2007 - 2022

Sectarianism, Twitter and Democratic Legitimacy

As politicians are eager to engage with the electorate through twitter, discussing everything from the mundane and trivial to matters of great importance, I expected some sort of reaction when on Thursday 17th November the Scottish Government released the stats on sectarian violence in Scotland. I was especially expectant of the SNP, whose ministers seem exceptionally keen to utilise this communications medium to propagate their vision of a future independent Scotland. After trawling through the twitter feeds of all the major parties and major figures in Scottish politics I was somewhat startled to find only one, Humza Yousef MSP, was engaging with it. As being the only politician in Scotland willing to comment upon this issue and engage with members of the public, Mr Yousef must be commended. Even if he still has some way to go towards realising that sectarianism is not primarily a ‘football issue’.  Do his colleagues and party refrain from speaking about it because it goes against the SNP’s ‘Scottish’ brand? Would it be considered ‘talking Scotland down’?

Gauging from the lack of activity on Twitter regarding these figures, one would imagine sectarianism is not a problem in Scotland. Moreover, the outside world could be forgiven for thinking that because Scottish politicians are not talking about it, it can’t be an issue. But it most certainly is, and in light of the events which have occurred over the past year, Scotland’s sectarian problem is the most important issue this country faces. Regardless of the efforts being made by the SNP and others to put the Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill through parliament, politicians seem loathe to mention sectarianism in public. Whether it is an unwillingness to expose oneself, or upset certain sections of the electorate, this situation leaves us with dire implications for the nature of democracy in Scotland. It’s well known that companies who sponsor one half of the Old Firm find it necessary to sponsor the other for fear of upsetting potential or current customers. Thanks to twitter and our ability to engage directly with politicians, it seems political parties and most politicians feel exactly the same way. We could question why the legislation currently going through Parliament only happened after UEFA becoming involved in Scottish football and a campaign of violence was directed towards high-profile Celtic figures. This must surely lead us to question what types of political organisations we have in Scotland and what is the nature of our democracy when, faced with an opportunity to discuss a deep-seated societal problem in the social sphere, it is wilfully ignored.

We could quite easily attribute this unwillingness to confront sectarianism in Scotland with the rise of the professional political class, who are not likely to engage in matters which may affect their chances of re-election. It may, however, be more useful to question the role of our political parties, asking what political parties are for, how much do we personally know about their organisational structure, and even do we need new political organisations in Scotland? The 13% voter turnout for a local council by-election in Scotland’s largest city only serves to underline existing voter apathy, and increasing withdrawal of popular support and affection for political parties. This in turn leads to the ideological convergence among the parties (the only difference among the Scottish political parties being the constitutional issue) and the lack of partisanship in policy-making, which results in the collective political silence surrounding sectarianism.

Due to the nature of the political system in Scotland, even though the SNP ‘beat the system’ and won a majority government, maybe it would be useful to classify Scottish political parties through the framework developed by Kaare Strom on coalition formation. Strom identified three primary orientations of political parties seeking to enter coalition or support minority government: Vote-seeking; Policy-seeking; and Office-seeking. Steven Wolintez (2002) expanded this framework to be an heuristic aid, and posited that although parties will exhibit elements of all three of these dimensions, they will be strongest in one dimension, and will thus exhibit certain behavioural traits and elements within their party structure and organisation (Wolintez 2002, p. 149). He added four indicators, or “operational measures” through which we can assess political parties: Internal policy debate; Consistency of policy positions assumed; Elections campaigns; Infrastructure to support policies (Wolinetz 2002, p155). After an initial consideration of these operational measures my view is that the major Scottish political parties fall into either the ‘Vote-seeking’ (SNP, Labour) or ‘Office-seeking’ (Liberals, Conservatives) categories, with none exhibiting the traits of a Policy-seeking party.

Maybe this helps to explain the deafening silence of politicians on Thursday. As our politicians and parties are all aiming to gain votes or to be part of coalition government, none are willing to express a view which has not been sanctioned by the leadership, or which doesn’t fit with organisational strategy. So, as our political parties play a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma with each other over sectarianism in Scotland, we the people, are left to ponder the nature of representative democracy and whether or not there is a better way to facilitate it.


Wolintez, S. 2002. Beyond the Catch-All Party: Approaches to the Study of Parties and Party Organisations in Contemporary Democracies. In: Gunther, Montero, & Linz. Eds. Political parties: old concepts and new challenges. Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 136-165.


Comments (14)

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  1. To state that “Scotland’s sectarian problem is the most important issue this country faces” is,IMHO,overstating the issue and diminishing the importance of several other issues our country faces e.g.alcohol abuse,domestic violence etc. etc. There are large parts of our nation where sectarianism barely exists,if it does at all! It really shouldn’t come as anything of a surprise that the very part of our nation that suffers the most with sectarian problems is the very same part that the Labour Party has treated as its own little empire for generations! It obviously suits the Labour Party to keep the two sides of the sectarian divide at each others throats because then they can’t see how they’ve been getting shafted by their elected representatives!

  2. Doug Daniel says:

    Yeah, must agree with pictish above – when I moved to Glasgow from Aberdeen a few years ago, it was a bit of a culture shock because we just don’t have these sort of problems. I woke up one morning in Glasgow to find “Fuck the pope”, “RFC”, “UVF” and “BNP” scrawled on the building facing my window – you just wouldn’t get that in Aberdeen. On the other hand, other issues such as alcohol abuse and obesity are country-wide. As a result, perhaps many politicians just feel uncomfortable poking their heads above the parapet for an issue that is largely confined to one area. Humza – being a Glaswegian MSP who for obvious reasons cannot be accused of being biased towards either Protestants or Catholics – perhaps feels a freedom to speak out against it that other politicians may not.

    If MSPs from places like the Highlands or North-East started wading into the debate, I can’t help feeling their constituents would not be entirely outwith their rights to chastise said MSP for not focussing on issues that truly affected them, and instead grandstanding about an issue that had nothing to do with the people he or she represents. I’m not saying they should stay silent on the issue, but there is more at play than simply being scared to frighten potential voters.

    1. Scotsfox says:

      Agree entirely with this. As a Highlander who moved to Aberdeen for Uni and then further south for work I would say that this is a problem confined to West Central Scotland, predominantly Glasgow. I never saw any sectarianism before moving south – it just doesn’t exist north of Stirling.

  3. Erchie says:

    Since the Scottish Government is engaging on the Sectarian problem, risking losing votes from the austalopithecine portion of the vote they can hardly be said, by any objective viewer, to be dodging the issue

    It would take a fairly partisan point of view to insist, in the face of evidence, that they were

    1. Albalha says:

      So which part of the voting Scottish public do you put on a par with the modern ape?

  4. vronsky says:

    Another first year essay. This time, C-. Too much unsupported assertion.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Sometimes Vronsky it might better not to comment

  5. Davy Marzella says:

    I agree “sectarianism” might not be the most important issue this country faces – but before discussing the issue , is some kind of agreed definition not needed ?

    I’d suggest its origins having to do with divisions that developed between rural Highland and urban Central Belt Scotland ; with notions of progress being associated with industrialisation, empire , anglicanisation , and Protestantism – and those of Highland , Irish , Gaelic and Catholic origin being perceived as “backward” and a potential internal threat to the image of a “modern” Scotland .

    1. Scotsfox says:

      Sectarianism was nurtured by the British State. Good old divide and conquer.

  6. Gordie Paterson says:

    Interesting to see how the media reported it, and to consider why this needed clarification from Celtic (p.s. there is no ‘Old Firm’ and sectarianism in Scotland is anti-catholism and anti-Irishness, simples!)


  7. LJS says:

    Interesting take on this and sadly it’s fairly accurate neither SNP or Labour have any real desire to tackle this issue head on for fear of losing votes, though one mitigating circumstance that Paul fails to mention is the hysterical media environment surrounding this issue, just see the tabloid reaction to the “game of shame” when Lennon and McCoist squared up to one another compared to the atmosphere of hate between Real and Barcelona a few weeks later and not forgetting the BBC’s editing of McCoist earlier this season . In turn any MSP who raised their head above the parapet on this issue was likely to get it bitten off by the media who would have twisted their words to shift copy or pull in viewers , and that goes double for any SNP MSP.

    Granted a hostile media environment is no excuse for the deafening silence from our elected representatives on this however I think many of the posters above make a valid point that if an MSP represents a constituency north of Stirling coming out and discussing the issue at length is unreflective of the issues faced by the constituency the MSP represents. I, like Doug above me hail from the north east but have spent almost my entire adult life in Glasgow ( at times a tough dual regional identity to hold being a Teuchter fae the North East and a weegie) and must agree that moving down from Glasgow and seeing things like the Orange walk and the importance and prevalence of faith Schools seemed fairly alien to the Scotland of my childhood ( as youngster I remember having no idea why people were so upset as Gazza pretended to play a flute during one match). That said while the culture of Sectarianism is much common here (Glasgow) than in the North east I don’t think it true that it’s entirely absent from Aberdeen/shire and the rest of Northern Scotland, just look at the home address of the hundreds banning orders for Sectarian chants issued by Rangers plenty of them are from Aberdeen and the surrounding towns of Peterhead and Faserburgh. Given this even if someone refuses to accept that people from places such as the Highlands or the NE are Sectarian they at the very least must acknowledge that Scotland as a small country can’t say it’s just Glasgow and where this problems exists as people from their inhabit every part of it much like Highlanders are found in Fife and Taysider’s living in Edinburgh.

    In terms of this as either “just a football issue” or being the biggest issue facing Scotland I feel both are wide of the mark, poverty, inequality and poor health outcomes are bigger issue facing Scotland than Sectarianism and in terms of prejudices I’d say homophobia seems as wide spread any ( not firsthand experience but rather just an impression I gathered over the years). While Sectarianism does go beyond football it seems for many in Scotland this is where it both starts and finishes so to tackle the issue without looking at football and in particular the Old firm seems stupid I feel both clubs should do more to stamp this problem out. Whenever the issue raises its ugly head with supporters singing sectarian songs or chants both clubs respond with pleas of don’t do this as it hurts the club. This I feel is the wrong approach they need to flat say it’s wrong and explain why, I honestly feel if this point where made it would do a lot to tackle the casual bigots. The other issue the 2 clubs should address is fetting tough on supporter groups within the ground and while yes they do in general improve the match day experience neither the Green Brigade or the Union Bears should not be allowed to get a away with chanting vile and hate filled songs banning orders should be handed out and if this fails stands and ultimately stadium closures should follow.

    @ Gordie Paterson

    While I do think you have a point in terms of one said being worse than the other and have some evidence to back that up in terms of the latest hate crime figures in Scotland or UK law regarding who can and cannot become head state, I dont’ think either side can claim innocence. It seems clear to me that one side claiming its all the fault of the other side does nothing to solve this issue it clearly serve’s to exacerbate the problem on 2 fronts. The most obvious one can be seen on football message boards all over the internet OF fan “whataboutry” where OF fans merely seek to outdo each other in tales of disgraces committed by opposing group. The other is that this victim mentally adopted by Celtic not only serves to Sectarianise their own fans and that of other smaller clubs but also stops them tackling there own undeniable issues with this problem.

  8. George Mackin says:

    To say that the problem lies solely with the West of Scotland is not borne out by Scottish history- for example all major cities (Aberdeen may be the exception) has a history of anti-Irish/ Catholic sentiment- see for example the role of Protestant Action had on the city of Edinburgh.

    As a general rule we should be wary of anecdotal evidence alone. I have my own anecdotal evidence. It does not show Scotland at it best. I shall refrain.

    As I write this, another player of Irish descent Celtic player is seeking the refuge of a safe house for fear of attack from an orange mob. Catholics are more significantly more likely to get attacked and the like. This is not myth nor speculation but is borne out by facts, which can be verified.

    This debate seems to deflect blame away from Scotland. I think that is wrong.Young laddies singing the Soldier Song or the waving of the Irish tri-colour may be offensive to Scottish sensibilities and to your sense of nationhood, yet surely freedom of speech is about defending things you don’t like; I may not like the Union Flag or the Sash but I think we have to have very good reasons for implementing laws which deprive people of their liberties,

    The SNP have a mixed history over anti-Irish sentiment, so it is quite important that we don’t throw stones at glass houses here.The Labour may have sold it soul to the neo-liberal devil but it is not responsible for creating the conditions for sectarianism and in many ways that party played a pivotal role in uniting Scottish working people.

    See any back copies of the Independent to get a flavour of the stupidity of Scottish middle class nationalism. The SNP was also blessed Oilver Brown and his Ilk, who played a major role in forging the SNP to the more tolerant party it is now.

    Oh for the gift to see us as other see us… Scotland can at times can be an awfully narrow and hate-filled country at times. Aberdeen, included.

  9. Davy Marzella says:

    From Joan McAlpine article on “sectarianism” –

    “Rugby fans don’t attack each other after singing Flower of Scotland.”

    Granted , but then violence is not generally a problem at rugby…..But if Scotland was playing England at football – and some Scottish football fans attacked English fans after the singing of FoS …. what then ? Should FoS be bannned in that context ????


  10. Mr Chatterbox says:

    I tried to comment on the sectarianism topic, on an article concerning former Glasgow councillor (and Provost) Michael Kelly, on the news net scotland website that sprung up, carrying some interesting articles from external third party sources, joining the forum to comment, only to find almost every comment I made or tried to make – and they were lengthy, heartfelt and I felt polished contributions – were wilfully moderated, censored and completely erased, consigned to the ‘memory hole’. I can only conclude the sites mods and perhaps backers were loyalist sectarian tribalists. Comments on another article on Brian Souter which mentioned the infamous ‘save clause 28’ campaign, or the vile mans palpable homophobia likewise were not permitted. The site has now been down for a protracted period, presumably making out like a bandit with many people’s modest donations. Something very fishy there.

    Sectarianism (if that is the right word for a culture of persecution of a minority on specious religious grounds) is a horrible topic, and a distraction from the far more important goal of independence and I can understand the SNPs reluctance to get to bogged down with it, being one of Westminster’s Monster and a part of the poisonous UK legacy that will diminish in time. The so-called Unionist parties however need to be put under an intense spotlight on this issue, it is their demon, they cannot disown it and as far as sectarianism in the workplace is concerned, the trade union hierarchy are a dead loss and if not actively encouraging the worst elements, seem content to keep it under the public’s radar.

    More powah to your alba.

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