyone who was brought up a Catholic in Scotland knew that there was a whole slew of places where you could forget about applying for a job. We knew that some jobs or occupations were always going to be closed to us. We knew that we would face constant and persistent discrimination in the workplace, in housing, and in life opportunities. You were never going to be a judge or a bank manager or a senior police officer. It was considered perfectly acceptable in douce and middle class Scotland that the Rangers football team had a ban on Catholic players, because the bowling clubs, tennis clubs, and golf clubs that those middle class worthies went to had similar bans of their own.
Sectarianism in Scotland is no longer a “respectable prejudice”. It no longer has the power to define careers and shape, or more accurately deform, lives. That’s a result of the general decline in the role of religion in Western society. Scotland has never had a proper national conversation about sectarianism in Scotland. We have, as a nation, never dealt with it in a systematic or comprehensive way. We continue to talk about sectarianism as a problem that afflicts football, or the West coast – conveniently ignoring the Orange lodges that infest the Lothians or Fife. We continue to restrict what efforts there are to bewailing the lingering symptoms of sectarianism in Scotland, and never look at the underlying cause.
Sectarianism is still granted a leeway and a tolerance that wouldn’t be granted to other forms of prejudice. If that loud and aggressive minority of Rangers fans habitually chanted racist abuse directed against black players, the club would be expelled from the league until it got its house in order. In these modern times, there is less of a tolerance for homophobia than there is for sectarian bigotry – and it wasn’t so long ago that homophobia was obligatory. Yet we allow our streets to be blocked by sectarian marches. We turn a blind eye to rampant sectarian abuse on social media. We tut about sectarian chanting at football matches. And we do nothing about it.
The real reason that nothing is ever done about the sectarianism that lingers in Scotland is because it is a product and creature of British nationalism. Tackling sectarianism in Scotland means recognising the truth that Britishness in Scotland is not the fluffy and inclusive non-nationalism it is asserted to be by the modern anti-independence parties. Tackling the roots of sectarianism means looking at the nasty truth of how a British identity succeeded in imposing itself on the population of Scotland.
Dealing with sectarianism means facing up to the ugly realities of Britishness and a British identity in Scotland, and that’s the very last thing that opponents of independence want to do at a time when Britishness is threatened in Scotland like never before. Britishness in Scotland is not and never has been a cosy neutral identity that was all embracing and all inclusive. Examining sectarianism deprives British nationalists in Scotland of their fictitious claim to the moral high ground that only Scottish independence is defined by ethnic exclusion. It’s far more comfortable to pretend that Scottish sectarianism a problem about football, that it’s a West Coast thing, that it’s about Catholic schools, or that there’s a moral equivalence between the two sides of the sectarian divide.
This red white and blue comfort blanket draws a convenient veil over the nasty truth about British nationalism and a British identity in Scotland. Historically, British nationalism in Scotland was exclusive, racist, and took its strength from the demonisation and rejection of Catholic Scots, who were overwhelmingly of Irish or Highland Gaelic origin, those who historically had rejected the imposition of a British identity. If you were of Irish descent, a nation that fought to reject the British identity that was imposed upon it by force, then naturally you couldn’t be Scottish either. That union fleg so beloved by certain supermarket chains was a symbol of sectarian exclusion and hatred, long before it became co-opted as an anti-independence symbol.
British nationalism in Scotland sought to neutralise Scotland by controlling and defining Scottishness. It preached that if you were not British then you couldn’t be Scottish. Catholicism became defined by British nationalism as an inherited condition, a quasi ethnicity. It didn’t matter if you were personally an atheist or an agnostic, if you were born into a Catholic family you could never be British, and that meant you couldn’t be Scottish either. That’s doubly true if you were born into a Scottish family of Irish origin. As the largest group by far of Catholics in Scotland, sectarianism most commonly manifests as anti-Irish racism. It’s never been about religious beliefs at all. A person’s family religion was just the convenient cultural difference used to lever apart Scotland’s communities and keep us all under British rule.
It is not a coincidence that now independence is the fulcrum of Scottish politics that the bigots of British nationalism have responded by enlarging their arena of hatred and fear to include manifestations of Scottish culture. The Gaelic and Scots languages are now almost as much a target of British nationalism in Scotland as Scots of Irish descent once were. The new targets of British nationalism are Scottish independence supporters.
The targets of British nationalism in Scotland are those who are perceived to threaten and undermine British rule. A century ago that meant Irish Catholics, and we are still living with the consequences. Now it also means supporters of Scottish independence. Irish people were demonised for their family religion, independence supporters are demonised for a supposed anti-Englishness. Yet the nationalism in Scotland which is most defined by racism and exclusion is British nationalism, the nationalism which is quickest to claim victimhood status, the nationalism which is the first to project its own sins onto its opponents.
Sectarianism in Scotland is about Britishness and the divide and rule tactics of the British state, and it always has been. Sectarianism in Scotland is and always was a disease of British nationalism. The cure is independence.
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