“There’ll be nae books or pencils fur Our Lady’s High School if the SNP gets in here.”
I heard those words first-hand at a door in Motherwell some years ago. But let me give you some context first. Lots of people reading this in parts of Scotland will have no idea about what I’m about to describe here so I’d better establish my credentials and provide some background.
I contested council seats for the SNP in Lanarkshire on four occasions, was SNP PPC (Prospective Parliamentary Candidate) for Hamilton for a period, and I was SNP election agent for Winnie Ewing in 1970 and for Jimmy Wright in Motherwell South as we fought to save Ravenscraig in the 80s.
After running Labour to 16 votes at one council election I was approached by a deputation and asked to stand for the party at the next council election (they were annual in those days) – a probable shoo-in. But I’ve never had any burning desire to be a local councillor so I resisted the offer. Independence was “it” for me.
But here’s the point. I wasn’t asked to be Labour candidate because of my great political skills. I wasn’t asked because of my socialist beliefs (though that’s where was, and still am, generally). I was asked to be a Labour candidate because I fitted the bill. I was a Catholic teacher in a Catholic secondary school.
Let me fill in some other context.
From the middle of the 19th century until the early years of the 20th there was large-scale, long-term Irish immigration into Central Scotland. It was mainly of the rural poor – fugitives from the devastation of the potato famines, and largely uneducated. They were in the vast majority Catholic, coming into a very Protestant country, but it should be remembered they were, at that point, also British.
Generally in a Scotland during the growth of its industrial revolution there was plenty of work. But things change and it would take a book to describe the circumstances that created an unpleasant division which still resonates today. Being prepared to work for lower wages than the indigenous population was a charge levelled against some.
An Irish rebellion in the middle of WW1 was deeply offensive to many in a proudly British Scotland. The depression came and the sudden shortage of work didn’t help. The importation of large numbers of shipyard workers from loyalist Belfast onto the Clyde was another element.
By the mid 1920s and onwards into the 1930s, the position of the Irish diaspora in Scotland was deeply troubled. The Kirk was talking of the “Irish menace”, with some suggesting repatriation. So, sadly, were vociferous political elements including some in the national movement in Scotland. There were parties formed contesting local authority elections on anti-Irish platforms, and some candidates got elected.
The partition of Ireland in 1922 left two communities in central Scotland with violently opposed views on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. This actually was a political difference not a religious one – you’ll notice I have made little reference so far to religion, because I don’t believe that religion per se has a lot to do with this.
The fact that the Irish were mainly Catholic was, in my opinion, initially incidental. It was specifically anti-Irish sentiment Scotland developed – a substantial and very Catholic Italian community met with little ill-feeling. But when many of the other defining factors in the breakdown of community coherence slipped away, the Catholicism of the Irish immigrant peoples became, by default, a defining difference.
Two factors grew very important to the immigrant community in these troubled times – support of many in the Labour Party and the 1918 Education Act which generously brought the schools for the poor Irish (set up by Catholic parishes) into the state system. The church and the school – together – very quickly became the central pillars in the lives of the Catholic community in central Scotland and the Labour Party became its political voice and protector. In particular the Catholic schools became – and remain to this day – a totemic issue.
Most people probably imagine “bigotry” was stronger the further you go back into history. But this doesn’t seem to have been the case. Celtic supporters, for instance, used to sing in praise of “wee free” John McLean at football matches. Intolerance took hold, and got worse, through the 20s and 30s, right up to and through WW2.
Systemic and deplorable anti-Catholicism deeply infected civic Scotland in all those areas where there was a large Catholic population. As late as the 50s you could see “No Catholic need apply” in job adverts commonly. Rangers’ recruitment methods were an unremarked national disgrace for decades and I know personally the very first Catholic to be employed as a reporter (in a city that was about 40% Catholic) on a prestigious Glasgow newspaper – in the 1960s.
A defensive aggression developed in a new generation of Catholics not prepared to tolerate these trials in silence, as their parents generation had done. Sectarianism – hitherto Scotland’s dirty little secret – became very public. But in fact it isn’t religious sectarianism, it’s actually tribalism. An unspoken and informal mutual defence pact between the Catholic community and the Labour Party in Scotland developed out of these circumstances.
In west central Scotland a very coherent Catholic community adopted the Labour Party as a political weapon, and in many areas where Labour is in power its membership is dominated by members of that community.
Another kind of tribalism quickly developed in response: cloth-cap, working-class Toryism with significant connections to the Orange Order, seen in the successes of the Unionist Party of the 1950s (which is too often treated as a simple forerunner of the modern Conservatives). By and large, however, that peculiar political contradiction has only survived in small pockets.
Some suspect that, in power, elements in the Labour Party felt justified in “righting the balance” and making very sure that a previously disadvantaged section of the community belatedly got its share of the cake, and sometimes rather more. Understandable, perhaps. So far, so good – and then along came the SNP.
My early political jousts with the Labour Party in Lanarkshire were typified by good humour and mutual respect. We both had laudable political aims and I met no resistance to Scottish independence among the Labour activists I canvassed alongside, had pints afterwards with and fought elections against.
It was hardly surprising – the Scottish Labour Party had supported Home Rule right up to the 1950s and had merely conveniently forgotten about it when it got into government after the war. I first noticed a change after Winnie Ewing won Hamilton in 1967. That wasn’t supposed to happen and a Labour Party, which until then had been entirely confident of a permanent grip on political power in central Scotland, suddenly found itself facing an enemy which actually could take that away from it.
The political history of Scotland since the 1960s has been the uneven but relentless growth of the SNP. Almost every step forward for the SNP has been a reverse for Labour, the Conservatives having been basically in terminal decline since they replaced the Unionist Party. In central Scotland people who a generation ago would have found themselves in the Labour are now, in very large number, in the SNP. And very many of them are from the Catholic community.
Labour doesn’t hate the SNP because the SNP threatens independence. As many commentators on this site and others have explored at length, independence would in all probability lead to a significant Labour revival. Labour hates the SNP – and real, venomous hatred it is – because the SNP is taking its power away.
The vested interest of power in the Labour Party in Scotland has led it into a very strange place. Which radical socialist movement ever stood against the independence of its own people? It seems to have been forgotten that Scotland’s James Connolly led the Irish Labour Party and the Irish Trade Unions into the GPO in Dublin in 1916.
But I digress. The Catholic community in Scotland has good reason to owe a debt of gratitude to the Labour Party. Now Labour is in trouble, and it’s been calling in that debt over the last few decades. A community has a long memory and there is no doubt whatsoever that Irish Catholics in Scotland had a very bad time indeed – a long time ago. But some would have them believe that nothing has really changed.
There are of course bigots in Scotland, as there are in every society. That makes the job of those who seek to sow and exploit division a little easier. “The SNP will push for repatriation to Ireland of all unemployed Irish in Scotland” is an old one, but I’ve heard it said (and believed) again recently.
There are subtler variants: “An SNP government will limit family allowance to two children only.” And always the old favourite, of course. We met it the first canvass we did in the Glasgow North East by election:
“Youse are the bastards that are gonnae close oor Catholic schools”.
The quote I used at the beginning is exactly as I heard it, in a council by election in Lanarkshire. The SNP had won a few council seats in quick succession, and we were winning this one. Then over a few days the canvass sheets suddenly changed. Lots of “For” votes had become “Against” ones.
This was on a third canvass but that doesn’t happen unless some disaster has sunk your campaign. A quick glance at the names on the roll told me exactly what I had suspected. With a local SNP councillor and the late Allan McCartney we went down to a multi-storey block where there’d been a big change in a few days and knocked at a door which had promised us four votes and was now recording four Againsts.
We confirmed what I already knew. The man of the house told us that a few days after the SNP had canvassed the block, some people purporting to represent Labour had been round carefully-chosen doors. The dangers of putting the SNP into the council had been spelt out. The Catholic schools would be under attack. Nae books and pencils for them (and they’d be closed as soon as that could be managed).
A bigwig had been down – I won’t name her. But under no circumstances was Labour to lose this one. We were then treated to Labour canvassers knocking doors in Celtic tops and Labour vans going round blaring out rebel songs, and we lost. My abiding memory of election day was of folk walking past us in to polling station looking away from us or with their eyes down.
The Labour agent I had spent much of the day with at the door of a school had looked uncomfortable all day. He eventually came over and blurted out an apology about the appalling campaign Labour had fought.
That was then, you may say, and this is now. Indeed. A lot has changed. In fact polling experts have decided in their wisdom that at the 2011 election a majority of Scotland’s Catholics, for the first time, had voted SNP.
But that night in Motherwell revealed an unscrupulous element that has never left Labour in Scotland. And the wholesale abuse of the trust of the Catholic community is probably under way again, a year out from the vote.
I wrote this article because a close member of my family, just last week, entertaining an old school friend and her husband – professional, intelligent people – was hit with the same old story: the SNP closing Catholic schools. Another couple reported to me that independence “will set Scotland’s Catholics back a hundred years.”
Now, you’ll never hear this stuff. It’s whispered about in safe company within that community. Believe me – I am of that community. But central Scotland will be the cockpit in next year’s battle. The Yes campaign could win or lose the referendum in the still-Labour seats that stretch from Inverclyde to West Lothian, and it needs to be aware and ready to deal with the unscrupulous nature of some of its enemy and the desperate depths to which they’ll stoop to hang onto their powerbase.
Here’s a parting thought. Some experts have suggested that had the Scottish Catholic population voted SNP at the second 1974 election in the same proportion of the rest of the population, the SNP would have taken a majority of Scottish seats. Where might we have been now, had that happened? What did that defeat cost Scotland?
But if Scotland lost, who won? Most of those communities have known only 40 years of unbroken suffering and deprivation at the hands of Labour and the Conservatives since that day. They got no reward for giving in to fear.
There are only losers in the dirty game.