In 2014, a young SNP activist called Aidan Kerr caused some consternation when he contended that Scotland was undergoing ‘Ulsterisation’. The nation’s politics, which for the past generation had pitched nationalism against social democracy, was becoming a battle between nationalism and unionism. The casus belli would be identity, not class or income. Kerr’s critics were soon silenced as his predictions began to pan out. The Scottish Tories replaced Labour as the main opposition on a single-issue pro-Union platform. Labour politicians who had avoided the term ‘Unionist’ because of its association with cultural Protestantism embraced the label, if often with evident discomfort.
Orange walks gained a competitor in secessionist parades, taking place on a monthly and even weekly basis, with thousands marching behind ‘Tory scum out’ banners bearing the emblem of Siol nan Gaidheal, an ethno-nationalist faction expelled from the SNP as ‘proto-fascist’. An approximation of a newspaper calling itself the National hit the shelves and interspersed hagiographic coverage of Nicola Sturgeon with campaigns against the few remaining symbols of British identity, from the BBC to Union Jack stickers on supermarket packaging. Thus was Kerr’s thesis vindicated, though he has since defected from the SNP to become a strategist for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, a rare example of someone seeing the light only to reach for the dimmer switch.
The riots that broke out in Glasgow on Friday night between loyalists and republicans are a reminder of Kerr’s prescience. An Irish republican flute band held a march for Dublin rule over Northern Ireland in Govan, the constituency of SNP justice minister Humza Yousaf. The parade was besieged by hundreds of loyalists and riot police had to be deployed to bring the situation under control.
Street brawls between republicans and loyalists are at odds with the image of modern, ‘progressive’ Scotland the SNP hawks at home and abroad. Glasgow had supposedly shed its reputation as the easternmost suburb of Belfast and was meant to be the culture capital of an aspiring Nordic nation — Copenhagen on the Clyde. But while the last Labour-led administration at Holyrood made tackling sectarianism a priority, the SNP has long been uneasy with such matters.
Historically, it was seen by Scotland’s Catholics as antagonistic. Billy Wolfe, who led the party in the 1970s, inveighed against Catholics and their plot for ‘world domination’ with a bilious paranoia that today echoes Tommy Robinson on the subject of Islam. Alex Salmond overhauled the party’s relationship with the Catholic hierarchy and the electoral tide began to turn, though initially at least it was lapsed Catholics who abandoned Labour for the Nationalists.
The Offensive Behaviour Act, a knee-jerk law passed after two especially ugly Old Firm fixtures in 2011, was repealed last year after its criminalisation of Celtic and Rangers fans achieved little more than ruining young men’s lives for singing songs about the Troubles. Recently Susan Aitken, the first SNP leader of Glasgow City Council, has embroiled herself in a series of spats with Rangers FC and was even caught encouraging the dissemination of photographs of a Celtic-supporting rival councillor in the directors’ box at Rangers’ home ground Ibrox.
Her blunders, which seem to be born out of rank naïveté more than anything else, could not have come at a worse time. Tensions between the Orange and the Green have been simmering over the past year, with disturbances in April after Irish nationalist group Saoradh held a demonstration in Glasgow city centre weeks after its alleged political wing the New IRA murdered Derry journalist Lyra McKee. In February, a man was jailed for spitting on a priest during an Orange walk past a Catholic church in the city’s east end.
Glasgow City Council branded Friday night’s rioters ‘morons’, schoolmarmish reproach being the preferred tone for discussing Scottish sectarianism. ‘Mindless idiots’ are always ‘bringing shame on Scotland’ and there’s no point in one side pleading innocence: ‘they’re both as bad as each other’. You would think rival gangs of schoolboys had been caught at fisticuffs down the precinct, rather than hundreds of men taking to the streets of Glasgow to relitigate the Battle of the Boyne. This is part of Scotland’s schizophrenic approach to sectarianism, couching it in babyish talk about ‘so-called Old Firm fans’ one minute and rushing through sweeping authoritarian legislation the next. Neither tack, you will be surprised to learn, has done much good.
The usual threats of zero-tolerance have been bandied about and no doubt the Scottish Government is mulling over some draconian new law, believing — or hoping — it can legislate the problem away. Familiar calls will go up for further restrictions, if not an outright ban, on these marches, though predictably each side thinks only the other’s parades merit proscription. Someone somewhere will blame Catholic schools because this is Scotland, a country where religious prejudice is blamed on the schooling of the victim and not that of the perpetrator.
So what will it be? A ban on parades? Grand speeches against division? Who among Scotland’s nationalist establishment will have the hide to step forward and intone on the folly of tribalism? Who will patiently explain to the rioters of Govan that they must move on from ancient grievances and battles centuries gone? Who will tell them to put out fewer flags and unmoor themselves from the pilings of national and cultural identity? The wide boys who tore through the streets of Govan are ‘morons’ because they got handy and they got caught.
They are morons because they chose the one disfavoured form of tribalism in a country with so many more socially acceptable reasons for hating a complete stranger. The SNP is queasy about confronting religious sectarianism because it is in the business of political sectarianism. Yes, it is non-violent; yes, it is democratic. But nationalism, and especially the resentment-stoked nationalism the SNP practises, is no less rooted in raw, atavistic prejudices. The best this Scottish Government can do is manage incidents like Friday as a public order issue.
My contention is not that Scottish nationalism is to blame for religious sectarianism (it is not), nor that the SNP is no different to marauding yobs (the two are very different indeed). It is that a country that reviles primitive tribalism in the streets while rewarding sophisticated tribalism at the ballot box is not well-placed to confront their common impulses. Face up to one parochialism and you are liable to catch a nasty glimpse of another.