Maurice Earls writes: A recent walk through Glasgow, to and from Celtic Park, brought home both parallels with and differences from Irish history. Yesterday’s election confirms a 1918-style transformation in electoral loyalties. The Scots have returned a huge majority of MPs who wish to sever the link with Westminster. Sounds familiar, but Boris Johnson is determined to stop them. What road will the Scots follow? The Irish road seems an unlikely one for Holyrood to choose.
A few weeks ago, along with some companions, I attended a match at Celtic Park in Glasgow which drew a crowd of around 60,000. Having only very rarely attended football matches, it was something of a novelty for me and a wonderful experience. The side of the stadium is covered in a massive sign reading “Paradise”, the name by which the Park is known to Celtic fans
On the way to the ground, scarves were on sale declaring “I wanna be Éduoard”. Inside I could see why: Odsonne Édouard, who was born in French Guiana, is a stylish and effective forward. He is immensely popular. The club, which in the 1980s felt it necessary to sponsor “The bhoys against bigotry” campaign, clearly has no problem with skin colour. The “man of the match” and my personal favourite was Jeremie Frimpong, a player whose athleticism and “work rate” were remarkable. The captain, Scott Brown, among others, was also impressive, at least to my inexperienced eyes.
I discovered that watching the match involved a great deal of standing up and sitting down. It was a little like attending Mass after a long absence. When other people stand up, you stand up and when other people sit down, you sit down. Stylised expressions of emotion occurred regularly on the pitch and even more so in the stands. This seemed to me an area where a mis-step might easily occur. I opted for joining in with modest gestures of emotional conformity as the occasion required.
As it happened, the man to my left was an expert on all aspects of the game and articulated his reading of the match throughout. There was, it seems, some repeated infraction missed by the referee (and myself) which provoked in him a mixture of incomprehension and outrage. Before the end of the first half his wife began to echo his sentiments and the duo became a wonderfully rhythmic double act of discontent. Two sisters arrived near us just as the match began, one in a wheelchair and assisted by the other. They took up positions a few rows on front of us, beside the first row of seats. Earnest blokes, however, predominated. There was no sense of carnival: this was serious business, even when victory looked very likely.
Above the stadium numerous Scottish flags flew alongside a much smaller number of Irish tricolours. The Union Jack was conspicuous in its absence. At half-time there was a raffle and the winning ticket was drawn by nine-year-old Ciaran McMahon, whose father had brought him to the match. The special half-time guests were a group of players from Dublin’s five-in-a-row GAA All Ireland winners. One – possibly the captain ‑ spoke a few words in praise of Celtic and acknowledged the honour of being presented. They were welcomed and applauded by the crowd as they kicked a few balls around the park. The commentator also made mention of Cork hurlers. There were no political visitors from Ireland.
The Scottish Celtic supporters who filled the stands were, to a large extent, made up of people who had once voted for the British Labour Party. In a remarkable transformation, the “Catholic Irish” working classes in Glasgow have switched to the Scottish National Party. They are, it would seem, now engaged in a specifically Scottish political movement, and in this scenario it seems that Ireland may be receding to become “the auld country”, important for identity purposes and perhaps also as an example of successful independence from England, but not as a focus for political action.
Intense engagement with the politics of Northern Ireland appears to be weakening. There was no sign of the pro-IRA banners which were once unfurled in the stadium. No doubt the Good Friday agreement has helped this dynamic along. The FA’s ban on political banners must also have had an impact but, significantly, banners have not been replaced by chants, certainly not at the match I attended. (An Old Firm match might be more likely to stimulate atavistic sentiment.) Notwithstanding, a commitment to the specifically Scottish cause of political independence cannot but reduce the toxicity of sectarian feeling. The enemy for SNP supporters is down south.
The SNP in recent memory did contain a sectarian anti-Catholic element. But that element appears to have been purged. It is said the purging was overseen by the last leader, Alex Salmond. Previously, Catholic Labour voters would have given the SNP a wide berth, seeing it as a force likely to turn Scotland into another Northern Ireland, where Catholics would be a permanent minority. But the SNP, it seems, is no longer a cold place for Catholics. It would be interesting to learn the details of this transformation. If the Catholic working classes of Scotland are backing the SNP and independence, they must not be worried that an Independent Scotland will reduce them to second class citizens.
The evening before the match a taxi driver, in answer to a question, dismissed the enmity between Rangers and Celtic as nothing more than a little bit of “harmless hatred”. Looking at the flags above Celtic park, I wondered if something comparable might be happening in Rangers’ Ibrox stadium. Could the Union Jack be giving way to the Scottish flag? Certainly, Rangers have moved on quite a bit from the days when they wouldn’t have a Catholic about the place. The decline of the shipbuilding industry, whose employment practices embedded sectarianism, no doubt has played a part. Indeed the decline of traditional industry with its accompanying large trade unions has probably also contributed to the decline in Labour Party support.
However, it is worth remembering that the first-past-the-post system can make transformations seem more dramatic than they actually are. In the old Labour seats won in recent years by the SNP, there was around 27% support for Labour, which the polls predicted would decline to 20% in yesterday’s election. Scottish support for Labour in yesterday’s election came in at 18%. The SNP won 45% of the vote.
Under the first-past-the-post electoral system, which is a particularly limited form of representative democracy, substantial minorities are hugely underrepresented in the legislature. The system is not unlike a series of mini-referenda where the winner takes all. SNP seats would probably be halved under proportional representation. Perhaps it is not very surprising that switching to proportional representation is not one of the issues which animates the SNP. Labour has collapsed, having just one member in Westminster but with a level of voter support which, in Ireland, would yield a substantial number of seats. The devolved local parliament in Holyrood, on the other hand, is elected under PR-style rules and in it the SNP holds just under 50% of the seats and Labour close to 20%. Overall, around half the seats are unionist.
Traditionally, the majority of the Catholic working class supported Labour, as did the majority of the Protestant working class. Glasgow was a Labour city. Belfast might well have been a Labour city too if the main Westminster parties had not declined to organise in Northern Ireland. The cross-divide support for Labour, however, did not eliminate sectarianism in Glasgow. It was said to us that the Labour Party dealt with sectarian division by keeping it under wraps, that individuals joining the party were directed to branches where their co-religionists were predominant. Presumably, the hope was that, in time, sectarian feeling would melt away in the healthy sunshine of class solidarity. And indeed, it could be that the experience of Labour politics did reduce sectarian feeling. But if sectarianism is in decline this is not benefiting Labour. In 2001 Labour returned fifty-six MPs to Westminster. In 2015 they returned no members and in 2017 they won seven seats. Polls predicted that Labour would lose six or possibly all seven to the SNP in yesterday’s election. In fact, it lost six seats to Nicola Sturgeon’s party. It seems Scotland may now be experiencing the emergence of a political union between Protestant and Catholic, a holy grail which always proved elusive in Ireland.
The SNP is, as the name suggests, a national party rather than a class party. It has a strong social democratic flavour, which must make the transition for traditional Labour voters easier. But how this will work out in the future, if the party has the responsibility of running an economy based on private property in bad times as well as good, may be another matter. Already, some working class voters are said to disenchanted after a period of SNP dominance at Holyrood.
If a majority of the working classes appear now to believe that their vital interests involve unhitching from an unfriendly and anti-European England, many of those with property are decidedly unionist. Some however, and perhaps a number which will grow, are conflicted and in a sort of half-way house. One recent poll shows that fifty per cent of Scots are unenthusiastic about independence, others put the figure higher. Some in this category may even support the SNP. The interaction of Brexit, the traditional idea of Britain and independence has complicated politics in Scotland.
The complexity is possibly at its most bizarre for Scottish Tories. Tories are the traditional party of British unionism and of opposition to home rule. Under the leadership of the pro-EU Ruth Davidson, they did well in the 2017 election, winning thirteen of the fifty-nine Westminster seats. Remaining in the EU is clearly the best means of preserving the union so it is hardly surprising that the Tory vote came out in 2017. But Ruth Davidson’s pro-EU faction in the Tory party was crushed and extreme Brexiteers came to dominate the party in the south. In voting for Johnson’s party, Scottish Tories would be empowering the radical Tory forces who are prepared, if necessary, to see the union dissolve in order to secure full separation from Europe. A Britain-wide Tory victory, followed by a pattern of bullying of Scotland, would help the SNP’s separation agenda by driving neutrals and waverers into the independence camp. There is a Tory turkeys and Christmas dimension to the Scottish conservative dilemma. Corbyn’s soft or no Brexit politics, on the other hand, would offer a lifeline to the union. But putting a Marxist into number ten surely is a bridge too far for the self-respecting conservative. Staying at home may have seemed the best option to some Tories. Yesterday the Conservative share of the vote declined by 3.5%. Overall they won 25.1% of the vote, which yielded seven seats, down from thirteen. The Scottish Tory narrative of hope must now be that Johnson’s huge majority will enable him to pursue the sort of soft Brexit that would help the union to survive.
Tory losses, in addition to the six lost by Labour, helped bring the SNP total to forty-eight. The Lib Dems won four seats in 2017 and, despite the loss of Jo Swinson’s seat yesterday in Glasgow, they again secured four.
In their victory the SNP leaders will not spend too much time worrying about Labour-supporting unionists, Tory Unionists or the Lib Dem unionists. If they can force a referendum and win 50% plus one, it seems likely independence will be seized and the half-hearted will be taken towards political autonomy by the ear. Scottish unionism will, like remain in England, be thin gruel in comparison with the passion behind independence.
In Celtic Park the footballing opposition was Livingston, Livi to the initiated, a new postwar town about thirty miles to the east of Glasgow. Livi supporters were few in number and failed to fill the tiny corner of the stadium which they had been allocated. In truth, they would have had difficulty filling a single coach home. Currently, Celtic and Rangers are head and shoulders above all the other teams in the Scottish league. One of our group whose knowledge of “the game” is considerably beyond that of the present writer, explained that we would be witnessing “a ritual slaughter”.
The walk from the city centre to Celtic Park was interesting, if quite long. We stopped for refreshment in “The Drover”, which was busy with pre-match customers. Eventually, we found stools in the pool room where we talked with a number of locals who were going to watch the match on television. One of our number hazarded the view that a win for Celtic seemed likely. He was solemnly warned against complacency and told that Livingston were a good team. Changing the subject, I asked about the remains of a nearby cattle market which we had noticed before we arrived at “The Drover”. Substantial sections of the facade remained which were constructed of sandstone blocks cut to dimension. Several very impressive arched neo-classical entrances also survived, each decorated with a carved ox head. This nineteenth century market must have been huge, and a great centre of wealth for those engaged in selling south into England. I was told “Aye, there was a market there.”
I had assumed the West Lothian town of Livingston was named after David Livingstone of “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” fame. But apparently not. We had come across David Livingstone’s statue outside Glasgow Cathedral the previous day. In addition to the statue there was a bas relief on the base of the pedestal which featured Livingstone and some Africans. Two African men were in chains and a woman appeared to be pleading with Livingstone on behalf of the men. The great man was seated and was leafing through a book, possibly a bible or perhaps a ledger. He appeared to be entirely unmoved by the plight of the men. It occurred to me that I must be misinterpreting the scene as the inscribed legend declared that Livingstone was a promoter of British commercial interests in Africa, a Christian missionary and an opponent of slavery. But, on further reflection, I realised that a person opposing slavery could firmly believe in racial hierarchy. Livingstone represented the epitome of successful and prosperous Scotland as an integral part of British imperial activity. An SNP supporter had placed a carefully constructed sign at the base of the statue. The choice of location was certainly no accident.
The independence movement hopes to undo the “Anglo Scottish Treaty of Union” which was agreed in 1707. At the time, certain prosperous Scots thought it would be a good idea because it would open up all English trading channels to Scottish commerce. However, disenchantment quickly followed. There was even a repeal movement. The source of the disenchantment was the realisation that, whatever about commercial possibilities, it was not a union of equals and that Scotland would be in a permanent minority in Westminster. But the efforts to press the reset button failed. The English were not interested. The main military possibility lay with the Jacobites, but Presbyterian Scotland had an obvious problem with that route. In any case, the original assumption of increased prosperity came to pass and in spades. Scottish agriculture and commerce thrived from the eighteenth century and through the nineteenth century.
As Irish commerce, industry and agriculture stagnated or declined, and as the Irish population plummeted, the opposite happened in Scotland. Nineteenth century Glasgow was hugely prosperous. In those days people did not talk of “tigers” but there was much talk of the “Glasgow Miracle”. The Clyde became the base for an extensive maritime commerce.
Among many other things, the wonderful Kelvingrove art gallery and museum celebrates the city’s prosperous history. It was, however, not entirely a self-reliant phenomenon and, in these enlightened days, the curators clearly felt it necessary to add a brief acknowledgement that Glasgow’s prosperity was connected to Caribbean slavery. Tobacco and sugar were central to Scottish commercial and maritime prosperity and they were, indeed, trades highly reliant on slavery.
From the Livingstone statue one can see the hillside Necropolis behind Glasgow Cathedral, a spectacular Victorian city of the dead who were in life champions of Scottish commerce. In 1825 the merchants of Glasgow erected a monument to John Knox at the summit of the Necropolis. Knox saw “popery” as an “abomination before God” and the monument celebrates his key role in ending Catholicism as the official religion of Scotland. The following, inscribed on the west side of the base, links Protestantism and prosperity.
To Cherish unceasing Reverence for the Principles and Blessings of that Great Reformation,
By the influence of which our Country, through the
Midst of Difficulties,
Has arisen to Honour, Prosperity, and Happiness. This monument is Erected by Voluntary Contribution
To the Memory of
These days people visit the Knox monument for the view over the city. There was, however, one wreath from “the Apprentice Boys of Londonderry, Glasgow Branch”. To the east in the distance the visitor has a clear view of Celtic Park stadium and the massive Paradise sign. We found ourselves wondering if, as the Apprentice Boys laid their wreath, the sight of Paradise might, to quote Beckett, “have taken the edge off their bliss”.
Perhaps it is significant that none of the deceased merchants have vaults in the cathedral or are commemorated within it. Instead, there is a continuous parade of military commemoration around the walls. It is said that in terms of empire, missionaries come first and then commerce, but the latter, whatever about the missionaries, was protected and enabled by the military. The arrangements around Glasgow Cathedral seem to reflect the military’s presence at the apex of the imperial hierarchy.
The cathedral, which in its current form dates from the thirteenth century, was one of the great Catholic medieval churches on the island. Of course, whatever medieval ornament or statuary there once was has long disappeared. One late gothic statue in the nearby St Mungo’s museum gives a hint of what must once have featured in the cathedral.
The Reformation and the religious passions involved were no small matter. In Scotland it was certainly much more than changing the name over the door. Religion shaped Scotland over the centuries following the Reformation and determined what was and was not historically possible.
But religion is not what it was. On the Sunday following the Celtic match our small group was struck by the meagreness of the attendance at the single religious service conducted in the cathedral. Major churches are now more visited by tourists than believers. As with mass religious engagement, empire is also a thing of the past. Commerce too is different, with the EU seeming to many a much better bet than the UK, global or otherwise. The UK military remains formidable but, rightly or wrongly, the Scots do not feel themselves in danger of imminent invasion from abroad, including the near abroad. Notwithstanding these changes, centuries of prosperity within the union have left a substantial unionist impulse intact, far greater than that which existed in Ireland (outside Ulster) in 1921.
On the road to Celtic park we made a slight detour to inspect “The World Famous Barras Market” which dates from the 1920s but, no doubt, had predecessors. The paint was peeling on the header board which declared the market’s international fame but it was clear that here was a major institution comprising hundreds of stalls which, in the past, must have had great commercial and cultural importance for surrounding working class communities. We asked one stallholder for directions to Calton, a famous area settled by immigrants from Donegal. In doing so we may have trod on some once culturally sensitive toes. The stallholder gave us directions with hoots of laughter, perhaps just a little bit of “harmless hatred”.
The Barras market had clearly seen better days. Maybe modern retailing had done for it but as we moved east, we noticed that the new housing which replaced the “slums” was suburban in style with a fraction of the population density that must have existed in the old days. One massive Church of Scotland church remained, now a community centre.
Some of those cleared from Glasgow’s slums ‑ many unwillingly, if the hints in the city’s transport museum are accurate – ended up in new towns such as Livingston. Livingston FC was formerly an Edinburgh team, Meadowbank Thistle FC. It occurred to us that many of the Glasgow refugees who ended up in Livingston were probably disinclined to become supporters. Indeed, in Livingston there are at least three Celtic Supporters’ Clubs. It is probable that after the match there were quite a few more coaches filled with Celtic supporters returning to Livingston than the single one for Livingston FC supporters.
Glasgow Cathedral is dedicated to the medieval Scot St Mungo. There is also a St Mungo’s church in Livingston and we learned that this church takes an active interest in Africa, as did Dr Livingstone. St Mungo’s regularly sends a mission to Swaziland. But these days missionary work is not bible-centred. St Mungo’s is involved in supporting education, refuges for women and other equally worthy but essentially secular projects.
Today in Scotland, as the power of religion and other formative historical forces recedes, new historical possibilities emerge. A post-sectarian independent Scotland, within the EU and in close alliance with Ireland and other smaller EU countries, is one possibility. But given the level of support that persists for the Union the pace could be slow and the legacy bitter.
If there is a transformation coming and the SNP win their 50% plus one, the question may be asked: can the chasm be crossed in two leaps or must it be done in one? If the latter proves the only reasonable answer, the words of Shakespeare’s great Scot might apply.
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.
Match result: Celtic four, Livingston nil.
Election result: SNP 48 (45%), Tories 6 (25%) Lib Dems 4 (9.5%), Labour 1 (18%)
Livingston was formerly a Labour stronghold, Robin Cook represented the area for many years. It is now strongly SNP.