Does the recent Ian Davidson-Eilidh Whiteford controversy matter? Is it a storm in a political teacup? Or does it reflect something wider and more sinister in our culture?
First, there are the alleged words of Ian Davidson, Labour MP for Glasgow South West, about giving a woman, Eilidh Whiteford, SNP Banff and Buchan MP, ‘a doing’, meaning threatening actual physical violence and abuse. This does sound like the sort of thing that Davidson could say; he has form with using aggressive, hard, boiling over the top language; twice in the summer he called the Nationalists ‘neo-fascists’ and did not offer any apology.
Second, you could still agree that this doesn’t matter that much; that it was a misunderstanding or a casual use of language and doesn’t really amount to anything important in a world awash with serious issues and crises.
However, there is a wider backstory. The continued saga of Labour-SNP relations which has for many years been an ugly, unattractive, unedifying one (1). There is a basic failure of understanding, respect and empathy between these two similar political traditions. It is much worse and bitter in Scottish Labour and even worse still in Westminster Scots Labour, where there is amongst, mostly male politicians like Davidson a profound and repellent ‘entitlement culture’.
This articulates a sense of status, importance and reputation as part of the Westminster class, a belief that they deal with big, proper politics, and have been usurped by a ‘toy town’ Parliament and politicians. And now the SNP run this institution: a Parliament ‘set up’ by Labour and which Labour ‘gave away’ by agreeing to it being elected by proportional representation.
Then there is the machismo misogynist culture which people like Davidson represent and give legitimacy to (2). It is indefensible and we need to ask why senior Scottish Labour Westminster women such as Margaret Curran and Cathy Jamieson are keeping quite and therefore colluding with this?
Scottish Labour women know the sexist, nasty culture that exists in parts of their party, and have put up for years with dismissive, denigrating comments. Prior to 1997 and all women shortlists, Scottish Labour had an appalling record on women’s parliamentary representation; something which has thankfully changed post-1997. And yet there has been silence on the Davidson alleged intervention, rather than his suspension as a Labour MP and his offices while he is under investigation.
There is something even more going on. The Labour-SNP bitter divide is not exceptional or in isolation in Scotland. It is part of a wider problem we have from – unionist versus nationalist, Rangers versus Celtic, Protestant and Catholic – a problem of what have become binary opposites.
There are characterised by a number of factors: a near total absence of empathy on part of each side, often led by some of the most vocal, about the other; an inability to understand and comprehend the rational, logic and legitimacy of opposing opinions, and a problem with how we conduct and nurture public relationships beyond people who we think are like ourselves and agree with us. There is a kind of narrow tribalism at play in this.
Another crucial issue at work in this is the asymmetrical nature of prejudice, bigotry and blinkered attitudes. In the general, Labour detests the SNP more than vice-versa, Rangers fans hate Celtic fans more than the opposite. This is because the once dominant culture has found itself challenged by forces which once saw themselves as underdogs, but were viewed by the dominant forces as illegitimate. And part of each dominant culture as it has declined has turned even more ugly. As society and politics change even more, there is a high chance some of the cultural and political authoritarians could turn even nastier. The power and privilege of some of those in society who have grown used to having things their own way is being eroded and they don’t like it.
We need to see the phenomenon of the Ian Davidsons in our midst in this wider and longer-term context; the sheer bunkerist nature of Labour’s anti-Nationalist gut prejudices, the power and ubiquity of misogynist, abusive, violent men.
We do need to challenge inappropriate remarks such as those which Davidson allegedly said. But we have to do much more. We have to address the wider pervading culture of the language of violence, and the appeasement and acquiescence which goes on every day in every part of public life in Scotland. A recent interesting example of this was the conviction of Stephen Birrell for his Facebook sectarian comments with commentators such as Alex Massie arguing this was a shift from acting on ‘hate crime’ to ‘thought crime’, and not addressing the wider point of a culture saturating in the language and reality of violence (3).
And we need to reach out beyond tribalism no matter how attractive it might seem at times. We have to support, aid and nourish a public culture which is not ill at ease with difference and diversity, but instead revels and takes confidence from containing different communities, traditions and values. How long do we have to endure the Labour-SNP dysfunctional relationship, or the problematic nature of the Rangers versus Celtic relationship? We are all as individuals and society diminished by the damaged nature of these relationships.
Aiding a very different kind of Scotland, and standing up to the appeasement, collusion and avoidance of repellent views will not be easy or comfortable, but we have to say to ‘the hard wee men’ in every part of Scotland, enough is enough!
1. Gerry Hassan, ‘The Auld Enemies: Scottish Nationalism and Scottish Labour’, in The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power, Edinburgh University Press 2009.
2. A Burdz Eye View, ‘Zero Tolerance Applies To All’, October 25th 2011, http://burdzeyeview.wordpress.com/2011/10/25/zero-tolerance-applies-to-all/
3. Alex Massie, ‘Stephen Birrell’s Conviction Shames Scotland’, Spectator Coffee House, October 18th 2011, http://www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie/7320834/stephen-birrells-conviction-shames-scotland.thtml