A Twitter-inspired connection put us together with the excellent Reasonably Raging blog (with thanks to Geopoetic Luke Devlin).

We have frequently heard the political slogan, “One Scotland, many cultures”, since it was launched in 2007 to brand Scotland a pluralistic society characterised by tolerance of difference. However, judging by a Scottish government poll which found that more than 85% of Scots want “sectarianism” to be an illegal offence with 89% declaring it “offensive”, most Scots now freely admit that Scotland has a problem with “sectarianism”. Roseanna Cunningham, Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, told the BBC that sectarianism threatens the “very fabric of Scotland; we want to be tolerant, respectful, and forward looking”. Roseanna Cunningham’s comments and the first draft of the much-debated “anti-sectarianism bill” reveal how the debate on sectarianism is producing ideas about what type of nation Scotland should be and what it means to be Scottish. When we talk about sectarianism and what it means to be Scottish, we are, in the words of Benedict Anderson, imagining the nation. By limiting who is and isn’t to be thought of as authentically Scottish we produce what it means to be Scottish. Sectarianism is seen as a religious problem and to protect the “very fabric” of Scotland we need legislation to stop people calling each other “insert-religion-here bastards” but not necessarily “insert-ethnicity-or-nationality-here bastards”. This creates the danger that we ignore ethnocentrism whereas we crack down on religious bigotry. Here I seek not to evaluate the extent of sectarianism or to “take sides” but to examine how the term is used and the implications for how people understand Scottish identity.

It is a welcome change for complex issues in which history, nationalism, and religion are entangled in complex webs of self-identification to be on the front of our national newspapers instead of relegated to the sports pages. Complacency has previously allowed those discussing bigotry to reinforce national stereotypes and produce ideas about what it means to be Scottish without being challenged. For example, in 2004 the journalist Stuart Cosgrove criticised Aiden McGeady’s choice to play football for the Republic of Ireland, the country of his grandparents’ birth, instead of Scotland where he was born. Cosgrove claimed McGeady’s choice was representative of international football’s descent to the level of a “Woolworths pick and mix”. How a long history of cross-border flows of people between Scotland and Ireland has affected how people identify themselves in complex ways is dismissed as “pick and mix”. In other words, mongrel-like or not “authentic”. Like many other football journalists, Cosgrove was theorising about what constitutes national identity albeit in a comedic fashion. Cosgrove, like many commentators, employed an uncritical definition of nation as the place of one’s birth to criticise how an 18 year old footballer identified himself. His idea of national identity is exclusionary: you are simply with us (people born in Scotland who call themselves Scottish) or against us (people born in Scotland who call themselves Irish). There can be no middle ground. In a liberal democracy, which seeks to reject sectarianism, this self-identification should be an individual’s decision and the individual’s decision alone. The greatest problem here is not that people have this view of national identity. The problem is that such intolerance of those who identify themselves in a different way is left unchallenged because it is seen as belonging to the realm of football and “banter”. Thousands of people tune in to similar debates on radio stations and in print- this is influence without responsibility. Such football journalists are unwittingly imagining the boundaries of the nation through their writing. They define what it means to be Scottish and frequently exclude those who choose to celebrate what they understand to be their Irish heritage.

Dr John Kelly of the University of Edinburgh argues that the public discourse on sectarianism constructs a unified, non-sectarian identity that purportedly “real” and “authentic” Scots should share in opposition to a set of sectarian ‘Others’. In other words, by excluding certain characteristics, this discourse imagines what it means to be Scottish. In 2006 the now retired pundit, Gerry McNee, dismissed the Fields of Athenry and The Boys of the Old Brigade sung by Celtic fans along with the Sash and Derry’s Walls, often sung by Rangers fans, as “Irish tosh” “we need to get rid of”. In other words, “real” and “authentic” Scots have enclosed national identities without the “sectarian” cross-border influence from Ireland. This is of course ironic. The Sash and Derry’s walls are sung by Rangers supporters and proponents of the British Union in Northern Ireland to celebrate Britishness and how they identify themselves as not being part of Ireland. McNee’s comments were reflective of a widespread simplistic view of complex social issues that “sectarianism” comes from some barbaric outside world which we should contrast our civilised selves against.

Dismissing people’s views as “Irish tosh” because they sing songs to commemorate what they see as their British or Irish heritage narrowly draws the boundaries of acceptable public identification such that people feel their identities are under threat. This imagines Scotland as some enclosed, discrete community yet our history tells us the borders between Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland are very fluid and the trans-border flows of migration are a constant. Being Irish or being British does not make one a bigot but refusing to allow people to understand themselves this way does. As Dr John Kelly noted in his written submission to the Justice Committee on the “anti-sectarianism bill”, celebration of one’s identity is not a social problem unless this involves hatred of other identities. People can disagree over the nationalist political sentiments expressed in The Boys of the Old Brigade or Derry’s Walls but it is difficult find anything in the songs themselves which express hatred of other identities. There are intolerable, racist songs sung in Scottish football grounds which is another issue altogether. However, it would be highly illiberal to criminalise songs because they celebrate identities which are not “authentically” Scottish or because we disagree with their political sentiments.

National identities can be multiple, especially in the United Kingdom. As Benedict Anderson asked “to what nation does the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland refer?”. One can be Scottish and Irish at the same time- the two countries are not sealed off and people travel and have inter-married for a very long time. One can also be Scottish and British at the same time. Many will argue it is impossible to be Irish and British but is this difference really a problem? Difference is not a problem but how it is socially organised can be. If we criminalise or marginalise people not because they hate the Other but because they see themselves as Irish or British we will create resentment and create a much more serious national conflict than we currently witness. Politicians and tourist boards can imagine an enclosed, culturally isolated Scotland but our history has different stories which should be told. If we want Scotland to be a nation of many cultures we have to allow its people celebrate their many origins.