Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

A Nation Once Again?

I wrote a long piece on Scotland’s independence referendum, with a particular focus on the Irish community in Scotland, for the Sunday Business Post. Here it is:

Standing on the banks of the River Clyde, at the Broomielaw in Glasgow, on a warm summer’s day it is hard to believe that this was once one of the busiest quaysides in the British Empire. There are no ships, and few people. A handful of stray tourists take pictures beside the imposing cast iron mooring posts.

On these same mooring posts, unused today, boats from across the world would once have been tied up. Many were steamboats laden with passengers that came from across the Irish Sea: in the 19th century the Broomielaw was scene of one of the largest migrations in the history of Britain, or Ireland. With little or no belongings thousands of Irish emigrants would have walked the hundred metres or so from the teeming dock to the centre of Glasgow, and, from there, to a new life in industrial revolution Scotland.
paddlesteamers, broomielaw, 1890 MI_4011_4681
Half a million Scots of Irish descent – and the rest of the country’s population of some five million – could be about to embark on another journey. Although this time without going anywhere.

Next September, Scotland will go to the polls in a referendum on independence. A ‘yes’ vote will spell the end for the three centuries-old Act of Union and usher in the birth of a new Scottish state.

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s pugnacious First Minister and the leader of the Scottish National Party, has said he is ‘confident’ of winning next year’s vote. Opinion polls suggest he faces an uphill battle – support for independence rarely rises above 30 per cent. All the main UK parties, including Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, are firmly against the prospect of Britain breaking up. ‘Better Together’, a cross-party campaign calling for a ‘no vote in 2014, has been formed, headed by former Labour Chancellor Alastair Darling.

Scotland does not feel like a country riven by political rancour. Beyond the occasional saltire on a flagpole, or ‘Yes Scotland’ bumper sticker, there are few overt manifestations of nationalism, or unionism, on the streets of Glasgow. This is not Belfast, with its atavistic politics and exaggerated public displays of fealty, but surface appearances belie deep divisions between supporters and opponents of Scottish independence. And there are many Irish-Scots on both sides of the debate.

‘I don’t think economically or socially independence is a good idea,’ Michael Mahon, a Labour member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for Uddingston and Bellshill, a constituency on he outskirts Glasgow with a high concentration of Scots of Irish descent. ‘I say that not because I am an Irish Catholic but because I represent a constituency that I think would be better off in the United Kingdom.’

A former welder, with a broad chest and an easy manner, McMahon speaks fondly of growing up in an Irish household in a mining town in Lanarkshire: ‘It was Irish music, Irish culture. We’d celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, not St. Andrew’s Day’. However, this enthusiasm for all things Irish did not extend to politics. ‘I don’t see this connection between Scottish nationalism and Irish nationalism that some people do. I just don’t get it.’

When we meet for coffee in an upmarket hotel overlooking George Square, Glasgow’s main civic space, McMahon is sporting a ‘United with Labour’ pin on his lapel. United with Labour is another platform advocating a ‘no’ vote, created by the Scottish Labour Party, many of whom are uncomfortable sharing a stage with Conservatives in Better Together. The Tories remain deeply unpopular in Scotland where the legacy of Margaret Thatcher remains a toxic one: there is just a solitary Conservative member of parliament north of Hadrian’s Wall.

celticIf Michael McMahon represents Scotland’s established Irish community, Feargal Dalton is the face of the fluid new generation. Born in Monaghan and raised in Dublin, Dalton came to Scotland in his 20s, as a member of the British armed forces. Dalton, 40, retired from the services in 2010, and last year was elected as the SNP representative for Partick on Glasgow City Council.

‘Like many immigrants to Scotland, I quickly began to ask myself why wasn’t Scotland in full control of its own affairs. With this in mind, I looked at the political parties and policies on offer and voted SNP at the first Holyrood election and every subsequent election,’ Dalton, who became a physics teacher after leaving the armed forces three years ago, says.

‘It wasn’t until I became a husband and father in 2006 that I joined the SNP. Having now established roots in Scotland, its future became a very real and personal issue. Like most parents, I want what’s best for my children. A very simply but significant part of that, is to grow up in a country that has the confidence to govern itself.’

Independence, Dalton says, ‘will give Scotland greater control over its economic future. This will allow Scotland to become more prosperous but a fully sovereign Scottish parliament will also allow us to build a fairer Scotland.’

That Scotland is seriously talking about independence at all can, at times, seem remarkable. Back in 1995, George Robertson, then Labour shadow secretary of state for Scotland, confidently predicted that ‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead.’ Robertson was trying to appease sceptical unionists and it looked, for a time, as if he was right. Labour dominated the first decade after devolution in 1997.

But all that changed in 2007, when the SNP won a narrow victory in elections to the Scottish parliament at Holyrood. Then, in 2010, a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in London, despite the Labour voting actually increasing in Scotland. The following year Alex Salmond’s party surprised everyone – including themselves – by achieving the seemingly impossible, an overall majority in the Edinburgh parliament and, with it, a mandate for a referendum on the party’s flagship policy, independence.

The SNP’s success is down, in part, to an ability to attract the Irish Catholic vote that was once the bedrock of the Scottish Labour party, says Peter Lynch, a lecturer in history at Stirling University and an expert on Scottish politics. ‘At the last couple of elections you had a lot of Catholics voting for the SNP. At the 2011 it was a huge number, more than voted for Labour’.

‘Twenty years ago what would divide the SNP and Labour was more Catholics voting for Labour but the religious thing is gone now,’ said Dr Lynch. This ‘religious thing’ was the fear among Irish Scots that Scottish nationalism was inherently anti-Catholic. It was a not a baseless concern: in the early days of the Scottish National Party (which was formed in 1934 by a merger of two smaller nationalist parties) some leading lights did espouse anti-Catholicism.Andrew Dewar Gibb, who held a as senior office within the SNP, wrote in overtly racist terms about the Catholic Irish community in Scotland in his 1930 book Scotland in Eclipse.

Earlier this year, firebrand leftwinger George Galloway warned Catholics in Scotland to ‘be careful what they wished for’ in the 2014 referendum. Galloway was a Glasgow Labour MP for almost 20 years, but is now better known for his turns on Big Brother and in front of the US senate. His comments were roundly critcised as out of touch and out of date.

‘I’d go so far as to say that the SNP is now a more natural home for the Irish community in Scotland. The Labour party has taken the Irish Catholic vote for granted and given them nothing in return,’ says Kevin McKenna, former executive editor of the Scottish Daily Mail. The SNP has pledged to support Catholic schools as long as they are wanted, a key concern of the Irish community in Scotland. ‘You get the impression that the SNP are trying to reach out to the Catholic community in Scotland,’ says Kevin McKenna. Alex Salmond has spoken regularly of the important role of the Catholic Church in Scottish life, although he has clashed with the hierarchy over his support for gay marriage.

‘It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of Irish Catholics are considering trading their loyalties from Labour to the SNP, although whether what would result in a vote for independence is another matter,’ says McKenna, whose great grandparents came from county Waterford at the start of the 20h century.

In January, McKenna caused a stir when he wrote in his weekly column in the Scottish edition of the Observer that the union with England becomes ‘more difficult to support’ with ‘each passing week’. The article was shared almost 15,000 times on Facebook.

‘Afterwards people said ‘why have you turned into a nationalist’. I said, ‘I haven’t’. I could find myself voting for Scottish independence but I’ll never be a Scottish nationalist. For me Scottish nationalism is quite far away from the internationalism I’ve been brought up to embrace. We’ve the chance to bring those international values into an independent Scotland, values that England seems to be moving further and further away from.’

One of the more curious aspects of debates about Scottish nationalism is how rarely debate is framed in terms of ‘identity’. In some respects the call for Scottish independence does resemble the small state nationalism of the late 19thand early 20th century – a desire for ethnic self-determination that mobilised nationalists in Dublin, Belgrade, Warsaw and myriad cities, towns and villages across Europe. And, for some Scots independence is undoubtedly about creating a ‘Scottish state’, in counterpose to an England-dominated United Kingdom. But most independence supporters cite political, not ethnic, differences to explain their desire to leave the union.

‘Lots of Scottish people aren’t bothered about identity in an ethnic sense. It’s not a vote winner. Salmond always talks about ‘the people of Scotland’, the people who live here, not ‘the Scots’,’ says Peter Lynch. ‘The identity you are talking about is shared political values and ideology.’

The electoral geography of Britain has changed enormously since 1955, when the Conservatives won a majority north of the border in a general electkon. Now more than three-quarters of Scots vote for centre-left political parties – the SNP and Labour – while England, particularly the southeast, votes Tory. This pattern, initiated in the 1960s, accelerated under Mrs Thatcher, as Scotland’s industrial heartlands rusted and the democratic deficit that saw Scotland return swathes of Labour MPs to a Conservative-dominated Parliament in London widened into a yawning chasm. Nowadays in Scotland ‘Tory’ is more likely to be used as a putdown than as a badge of political affiliation.

The breadth of these political variations has increased since Dave Cameron came to office in 2010. Controversial welfare reforms and privatisations, particularly of the National Health Service, have been deeply unpopular with many Scottish voters. London is often accused of being out of touch with the problems of post-industrial Scotland: unemployment, drug addiction, an under-developed private sector. Meanwhile, the SNP government at Holyrood has used policy to attempt to differentiate itself from Westminster: refusing to levy tuition fees on Scottish university students, introducing free prescriptions and pledging to ring fence the NHS as a wholly public service.

The Scottish government’s long-term ability to maintain a generous welfare state has been called into question – especially without tax hikes – but its commitment to a more expansive state reflects a growing disparity between the political cultures on both sides of the border.

‘In Scotland there is a huge middle and working class social democratic electorate who believe that beating up the poor is bad, that the sick should be protected,’ said Dr Lynch. ‘That’s a really mainstream broad category that 80 per cent or more of the voters will find attractive and they are themes that Yes (Scotland) will focus on in the referendum campaign.’

These are themes that chime with Danny Boyle, a 27-year-old community worker from Glasgow. Like around a third of Scots, Boyle says he has yet to make up their mind on independence, but describes himself as ‘edging towards voting yes’, primarily because of what he sees as the divergence between politics in Westminster and in Scotland.

‘I was brought up in a typical Glasgow Irish family: Catholic Church, Celtic football club, Irish music, Gaelic football,’ he says. ‘I was brought up with traditional Labour politics, solidarity and social justice.’

Boyle was initially supportive of New Labour but quickly became disenchanted over the party’s 13 years in power. ‘There was huge excitement in 1997 (when Tony Blair won a landslide) but what actually transpired was the broadening of the gap between the rich and the poor, the illegal war in Iraq, the deregulation of the banks.’

Although his parents were ‘solid Labour voters’, Boyle says that for the younger generation of Irish Scots nationalism is becoming an increasingly attractive proposition. ‘The experience of my parents with Scottish nationalism and the SNP 30 years ago was vastly different to now,’ he says. ‘Much of what was happening then was tied up to what was going on in the North of Ireland.’

The cessation of violence in Northern Ireland has certainly made it easier for Scottish nationalists to sell a vision of a stable independent Scotland where Protestants and Catholics (the vast majority of whom are of Irish descent) could co-existence peaceably. The Orange Order in Scotland are no longer the force they once were, although several thousand attended the annual ‘Orange Walk’ which was held in Glasgow city centre last weekend.

Sectarianism remains part of life for many, particularly around Glasgow’s footballing Old Firm, Celtic and Rangers. But there seems little fear in the Irish community that an independent Scotland would presage a rise in religious intolerance. ‘Sectarianism is a massive problem but I don’t think independence would make that worse. It will still be there whether we are in the union or independent,’ says Paul Cruikshank, a Catholic Glasgow law student.

Cruikshank intends to vote ‘no’ next year, partly because he fears that independence could make Scotland more insular and parochial. ‘There is a concern that if we were an independent country we would fall back on the short-bread tin image of ourselves – the haggis, whisky, Robert Burns.’

‘Most of my family are definitely voting no’ in next year’s referendum, says Cruikshank, who is a Labour party member. The cultural ties that bind Scotland with the rest of the United Kingdom, particularly northern England, are among the main reasons for staying in the union, he says.

‘The north of Scotland and the south of England are very different places but the further south you go in Scotland and the more north you go in England, the more similarity there is culturally.

‘I don’t see myself as any different to another 20-year-old from another industrial city in the north of England.’

Labour MSP Michael McMahon shares this view. ‘When I was a union rep I would go to conferences across the UK and meet people from the same background as me from Newcastle, from Birmingham, from Liverpool, from London. I thought ‘I have more in common with these guys that with a Gaelic speaking crofter from the Western Isles’.’

The Better Together campaign has placed a heavy emphasis on this shared sense of British identity. The recent royal celebrations and last summer’s London Olympics seemed to elevate Britishness across the UK. Preliminary polling of younger Scottish voters – 16 and 17 year olds will have a vote in next year’s referendum, under the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement between Cameron and Salmond – found that many feel a stronger affinity with Britain and Britishness.

Irish Scots might be assumed to have little investment in this conception of Britishness, but Peter Lynch thinks there are aspects of British identity that could appeal to the Irish community. ‘What Irish Scots are comfortable with are aspects of Britishness around welfare policy, defence, issues like that,’ he said. ‘If you can tap into those socio-economic issues, Britishness could be a good constituency for the Irish.’

Yes supporter Colette Campbell is less convinced. ‘I don’t think there are that many people who are proud to be British, particularly in Scotland,’ says the 24-year-old mother of two. Her family traditionally voted Labour but ‘most are now swayed towards yes’.

Campbell suggests that independence could be an opportunity to improve relations between Scotland and England. ‘The relationship would be much better if we were independent, it would be two countries relating to each other.’

And what if an independent Scotland was a failure? It could rejoin the United Kingdom. ‘Some of my friends are a bit nervous that Scotland couldn’t be a successful country. But at the end of the day we could always say ‘we got it wrong’ and they could take us back,’ says Campbell.

While Scotland considers whether or not to leave the UK, Britain itself could be on the verge of a historic departure – from Europe. Battered from the right by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and his own restive Eurosceptic backbenchers, David Cameron has pledged an ‘in/out’ referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union after the next general election.

While the noughties rallying cry of ‘Independence in Europe’ has been silenced, Alex Salmond senses that the prospect of an UK exit from Europe could push floating voters to the independence cause. ‘The Scotland/Europe platform was a huge advantage to the SNP in the Nineties,’ Scotland’s first minister told the New Statesman last month. ‘Because of what’s happened in Europe and the Eurozone it was becoming a negative. Now it’s swung back to being a strong positive. Scots are much more comfortable about being an independent country in a European context.’ Scotland has consistently been the most pro-European part of the UK – although even here support for the EU is running at only around 50 per cent in opinion polls.

In the event of a ‘yes’ vote next year, even opponents of the SNP seem confident that the country’s political classes would be capable of running an independent state. ‘Scotland has produced a lot of good politicians: Donald Dewar (Scotland’s inaugural first minister), (Labour leader) John Smith, who would almost certainly have been prime minister,’ says Paul Cruikshank.

‘As much as I disagree with Alex Salmond, I think he is a good politician. He has charisma and the ability to lead the country.’

Reflecting on political scandals in London, SNP councilor Feargal Dalton believes Scotland would be better served by running all its affairs locally. ‘We need look no further than Westminster with the MPs’ expenses and cash for access scandals. Holyrood has not been beset with such scandals, probably owing to its greater transparency,’ he said.

Scottish independence rarely features in public discussion in Ireland, and when it does its imbued with a degree of skepticism. Dalton attributes this weariness on the part of his compatriots to Ireland having reached ‘established country cynical stage’.

‘I have had taxi drivers in Ireland and people down the pub saying ‘why don’t you stay as you are’. That’s Ok when you have a written constitution, when you can vote off Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. We don’t have that,’ he said.

Peter Lynch sees another reason for Irish misgivings about a new independent state on its doorstep. ‘Irish politicians will probably want a ‘no’ vote because we are going to be trouble for them in terms of international trade and European institutions,’ he said.

Ireland has certainly influenced aspects of Scottish nationalist thinking. In 2006, Alex Salmond called on Scotland to join ‘Northern Europe’s arc of prosperity’, alongside ‘Ireland to our west, Iceland to our north and Norway to our east’. The SNP have abandoned talk of Irish success in the wake of the crash, but nationalists still look across the Irish Sea for policy proposals. Take corporation tax. Salmond recently announced that in an independent Scotland corporation tax would be just 17 per cent, lower than in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Economic questions still remain about an independent Scotland. What currency would it use? How would it fund itself? The Treasury in London has warned that an independent Scotland, bereft of Westminster subsidies, would suffer financially. Nationalists respond by citing the country’s oil reserves – around 90 per cent of North Sea oil is in Scottish waters – and potential in areas such as renewable energy.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, says journalist Kevin McKenna. ‘I simply don’t believe that we would become a medieval, third world country, as the no side are depicting. But I don’t believe the nationalist rhetoric that we would become like the Nordic states,’ he said.

‘I suspect there won’t be that much difference, economically, so why wouldn’t you want your country to be independent?’

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 14 July, 2013.

A Nation Once Again?

2 thoughts on “A Nation Once Again?

  1. You don’t have to back as far as Andrew Dewar Gibb to find anti-Catholic, anti-Irish strains in the SNP. In 1982, when the pope visited Scotland, Bill Wolfe, SNP President, made some damaging remarks. He was attacked publicly by other senior Nationalists and resigned as president of the party, but he stayed on the SNP’s leadership council until his death. See here;

    You will note than none of this appears in his Wikipedia entry, which states blandly that he was SNP president until 1982 wth no reason given for his resignation.

    A much more interesting question than why the SNP courted the Catholic vote (why wouldn’t they?) is what the price the Catholic hierarchy was/is hoping to extract by directing their people towards the Nationalists and “independence”.

  2. I don’t agree with the phrase, “Her family traditionally voted Labour but ‘most are now swayed towards yes”, which suggests that Labour voters can’t support independence, or that everyone who does support it votes SNP or Green. Also, the comment, “Nationalists respond by citing the country’s oil reserves – around 90 per cent of North Sea oil is in Scottish waters – and potential in areas such as renewable energy”, is completely wrong. Rarely does an independence supporter use the ‘oil, whiskey and shortbread’ argument when talking about the economic case. “How would it fund itself” is another questionable comment.

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