Ian Davidson, the Labour-SNP Divide and the Language of Violence

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

Comments (24)

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  1. Doug Daniel says:

    “How long do we have to endure the Labour-SNP dysfunctional relationship”

    How long do we have left of the union? The two answers are the same.

  2. George Laird says:

    Hi Gerry
    Small point, he isn’t MP for Govan, but Glasgow Pollok.


  3. bellacaledonia says:

    Thanks Gerry, there’s some interesting notions & concepts in here. ‘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.’ To which I’d add that the usual Scottish chippiness has now been replaced by a new Anglo dispensation, a new grievance culture of a nation repressed and unacknowledged (which is only very partialy true). Also the anti-Englishness that blighted much of Scottish thinking for years is largley gone but if you follow online news debates the vitriol that pours out from our Southern neighbours is something to behold.

    I think there is also a question about the quality of conversation / dialogue. We have shifted from monologue (one state voice, one party politics) to many voices (but need many more). But the quality of exchange remains brutally poor. We have had a ‘national conversation’ that was nothing of the kind and need to create forums which enhance rather than debilitate this. We hope we can build Bella into one of these forums aiming for an ‘architecture of participation’ if you excuse the pomposity.

    Here’s an interesting way to think about qualities of conversation:

    Monologue : Solovoce
    Debate : Beating Down
    Discussion: Table Tennis
    Skilled Conversation : Ploughing the Field
    Dialogue : Ripple
    Generative Dialogue : Flow

  4. James MacDonald Reid says:

    The committee which Davidson chairs was motivated and set up in such a spirit as to lead inevitably to such a confrontation. Note, for example, the removal of the two Labour women from the committee and their replacement by men. Everything that has come out of the committee so far has been nothing more than blatant smears directed at the SNP. No wonder Dr Whiteford feels under stress, whatever the churlish Davidson has said to her.

  5. Indy says:

    I think this is a very interesting article. I was quite struck by the debate around the the conviction of Stephen Birrell and the insistence that it doesn’t matter that he is someone with a quite shocking history of violence he still has a right to say whatever he pleases on a facebook page, the sole purpose of which was to attack an individual who was at that time receiving bullets and homemade explosive devices through the post. It’s as if they were saying there is no connection between what people say and what they do, which seems to me to show a remarkable absence of common sense.

    It’s also been strange to see some of the comments around the Davidson story and people saying that talking about giving people a doing is just a throwaway remark. Because I don’t know what circles these folk move in but I would disagree with that quite strongly. Yes, we might say that “we” or “they” got a right doing at a particular election or something of that sort but you would not say that to or of an individual. Because then it is personal. Maybe that is what the problem is, people losing sight of what is personal and what is political.

  6. I have been told today by one of Mr Davidson’s ex employees (from his days as a councillor in Strathclyde Region) that this sort of outburst is par for the course. Davidson would routinely belabour any one who suggested that maybe Davidson’s ideas or views were wrong with vitriol and threats.

    Put it another way if Mr Davidson had made his ‘comment’ (which he now has agreed he did make to Dr Whiteford) outside of the ‘House’: if Dr Whiteford was an employee Mr Davidson would be facing a very expensive Employment Tribunal at best but if reported under section 4, 4a or 5 of the English penal code and found guilty he would be facing a fine and or imprisonment for violent or threatening behaviour.

    The problem highlighted by Mr Davidson’s outburst has little to do with ‘SNP – Labour antipathy’ and a lot to do with the near Neanderthal view of women, male MP’s appear to foster at Westminster. From Cameron’s patronising ‘Calm down, dear, calm down’ at one end of the scale – which had the usual Labour female ‘suspects’ up in arms about Cameron’s misogyny – to this open threat of violence. In West of Scotland parlance there is only one interpretation of what Mr Davidson now admits he said and that is it is an overt threat of physical violence – while the deafening silence of Labour Female MPs on this matter is self condemning of the Labour Party as a whole.

    This transcends party politics and is about a runaway parliament at Westminster, out of control and descending into anarchy and greed – Mr Davidson stands to loose the additional near £16K a year he gets on top of his MP’s salary as the Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee if forced to stand down (plus the enhancement to his MP’s pension that goes a long with the job).

    The SAC with its investigation into the ‘Referendum for the Separation of Scotland’ (though it must be said I did not think anyone has plans to separate Scotland into lots of bits) is operating outside of its core tasks as defined in the committee’s remit because the bill being proposed is not the result of EU or HM Government policy nor has the Scottish Office any current Green or White paper on a referendum on any issue for Scotland that is within Westminster’s province. This investigation is simply another excuse for a ‘jolly’ to hear only what they want to hear then write a ‘majority’ report about how revolting and ungrateful the Scots are to have democratically elected a majority party to Holyrood whose manifesto (and central political aim) is to seek a referendum of the Scottish electorate on the subject of Independence for Scotland in the latter half of their current term in Government.

    This is an issue about ‘respect’ and the ‘respect’ Westminster claims it has for devolution, in this Mr Davidson is merely expressing the anger and bitterness of the whole Westminster Unionist Operation.

    1. Scottish republic says:

      He’s a thug and an expenses claiming snout-trougher par excellence.

      He should be made to resign but then the Labour party’s standards are different from… well everybody else’s.

  7. Hen Broon says:

    “This is an issue about ‘respect’ and the ‘respect’ Westminster claims it has for devolution, in this Mr Davidson is merely expressing the anger and bitterness of the whole Westminster Unionist Operation.”

    Nail head direct hit.

    And they are doing it deliberately ;o))

  8. Rich says:

    Is it not just a bitter franchise fight? – the LP abandoned any pretence of a desire for a socialist challenge to the capitalist system so (to maintain some identity) they identified certain issues as “left “: one was devolution- Blair damaged the link between the working class conciousness and the LP in Scotland. The SNP took the “left” issue of devolution and totally outflanked the LP. Davidson and his like are bitter and isolated and now find themselves as the major unionist voice in Sottish politics. What is the Sottish Labour Party for other than preserving the union?
    No wonder he gets cross. His use of language is not nearly as big a fault as his politics.

  9. Scottish republic says:

    “””How long do we have to endure the Labour-SNP dysfunctional relationship””””

    As usual Gerry, an excellent piece, always a good read.

    The answer is until the union is broken.

    The story is more or less the following :

    1) Labour ridiculed the SNP until Jim Sillars put them into a state of shock at Govan.

    2) The SNP activists always saw Labour as betraying the best interests of the Scottish people and put up with the ridicule at least until Labour said ‘pay your poll tax’. The activists were generally more left-wing than the party at that point in my opinion.

    3) I witnessed first hand a subsequent by-election (a rather dirty Labour campaign at that where they played the orange card and the green card) with Alex Neil as I helped the SNP(a small anecdote that nobody will remember) ;

    I saw two interesting jaw dropping things : a) an open-top van full of little shirt and tie and smart dresses and it was not a van full of Tories but a van full of Labourites of the new Blairite Labour – shocked I was to say the least. b) We lost the by-election and at night outside the counting hall there was a thickish line of Labourites on one side and opposite them an equally thick line of SNP activists (about 30 to 40 on each side). The hostility was tangible and I thought a pitched battle was about to take place. In the end insults were exchanged and grrs… and growls but fortunately and remarkably it didn’t go any further but it very nearly did.

    I would say we were equally as hostile to Labour but I’d also say they were very much as you described them – not understanding why they were having to fight for an otherwise safe seat and prejudice was boiling in their eyes. i think they understand now why they’re losing – or maybe not.

    In any case, no love lost and none will be gained by loving the enemy here. We win or they do, we are in the course of a political war with the forces of British nationalism and nobody’s getting a cuddle until after we’ve won the war.

  10. BWALLACE says:

    Imagine this.

    George Robertson said: “Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead”

    What would be the reaction if it has been Alex Salmond saying “Independence will kill the Labour party stone dead”?


    ‘We can kill independence and break the SNP’ — Murdo Fraser

    What would the reaction be if it was Alex Salmond saying ‘We can kill the union and break the Labour party’.

    So just who does use the language of violence in this debate?

  11. Gerry Fisher says:

    The reason for the hatred is really simple to get.
    The SNP were early on recognised by the Scottish Labour Party as the only real opponent who could remove the power, and its consequential advantages, from them. Thay had come to believe that it was theirs by right of conquest, just as they owned the votes.
    The fact that we established ourselves as the first Social-Democratic party in Scotland only made it worse when their English comrades followed our lead and forced them to gree with our clear position in the spectrum.
    But its the Power loss they really cant take!

  12. Indy says:

    Another factor is that these days a lot of people in the SNP used to be in Labour – if they weren’t actually members they were strong supporters. Whereas I don’t think there are many people in Labour who used to be SNP. So I think there is a lack of understanding within Labour about what the SNP are actually like. They still don’t really know us and I think many of them do genuinely think we are awful people, for whatever reason. They certainly credit us with a good deal more Machievelan cunning than we actually have lol.

    Having said that sometimes the ex-Labour folk can be more anti-Labour than anyone else.

    But overall I would hope most folks would know that bitter and twisted doesn’t attract votes! If your focus is on the voters rather than on your own preoccupations then you won’t go down that road.

    1. Scottish republic says:

      I think to be honest, we’re winning at this point in time (oh fickle voter) and we can leave the bitter and twisted to Labour.

      If we do well in May and then the G.E. for Westminster then they won’t be bitter just defeated.

      The best outcome for Scotland, socialists and anybody who cares about the lot of the Scottish people is for that party to close up shop.

    2. James MacDonald Reid says:

      My SNP branch has a very large number former Labour activists; formerly members and even councillors and parliamentary assistants. Therefore, we have substantial insight into how Labour actually operates from the inside. Indeed, that very knowledge is what motivates much of the disdain for Labour within our ranks.

    3. Andrew says:

      I totally agree Indy, I’m an ex Labour supporter and the comments I received when i stopped and became an SNP supporter, never mind becoming an SNP member, were unbelievable. Some would refuse to speak to me, it really was that bad i can only assume that it has got worse. Its almost as if being in the Labour Party is a way of life and woe betide you if you turn your back on them, I just don’t see SNP people moving to Labour, but i really can see Labour people moving over to the SNP Although this was a good few years back now, i can still vividly recall the animosity from former friends.

  13. Morag Lennie says:

    I think we’ve slightly lost the point along the way. given that we started off with the comments made ( allegedly) to Eilidh, and the fact of the matter is, that despite the supposed existence of “the new man”, we still live in a profoundly misogynist society. Eilidh’s big mistake is that she is a woman, and a NATIONALIST woman to boot. i am sick hearing men say, in situations like this, that not all men are like that, but don’t challenge other men when they hear them making belittling comments about women, watch them leering over page three and “lad’s mags,” far less at least pick up the phone and call the cops when they are aware of domestic abuse being perpetrated. While looking at the political divide, we MUST take on board the gender divide, which is still very much alive and kicking ( lit and fig.)

  14. Ian Davidson always felt strongly against SNP. When student politcian in 1970’s he saddled his colleagues with a NUS policy that said the SNP was “fundamentally dishonest, opportunist and rightwing” which I am sure he believed. However even then SNP included left of centre activists who would have worked with other colleagues on the progressive mainstream. His policy initiative was partisan and short sighted.

  15. Siôn Jones says:

    Anybody know if Harreitt Harperson has commented on this incident? (tee hee!)

  16. vronsky says:

    I’m a bit worried about the idea of SNP/Labour confrontation being merely ‘tribalism’ on a par with the moronic followers of the Old Firm. I reserve my right to describe something as detestable if I find it so. Would you have argued in 30s Berlin that those who expressed concern about the Nazis were being ‘tribalist’? Were those who spoke out against them “ugly, unattractive, unedifying”?
    The Labour Party is filthy at all levels, from petty (and not so petty) municipal criminality to global war crimes. If we are from the ‘same political tradition’, one of us has strayed very far from the path. So pardon me and many others for not trying to get on a little better with them. It would be a poor survival strategy for the species.
    And then I have a feeling I recognise this argumentation, look up to the top of the piece and sure enough – it’s Gerry Hassan. FFS, give it up Gerry.

  17. Ard Righ says:

    Who cares!
    The truth is simple, traitors from a failing union of the corporation of UK plc.

  18. Observer says:

    I have read quite a few comments like the one from Peter Thomson claiming that if this was a case of workplace bullying (Davidson/Whiteford) then Mr Davidson would be in trouble. Quite simply that is complete rubbish. Any complaint Dr Whiteford made may have led to Mr Davidson being chastised for his use of language, but apart from that it would be a no case to answer. That is because his explanation of events makes sense & he has witnesses. Her case doesn’t make sense, & she has no witnesses. Workplace investigations take account of facts like that.

  19. david morgan says:

    i would love to see davidsons face if he ran into mr whiteford

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