Tom Devine is, by any reasonable standard, an exceptional historian. His work on economic and social issues relating to Scotland, especially the period covering the 17th to 19th centuries, is as impressive as it is vast. Some of his more recent output, on empire and sectarianism, has been rather patchy in nature. Still, for all his approach to the Covenanters may not find universal support (1) , his lecture in Edinburgh as part of the 300th anniversary of the Union, ‘The End of Unionism,’ was actually a fine defence of the constitutional arrangement and political reality, then and now, and his thoughts on the importance of Protestantism to the Enlightenment are well-represented in a recent Times article. (2)
So, you may ask, what exactly was he doing on Thursday evening’s BBC coverage of the Glasgow North East by-election? At first glance, the secondary panel (later we were treated to representatives of the major parties) was an odd bunch, indeed: Devine, the pallid beak of Joan MacAlpine, Alf Young of the Herald and that well-known bruiser, Margo MacDonald. As many noted on the night, it was a selection representing all the major BBC-approved political positions, from left to centre-left.
Some of you may recall that when first we suffered at the hands of UEFA, the discredited journalist was not alone in his attempts to have a native club suffer sanctions. Jack McConnell’s passion for discussing and tackling sectarianism may have caused him to lose his political marbles, and support from Elgin to Edinburgh, but he was ably assisted by people from all professions. Our friend at UEFA, David Taylor, at least one high profile churchman (believed to be Richard Holloway) and one prominent historian were thought to be involved in the general campaign, much of this information spilling from the over-excited mouth of Spiers himself, so caught up and careless did he become when he felt he had got one over the “white underclass” (3) of Rangers.
It may be a push to imagine Devine’s involvement, but perhaps it is worth noting a number of related facts. Firstly, as Professor Devine’s own home page tells us, “I advise the Scottish Executive on anti-sectarian policy.” (4) Further, when generally discussing the SNP attitude towards combating sectarianism, he lamented, "We should be calling this for what it is: it isn't sectarianism, it is anti-Catholicism." (5) So there you have it: sectarianism, as defined and understood by the man who advised the government on the subject, is merely code for anti-Catholicism.
Should one wish to examine this mindset further, Devine’s book, ‘Scotland’s Shame?’, gives room to the likes of James MacMillan and other notable Roman Catholics – including Bishop Joseph Devine, he of “Roman Catholic education is divisive” and an “enabler of sectarianism” (6) – as they inform us of the perils of this anti-Catholic way of life and thought in modern Scotland. At the time, it seemed to be – perish the thought – a perverse cash-in; a curious release obviously intended to benefit from the controversy after MacMillan’s outburst at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival, with his speech (note the absence of question mark) ‘Scotland’s Shame’. However, it should be noted that Devine claims to differ from the likes of MacMillan in some important ways: “Where I part company with MacMillan is in his assumption that such bigotry continues even today, and, crucially, that it still influences the labour market in terms of employment and promotion, obstructing life opportunities for Scottish Catholics.” (7)
Still, the edited volume certainly suffers by comparison with the work of those who are expert in their field, such as Aberdeen-based sociologist Steve Bruce, who, along with his co-contributors, wrote 2004’s ‘Sectarianism in Scotland’ (8) , which produced and displayed the raw data to counter the rhetoric. A serious debate on sectarianism and the extent to which it truly exists in 21st Century Scotland, the main purpose and stated intention of that book, continues within academia but Devine has been largely absent. Although, and this was a treat, Devine and Bruce met for a debate on the subject in Aberdeen – where both were then employed – in 2005. (9) Few who witnessed this were convinced by the historian. Devine left for Edinburgh later that year. (10)
But back to Thursday, and his appearance on BBC as a pundit. As the result became clear – as did the extent to which voters had sadly chosen to support the fascists of the BNP - so too did the purpose of Devine’s appearance become obvious. Not content with the familiar, safe and comfortable comparison with anti-Catholic parties of the 1920s and 1930s, Devine moved on to the real point: "The BNP have been cultivating parts of Scotland, especially outside certain football grounds, for some years." The implication hardly needs explaining. But there are some real problems here.
Firstly, of what relevance to this by-election result are the occasional, largely futile attempts by BNP members to provoke interest in people in the areas near football grounds, ours included? Are we to imagine this influenced a large number of the 1,013 voters who marked their X in favour of the BNP candidate? Secondly, wouldn’t it be more likely that the significant presence of immigrants and asylum seekers forced into the northern area of the constituency would have an effect on the votes cast; rightly or wrongly, it is certainly more likely than those in Dennistoun townhouses being responsible for the considerable fascist vote. Regardless, Glasgow North East is, in parts, one of the most deprived and certainly among the most Roman Catholic of Scottish seats, and yet the prominent economic and social historian – undoubtedly the greatest of his era in those complementary disciplines – offered very little on those factors, choosing instead to make considered digs and concentrate on bizarre or unworthy considerations.
Those of us who pay attention to the BBC Scotland output – on radio, television and often their online content – should need no reminding that there is an acceptance within the walls of Pacific Quay of certain core principles: David Kerr, SNP candidate for Glasgow North East, would have found comfort while working there, sharing as he did with at least two senior members of the corporation the dubious distinction of membership of Opus Dei. (11) Too often in recent years the BBC in Scotland have made Rangers the poster child for sectarianism and for all the ills of present-day Scotland. The fact they were so comfortable allowing Tom Devine to push his agenda on a programme which should have been debating the serious issues of the day may come as no surprise, but it is me, you, your friends and all your family who helped pay for it. And it will continue until and unless fans’ groups and the Club itself can work together to combat it.
There is presently a danger that in the desire to fight many battles concurrently those Rangers fans who feel that the Club and the fans deserve to be better represented – and protected from partial poison – may have their effort drained and their resources challenged when firing at too many targets. The BBC should be, has to be, the priority. Newspapers are dying, we have also the option to ignore them and choose not to grant them our custom, but state television and radio are going nowhere: and the national broadcaster must be held to a higher standard - especially when we are obligated to pay for the very bile and agenda that demeans and is intended to demonise.
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/football/article6908047.ece is but a recent example.