Scottish independence brawl exposes deep divisions

The romantic Celtic rhetoric of separation from the hated Sassenach (English) cuts little ice in much of rural Scotland. Independence is far more contradictory and divisive than most people, including Scots, realise

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Football is more than a metaphor
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Tom Gallagher
On 19 March 2014 12:15

Mounting polling evidence shows that backing for Scottish independence is concentrated in particular regions and social groups. And these are often unexpected ones. Thus in the north and north-east of Scotland, for long the SNP’s chief stronghold, one recent poll showed only 18 percent support for independence.

Previously, the SNP did well in the north-east because it was seen as the main alternative to the Tories and often provided a better quality of representation. But it is often hard to detect an anti-British outlook there.

A long tradition exists of getting on through obtaining careers in British civil and military professions. The romantic Celtic rhetoric of separation from the hated Sassenach (English) cuts little ice in much of rural Scotland.

Such anti-British rhetoric was far more often the staple of urban SNP activists but it was in Scottish cities that the party’s strength was weakest.   In Glasgow, Edinburgh and their hinterlands the Labour Party was seen as the champion of state intervention in the economy and the social realm. But in Scotland’s devolution era (1999- ), it is the SNP (in charge since 2007) which has been most assiduous in promising a generous welfare system.

Not surprisingly, it has made electoral headway where previously it has been weak. Polls consistently show that independence’s strongest advocates are Scots in the lowest income groups.  

Claims by the historian and commentator Tom Devine which were publicised in the media on St Patrick’s Day, also show a surprising religious dimension in voting behaviour. Scottish Catholics (comprising 16 percent of the population) are the religious group most likely to back independence.

In the past, Scotland has been beset by its own lower-key version of Ulster sectarianism. Previously, this community was repelled by the SNP because independence was linked with an assertion of militant Protestant values. But rampant secularisation has occurred which make such fears fanciful ones.

A community still known as ‘Catholic’ is increasingly secular in behaviour and there has been a huge swing away from religious attendance.

This is above all true for men under 40. But a large number still embrace the Irish outlook of their immigrant forbearers. Passionate backing for Celtic football club is nowadays the chief outlet for this ethnic attachment.

At well-attended matches, Irish flags, and banners are unfurled extolling heroes in the struggle for Irish independence but also controversial figures in the more recent Ulster conflict, reveal a powerful Irish subculture in the west of Scotland.

Attending the 1988 Scottish Cup Final between Celtic and Dundee United, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was surprised to be gazing down on a sea of Irish tricolours. The origins of the disaffection had to be pointed out after a section of  the crowd loudly booed her.

Still, plenty of young Catholics from Clydeside have enlisted in the British Army even after the start of the Ulster troubles. But there remains a visceral antagonism to the Tories which nowadays the SNP is unafraid of exploiting to the hilt.

Alex Salmond’s party increasingly promotes its own uninhibited rebel culture. Threats to renege on Scotland’s share of the UK debt unless London agrees to an impractical currency union are just one example of this militant populism.

Unsurprisingly it is proving a hit with thousands of male Celtic supporters (a glance at the online fanzines for the club should dispel any doubt). It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Salmond’s confrontational approach places him in the pantheon of past anti-imperialist heroes prepared to challenge British power.

Of course, it would be ludicrous to characterise the bulk of Scottish Catholics in these terms. A debate last month at St Aloysius College, a Catholic secondary school in Glasgow, illustrates that. Most of the pupils are from aspirational families  and many graduates have done well professionally across the UK and beyond.

So lukewarm was support for the SNP speaker, Stephen Noon when he addressed 130 6th form pupils that he didn’t even ask for a vote. But a vote was taken at a separate talk when the Labour MP Anas Sarwar spoke in favour of the union. He got over 70 percent backing.

What if there is a narrow pro-independence victory which shows Scotland polarised between radicalised urban working-class-areas  and strongly pro-British suburbs and countryside. What will happen then?

For decades, the Shetland islands have been hostile to Scottish independence. Not just the Shetlands but Orkney and the Western Isles should be given a referendum on whether to become independent from Scotland, according to a  petition lodged with the Scottish Parliament, sentiments which enjoy the backing of  the local member of the Scottish parliament, Tavish Scott

There is little doubt that the SNP will dismiss such a demand as unrepresentative or even the work of nefarious elements in the deep British state seeking to rob Scotland of its rightful destiny.

But it would be astonishing if parts of Scotland with strong British links  were to remain impassive faced with being hustled into a high-tax radical left-leaning Scotland.

There may well be self-sufficient people not just in the remote Northern Isles but also in places like Dumfries and Galloway in South-West Scotland who would resent paying high taxes to maintain economically under-active people in Clydeside who have only recently put aside their Irish introspection to embrace the SNP cause.

One increasingly likely outcome of the marathon brawl over Scottish independence is that it will reveal a severely fractured Scotland. It is one in which resentment towards England pales into insignificance when compared with Scotland’s own internal divisions.

Professor Tom Gallagher’s book Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis was published in 2013

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