Scottish political debate is characterised and marred by a host of difficult divides and fractures.
There is anti-Nationalist Labour hatred; the rage of the so-called ‘cybernats’; and a widespread, almost national sport of anti-Toryism. All of these are part of a Scottish problem which we see not only in our politics, but also across society, culture and football.
Why do large parts of the Labour Party so virulently hate the SNP? And why do part of the Nationalist community, ‘the cybernats’ think it appropriate to conduct themselves the way they do? The former have used a politics of fear and negativity for years against the Nationalists, while the latter believe they are taking a stand against an omnipotent unionist establishment which is biased against them.
We can look for answers in each tradition. Labour until this year saw one of their main tasks as defending the self-preservation society they had built. In Scottish nationalism there is commonly a sense of self-righteousness and belief in one ‘true’ way.
One reason regularly put forward for the vitriol is the lack of substantive difference between Labour and SNP bar independence. Something more is at work than this.
I think that part of the problem is that Labour and SNP, even beyond the zealots on each side, don’t understand each other and so don’t understand what motivates their political passions and involvement. This is why they find it easy to attribute negative motivations to their opponents. What’s more, there is a profound asymmetry between the two in that Labour, the long dominant culture, has reacted with fury to being challenged by what it regards as the Nationalist interlopers who have dared to intrude into what were once ‘Labour’s natural heartlands’.
In my view, Labour’s detestation of the Nationalists is found at all levels of the party, whereas the manic hatred of Labour seen in ‘the cybernats’ is found at the margins of the party. Labour misjudgement and caricaturing of the Nationalists can be seen everywhere – in Iain Gray’s latest whinge, Ian Davidson ‘s ‘neo-fascist’ comments, Douglas Alexander, Gordon Brown and about any Labour figure you care to mention.
This picture is part of a wider story. We can see a similar pattern in the relationship of Rangers and Celtic, the former the long established dominant club and culture, the latter, seen as the imposters, ‘alien’ and ‘illegitimate’. The records of violence, abuse and even tragically deaths connected to ‘the Old Firm’ isn’t balanced between the two, but of predominantly Rangers fans doing violence to Celtic fans; which doesn’t excuse the excesses and idiocies of some Celtic fans.
The sheer volume of hatred, aggression and anger coming from one quarter in particular, seems to be something the current sectarian bill has failed to grasp. Yet, this is what dominant cultures do when under threat and their once unquestioned writ no longer runs.
All of this in our politics and society can be linked to the absence of empathy across swathes of Scotland, damaged, bruised relationships, and an aggressive, masculine language of violence across society, as well as actual violence making Scotland a more violent country than our European neighbours. While we believe we are a friendly, warm, welcoming people, the other side of our society is a shaming record of violence, crime and alcohol abuse which is off the record compared to others.
Some of this echoes Carol Craig’s analysis in ‘The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence’, just reprinted in a revised second edition. She argues that it is commonplace for people to be labeled and judged ‘worthless’ and traces this back to Scotland’s religious past and the division into the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned’.
I don’t think it is an accident that the Rangers v. Celtic divide originated around religion, and that the Labour v. SNP fissure often feels like a throw back to Scotland’s embattled religious sects.
There is the need for action in politics. Mike Small, writing in the pro-nationalist ‘Bella Caledonia’, said that a debate of ‘cybernats v. cyberbrits’ was not only quaint given the prevalence of the internet, but also ‘a boring game’.
Small argues that we desperately need to develop non-party bases for ideas to widen out the debate which has become phenomenally narrow, insular and focused on a political class. And he rightly points to the need for the SNP to change gear in this new environment and have the confidence to engage in a degree of self-criticism, which would ultimately strengthen, not weaken the Nationalist cause.
We have to go much further than that. There is a whole host of men behaving badly across Scotland (and some women) and we have to stop colluding with it, allowing it to flourish by silence and evasion, and address it head on.
We have to be capable of more than the current disfigurement of much of our society. Aren’t our political traditions capable of more than reflecting cliché and stereotype? Would it not aid the Labour Party if it recognised that the Scottish Nationalists have been a force for good in our nation these last forty years, and stopped using a pejorative, negative language of ‘separatism’ and ‘separation’?
And given that this is the finest hour so far of the Scottish Nationalists, would it not aid a generous, pluralist, dynamic vision of an independent Scotland, if they were to tell the cyber-thought police to shut up?
It is fascinating to reflect that even writing the above carries with it a slight feeling of foreboding for what some of our vociferous political tribalists might say, but we have to challenge them.
It is understandable that so many people want to cling to a rigid sense of certainty in a turbulent, complex world, but in so doing they only aid a politics of insularity, conformity and conservatism. Such characteristics don’t really help Scotland address the kind of challenges we are going to have to face and open up public debate and discussion.
Black and White Scotland, the voices of a monochrome world are damaging themselves, their own well-being, the rest of us, our society and our prospect for creating a different, collective future. The campaign for a Scottish self-government which is meaningful, taking a stand against the authoritarian mindsets found across society, and a dynamic, outgoing public culture, are all part of the same canvas and debate.
This article was first published in The Scotsman.