As a long-time member of the SNP, I cheerfully confess that it’s seldom that I’m uplifted by the thoughts of any member of the Labour party. But, as regular readers of this blog will recall, Tom Harris MP, contender for the Scottish Labour leadership, has managed that before and in his recent piece on sectarianism, has done so again.
Tom contends that the present legislation on sectarianism is poorly conceived and will make bad law, either overfilling prisons with disproportionate sentences or making lawyers shed-loads of money. I believe he has a point. But, rather than then going off the deep end about how inept/separatist/untrustworthy/minging/etc the SNP are (as most of his colleagues would do) he shows insight into the situation and suggests that his party should creatively assist the SNP in “crawling out of the hole they’ve dug”.
Now this might be reasonable—or even obvious—behaviour in the real world—but not in the more rarified point-scoring world that remaining senior Scottish Labour figures appear to inhabit. Though it will doubtless be making a stick for our own backs to hope that Tom wins their leadership (and ends our easy ride of the last four years) any aspirational government like the SNP needs competent opposition to keep it sharp.
But, further than even Tom suggests, a common approach from Labour and the SNP might offer the best way of dealing with the blight of sectarianism. He is a little too ready to blame the SNP for this legislation and its clumsiness. A former holder of the post to which he aspires said: “If I have regrets, and I do have a regret that comes from hindsight, it is that I didn’t put more of the things that I really cared about as First Minister into legislation. I wish I had passed a bill on government action on sectarianism”—Jack McConnell May 2009.
But the problem to date has been dealt with clumsily, as if it were a nation-wide problem. Tom simplifies too much: “What school did you go to?” is not a loaded question across three-quarters of this country. And, while Scotland has had its share of religious wars, most of that is well in the past: in recent times, Na h-Eileanan Siar have been far more divided over the Frees vs Wee Frees than over Catholic vs Protestants. Growing up in Lothian as I did, Catholic kids were just the ones who showed up late some days and no more was thought of it.
Sectarianism is largely a West of Scotland phenomenon, based, as much as anything, on the import of workers into the booming industries of the Clyde from Ulster in the 19th century who brought their beliefs—and prejudices—with them. As in many of the world’s conflict spots, it was rooted in identity in some struggle perceived to be life-and-death. Football has provided a socially acceptable cloak for its passion and enmity but the focus on the ‘Old Firm’ largely misses the point—and more particularly, the root—of the problem: it is largely social.
There are two beacons for the SNP (as well Tom and his colleagues in Labour) to look to if they want to get this blight addressed (and Scottish ministers off the legislative hook on this one). The first is Eire. A country once torn by civil strife that was mainly sectarian based, it has grown beyond its centuries of religious enmity to become not just a force for peace in still-fragmented Ulster but an example of how the unifying identity of being Irish has helped build common ground, consensus and joint purpose.
The second is our Asian community. Based, as it is, in the heart of sectarianism’s heartland, there are few in the West who do not work with, use the services of or buy from our Asian friends. It is a vibrant community, catalysed after WWII when India was split by its own sectarianism. They are, with few exceptions, dedicated to their own culture and religion but also to be active and engaged within their communities. Their children attend local schools; their leaders are elected to represent constituents who are brown, white and all shades between. The late Bashir Ahmed was the epitome of their affable good sense and ability to both succeed and contribute.
If Irish and Asians can show us, why can’t we Scots show ourselves?
I’m with Tom: the present legislation is flawed. But, rather than re-work it, let’s look to our close neighbours and—as with the social consensus achieved on once-rife drunk driving—see if there isn’t a better way: make any need for such a thing seem obsolete.