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By Jason Michael
IN THE LAST FEW DAYS the appearance of anti-Catholic comments and posts of a sectarian nature have become a feature of my social media timeline. Always, the response of the educated is to roll the eyes and allow oneself a sigh before reaching for the block button. It truly beggars belief that even today, twenty-odd years after the end of the Troubles in the north of Ireland, that there are people around us who still think this is a rational approach to society and political discussion – but this is the real world and it’s not short of bampots and absolute rockets. Yet, given recent developments in Anglo-Caledonian relations, our interest must be piqued at the timing. True, this rancid, bargain basement rubbish pops up every now and then – this is Scotland after all, but there is a discernible increase in its frequency and intensity of late. One wonders then if this has anything to do with the heat which has been turned on under the independence question recently.
You see, the further deterioration of the Brexit situation, the fact Boris Johnson of all people is now Prime Minister, and the plummeting of the value of the pound against both the dollar and the euro have completely robbed British nationalists of their heretofore reasonable arguments for Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom. In a word, they have reached the bottom of the barrel and so are now prepared to reveal their naked fanaticism. We must remember – now that we have said this – that sectarianism is to unionism what the accusation of Holocaust denial is to the Daily Mail and the Conservative Party, it is their last line of defence.
SteveBainsford bear (@bigstevorfc55) July 30, 2019
Granted, most of us pay this garbage little attention, and for good reason – but let me put it to you that this might be something of a mistake. In the replies to some of these bigoted comments independentistas have pointed out that religion is all but dead in Scotland. Insofar as we read these sentiments as an appeal to religious loyalties, they are meaningless. Protestantism and Catholicism have become redundant terms to a majority secular Scotland. This is where we are getting it wrong; these appeals are not to faith traditions or religious loyalties; they are appeals to powerful cultural memories which have been hardwired into this country as part of the British imperial-colonial project. Three hundred years of British domination have left Scotland with a headache waiting for its post-colonial detox. We have been subjugated by the weaponisation of sectarian division, an instrument that has been deployed to retard social and civil resistance to London rule.
This is something we ought to at least try to understand a bit better. Every time this crops up someone will repeat in the comments the same, tired old platitudes – that ‘one side is as bad as the other,’ ‘religion is the cause of all wars,’ and that this is ‘only the opinion of a minority in a particular part of the country.’ Now, just because we say these things, just because they are familiar to us, doesn’t make them true. They are not true. They are just wrong. Each one of these responses fails to grasp the nature and intention of such sectarian outbursts.
ONE IS AS BAD AS THE OTHER
No one is going to deny that there is such thing as anti-Protestant bigotry among Scottish Catholics – of course there is, but this assertion is not much different to white people – in the face of the disproportionate killing of young black men in the United States by the police – pointing to the reality of anti-white racism among African Americans. Of course, there are people of colour all over the world who hold and act on racist opinions about white people, but pointing to this, like pointing to the ‘other side’ here in Scotland is to entirely miss the point. There is simply no excuse for prejudice and bigotry no matter who is doing it, but this whataboutery serves only to obfuscate the true nature and purpose of racism in the racial state or sectarianism in the sectarian state. Like racism, sectarianism is encouraged in Scotland – as it is in the north of Ireland – as an instrument of power. It is useful to the state because it keeps one group of people in a position of social dominance over another, creating tensions and conflicts between the two groups which make it easier for the ruling class to rule unchallenged.
The ‘one side is as bad as the other’ argument, then, is nothing but the fabrication of a moral equivalence – a classic tactic used by those in power to delegitimise the struggle of the dominated or weaker group for parity of esteem. This is precisely what we see from supporters of the State of Israel when they point to the ‘terrorism’ of the Palestinians, what we see from the Alt-Right in the US when they decry the violence of Antifa or the Black Lives Matter movement, and what we see in Scotland when ‘Catholics’ – a historically victimised minority in Scotland – act out with bigotry towards ‘Protestants’ (quotes here may or may not allude to football allegiances).
RELIGION IS THE CAUSE OF ALL WARS
Not much needs to be said on this point. It’s just wrong. When societies go to war there are a plethora of distinguishing feathers that describe the warring factions; colour, language, ethnicity, religion, religious denomination, and so on – but these features are rarely, if ever, reasons for the conflict. During a conflict they may become factors in its continuation, but as a rule they are never the reasons people go to war. People fight for resources. The poorest strata of society will, in times of economic hardship, divide along various lines – including religious difference – but this happens as a consequence of competition and not because one’s neighbour happens to be a difference colour, religion, or speak another language.
Sectarianism in Scotland is never about religion. As we have said, there aren’t enough religious people in Scotland to account for the level of sectarianism. What this means is that the majority of so-called religious sectarianism in our country is a case of secularists fighting secularists. At best, these secularists can be split into two groups; what the religious might call ‘cultural Protestants’ and ‘cultural Catholics.’ But they aren’t Protestants and Catholics in any meaningful religious sense. So, it simply can’t be the case that religion is causing this conflict – not even the distant memory of religion; few of them have darkened the door of a church. We are yet to hear of a sectarian incident in Scotland arising from a heated dispute over the meaning of the Eucharist, the Immaculate Conception, or indeed the Progression of the Spirit. Simply put, religion has nothing to do with this.
A MINORITY IN THE WEST
This is the most disturbing of the attempts to write off sectarianism. Essentially, the claim that sectarianism is limited to one class – the working class, two football teams – Rangers and Celtic, and to one part of Scotland – Glasgow and the west – is, and to be very kind, a poorly informed opinion. At worst it is blinkered and attempts to absolve the middle class and the rest of Scottish society of responsibility for ‘Scotland’s shame.’ Sectarianism is far more overt in working class football rivalry, and particularly in the context of the Glasgow Old Firm – but it is far from absent from the rest of the country. That it is not visible or spoken elsewhere does not mean that it is not there. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!
Scotland is a classically subjugated nation, one that has been shaped by the pattern of historic English and British colonialism used around the globe. From the earliest years of the union, and with more vigour following the defeat of the Jacobites (not that long ago in historical terms), Scotland was colonised in a particular way. Rather than being conquered by England, subdued, and imposed with an English settler-colonial plantation – as was the case in Ireland, Scotland’s civic establishment was dominated by a system of English control. Key positions in government, education, and so forth were occupied by Englishmen and pro-union Scots collaborators. Episcopalianism – the so-called ‘English church’ in Scotland – and Catholicism were both Catholic points of resistance and so were penalised by harsh anti-Catholic laws and restrictions. Catholics and Episcopalians were removed from their positions in government and in the universities as part of a programme of domination.
This treatment of a sectarian outcast greatly benefitted Presbyterians and resulted in the creation of a Protestant ascendant class – which has survived, albeit largely culturally rather than religiously, to the present day. Institutions like Freemasonry and, in the early nineteenth century, the Orange Order – which were far more influential then than they are now – cemented this relationship of the dominant and the dominated in Scotland; making it very much an unchallenged assumption of Scottishness. All of this was integral – certainly after 1690 – to the control of Scotland by an English Crown establishment which was and remains a constitutionally sectarian and anti-Catholic establishment. When we see the use of sectarianism in industry and on the streets, we are witnessing the effect of trickle-down prejudice. Working class people did not lick this up off the stones. This is something in the air, quietly endorsed by the powerful and picked up by the more dominant fraction of the dominated class. Sectarianism has been useful to the ruling class because it has kept it in power, and it has been economically useful to a faction of the working class because it has kept employment and other benefits in its hands.
We may not be able to see sectarianism outside of where we have been conditioned to see it, but it is there. Largely, thanks to education and progress, it is dormant – an angry old relative locked in the cupboard under the stairs. But we cannot escape the fact that, as a means of control used over centuries, this toxin has soaked into the fabric of every part of our country. It informs us consciously and subconsciously because it has gained for itself the status of ‘ancient prejudice.’ We can fool ourselves and say that this is all in the past, but the IRA bombing campaign of the 1970s and 80s and the wave of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment that swept over the whole of Britain as a result of it tells another story: Given the right circumstances, the right push, the right moral panic, and this hardwired default springs to life. Britain knows this, and knows how easily these buttons can be pressed. It knows this because it installed them.
Sadly, I cannot answer this problem. Looking inside myself, I see much of the same prejudice. The Good person is good not because he or she is without prejudice, but because he or she recognises it and strives to overcome it. This is the only remedy I can offer, but first we have to acknowledge that it is there – that it does exist. Overcoming this is central to our hopes for an independent Scotland, and this is a process of growth which requires us to do much more than say it, but to mean it and work towards realising it – that Scotland, a nation, is home to everyone who makes Scotland their home and contributes to the commonweal regardless of their country of origin, their religious beliefs, their colour, or any other mark of human distinction. I will leave you with the words of Wolfe Tone, the Protestant father of Irish Republicanism – words he spoke addressing the sectarianism imposed on Ireland by Great Britain:
…to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country – these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissentions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman, in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter – these were my means.