Anti-working class cancer

SSP member Ronnie Mejka charges the party with all but ignoring the divisive role of religious bigotry in Scotland

A recent opinion poll conducted by System Three for BBC Radio Five Live has revealed hard evidence that the peculiarly Scottish version of sectarianism is alive and well. Religious hatred and intolerance, according to System Three, is at its most widespread in the west of Scotland. Figures suggest that four times as many catholics suffer sectarian abuse as do protestants. Regardless of the veracity of such a study and whether it can bear scientific analysis, there is palpable evidence that the problem of sectarianism continues to fester.

The Scottish Socialist Party has developed little or no concrete theory in relation to this problem. The only indication in our manifesto for May’s Holyrood parliament elections that the SSP considers sectarianism an issue is a single bullet point - for desegregation - in the section on education. As the only party claiming to represent working class interests in Scotland, the SSP must debate and discuss this issue in terms of exposing the real cause of this anti-working class cancer. Socialists have to look beyond mere inter-religious bigotry.

In a recent conversation I had with Alan McCombes (SSP policy coordinator and editor of Scottish Socialist Voice) he agreed that the SSP should keep the discussion going on sectarianism. It was such a complex issue that knee-jerk reactions would not provide satisfactory solutions. As an example, comrade McCombes cited the proposed banning of marches as undesirable because of the danger this posed for the rights of all sections to demonstrate.

He agreed with my suggestion that sectarianism should not be approached simply as the symptom of religious rivalry. It should be regarded, he said, as a “Frankenstein’s monster” born of the ruling class that tried to suppress Irish nationalism and encouraged discrimination against catholics. The historical legacy of sectarianism was inextricably linked to the struggle for national unity and liberation in Ireland. In principle, he supported a united federal Ireland, with autonomous rights being granted to minorities. This would be a welcome development in SSP policy if it were ever adopted.

However, the signs are not encouraging. An attempt to tackle the sectarian question was headed off by the leadership - not least comrade McCombes himself - at February’s conference. An amendment to SSP policy on education, calling for the abolition of religious observance in state schools on the principle of separation of church and state, was clearly gaining support. Comrade McCombes quickly realised the serious consequences of where the debate was going. Grasping the anti-sectarian nettle in such a progressive manner was a step too far.

For the SSP to take a principled stance against anti-working class sectarianism was ‘risky’. To demand that our formal acceptance of the separation of church and state be actually put into practice would be ‘political suicide’. Comrade McCombes warned of the backlash from both sides of the sectarian divide if the SSP were to accept the amendment. The time was not right to call for abolition, he said; it would antagonise potential SSP voters.

This line of argument drew support from the Socialist Worker platform comrades. They said that attacking religious teaching in muslim faith schools was unfair. Not surprisingly, with the International Socialist Movement and SW platform united, conference voted for the status quo. This is political opportunism comrades - no more, no less.

Socialists, especially revolutionary socialists, should be vigorously campaigning to remove the right of religious organisations to interfere in the curriculum. We should support the teaching and study of religion (as well as atheism) in our schools, but not religious indoctrination. Naturally we support the right of all religious groups and organisations to practise their beliefs and disseminate their ideas. But these activities are out of place in the learning environment of schools.

The SSP has, for similar reasons, been reluctant in the past to embrace the terms ‘republican’ and even ‘republic’ because certain comrades were afraid of their association with the Irish nationalist movement and did not want to alienate those protestant workers who are traditionally sympathetic to loyalism (although it must be noted that our MSPs staged an excellent republican demonstration against the oath of allegiance after their election in May).

Yet, despite appearances, a refusal to take a firm position on the national question in Ireland is perfectly consistent for an organisation that has made Scottish independence - and with it the weakening of the British working class - its number one priority. Left nationalism puts Scotland first and last. Anything perceived to  damage Scottish unity must be avoided, ignored or flatly rejected. That is the overriding ‘principle’ for comrade McCombes nowadays.

The SSP is committed in its manifesto to a desegregated education system that allows for the rights of religious observance by all denominations, but to be implemented by consent and agreement rather than by compulsion and enforcement - ie, ecumenicalism, not secularism. A cowardly attempt to step around a living problem and an outright abandonment of the basic demand to separate church and state.

Socialists have to deal with the generally accepted (but mistaken) belief that religious differences taken in themselves are the root cause of modern sectarian divisions. This is ahistorical nonsense. The British nation-state and its component English, Scottish and Welsh parts were built on the ideological foundations of protestantism and anti-catholicism. Protestantism was the common religion on the island and catholic France the main enemy of England and then Britain. In other words, before the 1789 French Revolution religion and the formation of the nation-state went hand in hand.

There is also the Irish dimension. In the early 17th century settlers from Scotland and England were planted in the north with the specific intention of quelling the most rebellious part of Ireland. It was also hoped that the presence of settlers would counter the danger of Ireland being used as a catholic fifth column by Spain and then France.

Their descendants inevitably came to no longer regard themselves as simply ‘Scottish’ or ‘English’. Over a period of time they developed a protestant-Irish or British-Irish identity and regarded themselves as distinct from the majority of catholic Irish. In the north they played the role of a labour aristocracy, bribed with certain privileges as a means of suppressing Ireland as a whole and keeping the working class divided.

Communists oppose any reversal of the poles of oppression. A united Ireland must come about through the voluntary unity of its peoples. That is why we favour a federal Ireland - with, in the north, a British-Irish, two-county, two-half-county province which exercises the right of self-determination.

Socialists do not support the right of any national group to oppress another. That is the negative side of our programme. But there has to be a positive side as well. Our task is to bring about working class unity. Socialists overcome bigotry and hatred not only by championing democracy but through the experience of joint struggle to bring that programme to realisation.

Modern sectarianism must be viewed primarily as a national phenomenon, not a religious or confessional one. It has been given a particular sharpness in Scotland as a result of the close connection of many Scots with people of either British-Irish or catholic Irish descent.

The development of modern sectarian hatred, particularly in the west of Scotland, can be traced back to the immigration of catholics and protestants from Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. They provided the necessary pool of labour for the development of capitalism in Scotland during the period of industrialisation. The factories producing textiles and iron needed cheap labour. Railway construction, coal mining and agriculture expanded only because of the plentiful supply of workers from Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland. Irish workers, although predominant in the west of Scotland, also found work and established large communities in and around Perth, Stirling, Dundee and West Lothian, areas which today still harbour the sectarian legacy.

The sectarian divide was exacerbated during the depression of the 1930s. As capital plummeted into crisis and workers faced mass unemployment and starvation, working class protestants turned against catholic workers and their families, not least recent migrants, accusing them of taking ‘their’ jobs. Going with the existing historic grain, capital almost effortlessly opened up divisions within the working class by playing the sectarian card. Shipyards, mines and other workplaces were heavily influenced by the powerful protestant Orange Order. Favouritism was extended to protestant workers. Workers, blinded by sectarianism, failed to recognise the real enemy.

A united attack by all sections of workers against the system of capital at that time would have enabled workers to begin to see themselves as the only class capable of defending their rights and the rights of oppressed minorities. Only through such a united mass struggle can workers begin to recognise their enslavement under the ruling class and force economic and political concessions from them.

Class division was further ensured by allegiance to rival football clubs. Irish priests had founded Celtic FC to raise money for desperately poor catholic families in the East End of Glasgow. Their original team was composed mainly of Hibernian FC players from Edinburgh who were of Irish origin. It was hardly surprising therefore that Celtic became the ‘catholic’ club and Rangers the ‘protestant’ club in Glasgow. Rangers adopted a policy of never employing catholic players, a policy only very recently rescinded. Since 1995, 11 Celtic and Rangers supporters have been murdered by rival fans.

Six of the recommendations of the cross-party working group on sectarianism, set up by the Scottish executive and published in December 2002, deal with football, in particular Rangers and Celtic. However, rather than identify the root causes of this Scottish phenomenon, the working group proposed increased powers for the police and courts. The blame for bigotry and hatred is laid at the door of individuals. The system and its history escapes blame.

A further recommendation by the working group is one that should be of concern to all working class activists: “All local authorities should license street traders and introduce conditions preventing them from selling any offensive sectarian material in the context of football matches. The police should monitor the situation and report any breaches to the local authority, which should suspend the licence.” Comrades, how long would it take before such prohibitive legislation was extended to include other forms of “offensive” material - for example, that which sought to ‘provoke class division’?

Celtic’s chief executive, Ian McLeod, recently put his name to a mass leaflet urging supporters to desist from singing songs of an “offensive nature”. But he told reporters: “There are complex issues that underpin why people feel the need to sing songs of that kind. I’ve heard a great deal through my life of the famous Celtic paranoia. But look into the history and you’ll see that the people who started this club were ill-treated in this society. Irish catholic immigrants were given a hard time and they had good reason for founding the club: to help the needy among their own people. I think maybe the protestant majority conveniently forget that and, as a non-catholic, I can say that more easily, without it sounding like a persecution complex.”

McLeod also commented on his “delight” at the appearance of Scottish saltires - as opposed to Irish tricolours - when his club travelled to Europe. He made no mention, however, of the appearance of Palestinian flags (Celtic supporters) or Israeli flags (Rangers supporters) at recent matches.

Such demonstrations of support for an oppressed people by Irish republican sympathisers and the reflex response of siding with their oppressors by loyalists demonstrate that we need a rather more sophisticated approach to the problem of sectarianism than the even-handed condemnation of ‘religious’ bigots on both sides.