Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Is it possible to ban sectarianism? Computer says no.

       "Technology has given fresh energy to old hatreds and pustulent sectarianism", Alex Salmond told the Scottish Parliament last week " I will not have people living in fear from some idiotic 17th Century rivalry in the 21st Century".   As a non-religious person, I have always found the Catholic-Protestant rivalry in Scotland incomprehensible.  It divides our football teams, schools, housing estates and seems to meet some existential need in male culture. After a decade in which it appeared to be on the wane, the antique divide is back, in a new and bizarre form, with the sending of letter bombs to prominent Catholics, like the Celtic coach, Neil Lennon and the lawyer, Paul McBride.   Where has it come from? and what need does pustulent sectarianism fulfill?  

   I suspect it is a spurious sense of community that leads many to define themselves in terms of religion.   In a post-industrial society defined by rootless individualism, it gives some alienated young men a sense of belonging, of meaning - at least while they are on the football terraces chanting their sectarian hymns.  But what about the rest of their lives?  Its not as if they are exactly ardent church-goers - the decline in kirk attendance has been so great over the past twenty years that estate agents are now doing a lucrative line in selling old churches.  How many of the young men wearing Rangers colours really understand the doctrinal divisions of the reformation - transubstantiation and all that?  Do they really feel that strongly about the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 that they need to send explosive devices to Catholics in 2011?  
   We all abhor sectarianism, and politicians are right to seek to curb the worst forms of it.  But in an age of free speech and Twitter, is it possible to outlaw religious sectarianism?  Look on the internet and you will find no shortage of vile sectarian hatred spewing out on social media, YouTube.  But the singing of sectarian songs is a difficult thing to ban.  After all, many used until recently to be called "rebel songs" and featured in the repertoire of mainstream folk singers.   Similarly, songs like The Sash, which are arguably anti-Catholic, have been around a long time.   I am prevented from discussing other more violently sectarian anthems in this space because, unlike the rest of the internet, I write for a newspaper which has to obey the law.  But it will take approximately four minutes for anyone with a search engine to find violent sectarianism celebrated in song. 

Alex Salmond's acceptance speech.

They always said there’d be days like this.  Having sat through many dismal non-events in the press gallery of the Scottish parliament, it was a relief to see the Scottish parliament rising magnificently to the occasion.  The speeches congratulating Alex Salmond’s on his elective coronation were witty, elegant and thoughtful, without a trace of petty party politicking.  And I’m not excluding the defeated Labour leader, Iain Gray’s effort,  which many observers in the press gallery said was his best ever parliamentary speech. 

   Gray congratulated Alex Salmond on his election landslide which he said marked another stage in  “the coming of age of the Scottish parliament”.  That was a pretty remarkable thing for a defeated  opposition leader to say, but it seemed to reflect the mood of the chamber, and not just among the massed ranks of Scottish National Party MSPs, who seem to have squeezed all others to the margins.   Everyone in the Holyrood debating chamber yesterday could feel “the hand of history” as Tony Blair once put it, on their collective shoulder. Everything has changed, as a result the May landslide, though no one is quite sure in what way, not least the SNP, who are still trying to work out what independence actually means in practice. 

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Whatever happened to Unionism?

 Stands Scotland where it did?  Damned if I know.  But it is no longer a country afraid to know itself.  Somehow, the air seems different.  Most Scots I’ve come across in the last seven hectic day,  from the right of the political spectrum as well as the left and all points in between,  seem really rather pleased by last week’s landslide vote for the Scottish National Party.   Or maybe I just haven’t bumped into all those committed unionists who represent majority opinion in Scotland according to the polls.  They seem to be laying pretty low. 

   Yesterday, David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions called on drowsing unionists to get off their backsides and “make an optimistic and uplifting case” for Scotland to stay in the Union. It’s not enough, he said, just to frighten Scots by telling them that “small countries can’t make it on their own”.  Well, he’s got that bit right anyway, even if you could hardly hear the PM for the noise of stable doors banging shut.  It seemed a bit late to be making the case for the Union at the very moment when, in Holyrood, Alex Salmond was leading his 69 MSPs in swearing - somewhat reluctantly - their oath of allegiance to the Crown
    Unionism has been caught off guard, we’re told,  and needs to get its act together.  Call in John Reid, Douglas Alexander and Gordon Brown (ok maybe not him) and have them get together in  a big, bold British is Best campaign fronted by David Steel and Charles Kennedy with Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Forsyth bringing up the rear...  But just reading the names tells you that any such a referendum campaign is doomed.   These are all men of the past - heavyweights from a different era.   They aren’t like the wiry young women and men who were taking their seats in Holyrood yesterday and  already sorting out the mechanics of independence. Power has shifted in the last seven days, and the UK already feels a different place. 

Monday, May 02, 2011

That wedding. What was it all about?

So what was that all about? A rather gawky young man married a perfectly presentable young woman, and the nation rejoiced. Well, around half of it did. Some people decided that they wanted to eat in the street - but not many in Scotland, where wedding fever was hard to find. Yet two billion people across the world were watching, we’re told, and there were 8,000 journalists covering the Royal Wedding, leading some commentators to call it the biggest media event in history. Or should that have read the biggest hype in history?

Labour's only hope: a referendum on independence

AS Labour heads for what looks like almost certain defeat in the Scottish Parliament election this week, the recriminations have already begun.
How could Iain Gray have thrown away a clear double-digit lead in the opinion polls in only three weeks? Is there anything he could do in the final days that could turn the tide? Actually, I think there is something that Labour could do, but first we need to understand why things have gone so wrong.