The Blog

Sectarianism and Other Concerns over Scottish Independence

Whilst independence almost certainly does not risk turning Scotland into another Ireland or Iceland there is, however, no denying that in many crucial respects, it will result in its weakening.

As someone part of whose upbringing was in Scotland, I have kept a keen eye on the issues surrounding the independence referendum, much more so than the southern folk among whom I live. Part of my schooling was in a state primary school in Lanarkshire (quite near Glasgow) geared for Protestant children - there was a school for Catholic children not too far away. When I asked my father why all my classmates supported Rangers Football Club, and were most hostile to Celtic, their great rivals in Glasgow, he simply told me that this was because Rangers was the club for Protestants whilst Celtic was supported by Catholics.

Even though I hailed from a Sunni Muslim background with its condescending attitude towards the Shia and other smaller sects, this was my first encounter with sectarianism and I did not like it. Wind the clock forward to the present day and I do worry whether in an independent Scotland sectarianism might be intensified. Whilst it is true that its origins lie in Northern Ireland (a reminder of this was the march by Unionists in Edinburgh last Saturday) Scotland has not managed to root this ill out completely - even though, just as in the rest of Britain, the role of religion for most people is rapidly fading. Yet the Scottish government, like its Westminster counterpart, still accords privileges to religions, especially in education, thereby retaining a fertile ground for sectarian tensions. This profoundly important issue has been neglected in the Referendum campaign by both sides but remains an elephant in the room. Unintended and unexpected consequences can follow major changes.

When our family moved to England, we felt that we had changed home within the same country, moving across the borderless border: there were no cultural, linguistic and climatic shocks, just a change in the accents of the local people; though it became tiresome when Lanarkshire was constantly being confused with Lancashire! Bearing this in mind, I wonder if the push for independence is not a case of what Freud termed 'the narcissism of small differences'. This would certainly be the view of many people around the world for whom the key impact of the peoples of this small island is summed up in three words: 'The British Empire'. For the colonised, it made not the slightest difference whether the colonial master was from Aberdeen, Birmingham, or Cardiff. And few would dispute that a union now over 300 years old has not only been one of the oldest but also one of the most successful in history.

Of course, supporters of the 'Yes' campaign would point out to examples where the differences are anything but small, such as no prescription charges, much lower student tuition fees, and much less private sector involvement in the NHS in Scotland; and these are indeed crucial reasons as to why they may well win. The SNP, often derided as the 'Tartan Tories' in the past, has adhered to social democratic policies with admirable conviction leading to a public school-educated octogenarian friend of mine to quip that East Sussex should also join up in a devolved or independent Scotland; the moral of which is that differences which have arisen post-devolution are not desired by a good many people even in the relatively prosperous South East of England.

Whilst an independent Scotland will resolve the 'West Lothian question', by removing the social-democratically minded Labour and Lib Dem MPs from Westminster, it also increases the likelihood of an entrenched Tory majority which cements the differences. Even though this potential political fall-out has been discussed in the media, it seems that, as yet, people south of the border have not given it much thought. Not that they can do much about it given that the vote in the referendum does not extend to them.

The same thinking applies to illegal wars of aggression: Alex Salmond leader has consistently railed against the war-mongers in Westminster to great effect. The late, marvellous novelist, Iain Banks had argued that he 'would vote for independence purely never to be part of any more unnecessary illegal, immoral wars'. On the face of it, a most principled stance. But the wars launched by the Blair government against Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were supported by key Scottish members of his cabinet including Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and John Reid and, lest one forgets, Blair himself has strong Scottish connections. So the wars were about politics, not 'Scottishness' versus 'Englishness' or 'Britishness'. Moreover, to his credit, another Scot, Robin Cook, resigned from the cabinet after the vote for war against Iraq was passed. Cook would doubtless have been a leading light in the 'Better Together' camp and attempted to convince the likes of Iain Banks that his reasoning was rather too emotional and not based on reason and facts.

It is also a shame that Banks was not alive to witness lessons being learned when parliament voted against the war on Syria a year ago. Again, remove the Labour and Lib Dem MPs from Scotland, with their anti-war proclivities, and you risk the likelihood of Westminster voting yes to future 'illegal, immoral wars'. Perhaps these reservations will not be of much concern to many in the 'Yes' camp, but as is now widely acknowledged, independence will have profound implications in all parts of the UK - some of which may well be distinctly problematic. Whilst independence almost certainly does not risk turning Scotland into another Ireland or Iceland there is, however, no denying that in many crucial respects, it will result in its weakening.