The rise and rise of intolerant tolerance

ESSAY: Scotland’s elite is trying to fashion a whole new identity built on anti-sectarianism.

Stuart Waiton

Topics Politics

A few weeks ago, I watched a debate at the Scottish Parliament about the Offensive Behaviour in Football Bill, a proposal that could result in people who sing offensive ‘sectarian’ songs being imprisoned for up to five years. No matter the differences expressed between those for and against the Bill, there was one thing that they all had in common, an idea repeated ad nauseum by everyone who spoke and summed up by one member: ‘Everybody in this parliament is against any form of bigotry.’

As speaker after speaker got up to repeat this scripted line, it became increasingly clear that this was not a political idea or belief, but a mantra, a chant. It allowed those opposed to the Bill to show their respects, doff their cap at the altar of anti-racism and anti-sectarianism – assured of the murmured concurring of their opponents – and then make their points.

When parliamentarians can speak with such fury and fever about a Bill and yet receive no challenge to their opposition to ‘racism and sectarianism in all its forms’, it suggests that there is little depth or meaning to this oft-repeated phrase.

Curious about this mantra-like opposition to ‘sectarianism and racism in all its forms’, I decided, as an experiment, to ask my students what they thought about immigration, immigrants and racism. Of my 46 second-year undergraduate students, 85 per cent believed immigration controls are important and that we must police our borders in order to prevent illegal immigrants. Three-quarters believed that immigrants should receive a medical examination on arrival for their benefit and to protect public health, while 70 per cent thought that if immigrants are to move to this country they must learn to speak English. Sixty per cent agreed that immigration controls are necessary to ensure that there are enough jobs for everyone, and almost half thought that ‘At a time when there is a recession, local authorities should prioritise the service and housing needs of local people before those of immigrants’.

Eighty-nine per cent of students also agreed with the following statement, ‘I am against all forms of sectarianism and racism’. So clearly, anti-racism can sit easily with a concern about immigration. How much depth can there be to this anti-racism when the respondents also believe we should be concerned about there being too many foreigners in the UK?

Looked at in this way, saying ‘I am against racism and sectarianism in all its forms’ is little more than a form of etiquette, something that has been learned rather than lived, a line that is repeated rather than one that has come out of debates and arguments. As John Stuart Mill observed, the strength of an idea comes less from its own intrinsic worth than through engagement, contestation and a battle with opposing ideas. If an idea is simply accepted, but never fought for, it loses its strength and significance.

As a final irony, 43 per cent of my students said that some immigrants are a problem because their cultures are less inclusive than our own – the implication being that the UK should consider excluding people who aren’t inclusive.

Anti-sectarianism – the idea that no one should be mistreated or discriminated against because they are Protestant or Catholic – has become an essential etiquette that must be observed before any engagement in public life in Scotland. Nothing could make that clearer than the fact that two ‘ultra’ sections of fans from Rangers Football Club – one of the teams at the centre of the whole debate about sectarianism – have also recently declared their opposition to sectarianism. If genuine bigotry were to exist anywhere in Scotland, I suspect that the first place most people would look for it would be among the hardcore fans of Glasgow’s ‘Old Firm’ football clubs: the largely Protestant team, Rangers and the mostly Catholic club, Celtic. Yet, having denounced their treatment by the police, the two groups of Rangers fans declared that ‘The Union Bears and The Blue Order would like to make it clear we are against sectarianism and racism in all forms’.

The way in which anti-sectarianism plays a central role in Scottish public life today was brought home to me by my first formal discussion about the Offensive Behaviour Bill, at a public meeting organised by the Human Rights Committee in the Scottish Parliament. This being my first ‘public’ meeting of this kind, I was surprised by how many of those present were basically paid by the state to be ‘liberal’. Rather than the audience being made up of ordinary members of the public who were concerned about the Bill, the 30 or so people there were, in large part, representatives of identity groups: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) groups, ethnic minorities bodies, and so on. Also present was the Edinburgh Fringe Theatre’s equal opportunities man, while a number of other groups and commissioners represented the interests of human- and legal-rights bodies in Scotland.

Similarly, when looking at the submissions to the parliament’s justice committee about the Bill, I was struck by the character of the groups that involved themselves in this discussion. As well as religious organisations, football groups, some academics and the professional anti-sectarian group, Nil by Mouth, there were submissions from a plethora of equality groups and quangos, and even from organisations that represent or work with children. Anti-sectarianism for these groups was another angle to create relationships with the government, using an apparently unrelated issue to promote their own interests by offering to help to tackle the problem in their own specific area. The various children’s bodies, for example, argued that children are ‘victims of sectarian bullying’.

But this is not merely the usual claim for political patronage. Respecting difference is central to what living in a ‘modern Scotland’ is all about. This is summed up by a long-running billboard advertisement that declares that there is ‘One Scotland. Many Cultures’. So, Roseanna Cunningham of the Scottish National Party (SNP), the minster in charge of the Offensive Behaviour Bill, condemns the ‘intolerance’ of Old Firm fans, constantly reiterating that in a ‘modern Scotland’, this is no longer acceptable.

The war on intolerance took off in 2002. The first minister at the time, Labour’s Jack McConnell, first discussed sectarianism as ‘Scotland’s shame’. From then on, ‘tolerance’ – and thus intolerance of sectarianism – became a significant framework, a watchword for Scotland’s new political elite struggling to create a sense of Scottishness after the creation of a separate Scottish Parliament in 1999.

As Michael Rosie notes in The Myth of Sectarianism, ‘Contemporary debate over perceived religious conflict is prompted by the “rebirth of Scotland”. With constitutional change and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, the Scots are confronted by questions of identity: Who are we? Where are we going? Where have we been?’.

It is easy to get dragged into the specifics of the problem of sectarianism in Scotland, becoming embroiled in questions about how much sectarianism really exists today, who is responsible for it and what are its politicial roots. A key focus within this discussion relates to the ‘problem of the Old Firm’, of Rangers and Celtic football teams and their opposing fans. However, studying the newspaper coverage of ‘sectarianism’ in relation to the ‘Old Firm’ since 1992, the fascinating aspect of this discussion is that it has been generated not by the rise of sectarianism but rather by a rise in anti-sectarianism.

Before 1997, there were almost no articles mentioning ‘sectarianism’ with reference to the ‘Old Firm’ in the Glasgow Herald, the biggest Scottish broadsheet. In 1997, this began to change, with 20 such articles published. The number rose to 50 in 2002 when Jack McConnell started talking about ‘Scotland’s shame’. The initial increase in 1997 related less to a rise in sectarianism than to a rise in anti-sectarianism and initiatives to ‘deal with this problem’.

Discussing his own proposed laws to tackle sectarianism, First Minister McConnell explained that, ‘These measures signal our determination that Scotland will no longer tolerate acts of religious hatred. We will act to toughen the law so that courts can more severely punish crimes motivated by sectarianism’, adding that, ‘I want Scotland to be a society where we respect cultural differences and celebrate our rich and diverse religious traditions. I want all Scots to be proud of the Scotland we live in today.’

In 2011, following the election of the current SNP government, anti-sectarian campaigning once again became big news with 85 articles about sectarianism and the Old Firm so far this year. Despite the plethora of laws already in existence to deal with sectarianism in football, the current first minister, Alex Salmond, has revived the discussion about the apparent problem of sectarian hatred and violence in Scottish society.

There were a couple of one-off events last year that triggered the talk about the need to wipe out sectarian hatred, including the bizarre sending of ‘threatening’ mail bombs to a number of high-profile Catholics. However, no increase in street violence was mentioned, no evidence of increased arrests at games was cited, nor were any statistics used to show any increased sectarian conflicts in society. Despite this total lack of evidence about a growing sectarian problem in Scottish football, the Offensive Behaviour in Football Bill was proposed with the aim of clamping down on the apparent intolerance and bigoted sectarianism of Old Firm football fans.

In fact, the extent of the problem of sectarianism is strongly contested. SNP politicians justifying the Bill have tended to use statistics illustrating that the public thinks sectarianism is wrong. In other words, the justification for the Bill derives from opinion polls not crime statistics. It is not sectarianism, but anti-sectarianism that has risen exponentially.

Since 1997 expressions of the Good – the tolerant – have grown in Scotland. The Church of Scotland, for example, argued back then that there was ‘no time for intolerance’ within the church, and that the church must ‘tackle Orange Order bigotry’. This was soon followed by the Catholic Church explaining that ‘We’re all for tolerance’.

An anti-sectarian industry began to grow at this time, with grants being awarded to beat bigotry. Discussions started in 2001 between Celtic and Rangers about their possible involvement in the new ministerial group to tackle sectarianism. The campaign Sense over Sectarianism was launched; the public-sector trade union Unison came out in opposition to sectarianism; even former James Bond star Sean Connery came forward to oppose bigotry. Football club-based campaigns like Bhoys Against Bigotry were set up and the National Union of Students in Scotland created their own anti-sectarianism campaign. By 2006, an Action Plan on Sectarianism was set up by the Scottish government, with the aim of creating a tolerant and ‘truly multicultural and multi-faith Scotland’. Teaching tolerance, with reference to sectarianism, has consequently become part and parcel of children’s education in Scotland.

Professor John Flint has described this period as having the ‘most intensive and sustained focus on governing sectarianism in the post-Second World War period’. He is right. At one level, this is understood with reference to the regulation of a certain type of person in society, the working-class football fan. However, this massive rise in anti-sectarianism appears to have a certain significance in and of itself, and with reference to the new political elites in Scotland.

Some very useful work carried out by Steve Bruce, Michael Rosie and others has blown holes in the idea that Scotland is or, to some extent, ever was a sectarian country. However, these ‘facts’ have had no impact upon the politicisation and problematisation of sectarianism because anti-sectarianism has nothing to do with the actual problem of sectarianism. Tather, anti-sectarianism is Scotland’s flag of tolerance, our own brand of anti-racism.

Despite the declining significance of sectarianism at a religious or even political level, especially with the end of the conflict in Northern Ireland, the stereotypical wee bigot can be dragged out time and time again, kicked into touch and booed at like a pantomime villain. In this way, anti-sectarianism has become the badge of honour for each newly elected Scottish government.

Each time a ‘new’ and a ‘modern’ Scotland is proclaimed, the sectarian villain is held aloft by the first minister who can stand tall, looking impressive and morally significant. Despite difficulties in answering questions about where Scotland is going, or even what Scottish independence actually means, first ministers can always rely upon the unquestioned mantra of opposing ‘racism and sectarianism in all its forms’.

Respect, diversity, the recognition of difference and, of course, opposition to intolerance are now established political and institutional norms. They unite everyone from politicians, my ‘anti-racist’ students, and the ‘liberal’, identity- and victim-based organisations who want to participate in the governance of Scotland. Pro-diversity and anti-sectarian policies also form a framework for educating today’s children with a set of modern Scottish norms and values; these policies also form a basis for regulating relationships between people.

This is tolerance for the twenty-first century: an unquestioned Good.

However, not too long ago, the idea of tolerance meant something very different: it meant you tolerated other people’s ideas, beliefs and words. Children were taught that sticks and stones did not break their bones and individuals were expected to recognise the difference between words and actions. Words and their free use were considered important in a free society; name-calling might make children cry, but adults would teach them to deal with this and to grow up.

This freedom, and the necessity to tolerate views you did not like, was, as spiked contributor Frank Furedi has observed in On Tolerance, based on an expectation of judgement. We judge ideas and beliefs, we disagree with them or even hate them, yet in a free society we tolerate them. As John Stuart Mill argued, this was important not only for freedom in the abstract but for ideas in society to have a vitality – to be challenged constantly by different and even offensive ideas.

The new intolerant tolerance jars with those accustomed to heated banter. Talking to old football fans at Ibrox, they simply don’t understand the problem. Why on Earth would shouting stuff at a football game become a big deal or a political problem? ‘Water off a duck’s back’, they say, shrug their shoulders and look puzzled.

But today, being offended is the in thing. More than that, it is the morally correct pose to take. Being outraged or shocked at ‘sectarian hate’ and other ‘offensive’ behaviour is de rigueur because it expresses your own nature as a modern, tolerant person. This modern version of tolerance is not about individual freedom or about encouraging the free expression of words or beliefs. As such it is not about making judgements. It is much more conservative and fragile than that; in many ways, it is the opposite of Mill’s notion of tolerance.

As Furedi argues, tolerance now has come to mean being non-judgemental; it means we should not challenge or question or offend different ‘cultures’ in any way. To judge is now to be hurtful and we must offer respect unthinkingly towards ‘difference’ and ‘diversity’. Being tolerant is not about being free, it is simply the done thing. As such, the state and politicians in Scotland can stretch their hands across myriad imaginary barricades and give affirmation to a variety of groups in society. ‘We respect you’, they say, ‘and will not accept intolerant behaviour in any form’.

This is where the anti-sectarianism mantra comes in: judgment is replaced by a formulaic unthinking respect of difference that is lifeless and not part of a culture of free contesting ideas and beliefs. The result is that ‘I am opposed to racism and sectarianism in all its forms’ becomes a platitude that is not based on argument, debate or engagement with contesting ideas in society. Rather, it is a correct form of behaviour adopted so as not to hurt or offend anyone.

In this respect, today’s tolerance closes down debate because of the perceived danger of offending different groups. More than this, the high moral ground given to tolerance means that intolerance becomes understood to be the cause of serious conflicts in society. In this context, ‘sectarian’ football name-calling becomes a profound issue and problem to address. This explains why the seamless link between singing offensive songs and actual acts of violence made by politicians seems to make sense. Intolerance is understood to be an act of violence in and of itself.

The idea of being able to ignore offensive comments or songs as ‘water off a duck’s back’ is no longer the appropriate moral standpoint. Showing your outrage at intolerance and showing that you are offended becomes a ‘good’. To be thin-skinned, to complain to the police, to be shocked and outraged become part and parcel of the correct form of behaviour.


The new moralising form of tolerance has become a central framework around which the new Scottish elite and its institutions have organised themselves. As such, nobody has an interest in denying the problem of sectarianism; indeed, the opposite is the case. Even the Protestant Kirk is happy to exaggerate the problem and to apologise for anything it did in the past that was sectarian, thus cleansing itself and entering the tolerant fold of the new elite. To be a ‘right-thinking person’ in a modern Scotland you don’t need to think, but you must be tolerant.

As the American social thinker Russell Jacoby observed in his book The End of Utopia, tolerance and multiculturalism in the US became based on the idea that ‘the more you support it, the more virtuous you are’. Stripped of any utopian vision, progress is reformulated around the ‘celebration of diversity’.

Regarding the new Scottish elites embrace of tolerance, Jaboby’s insight about the political elite is telling: ‘With few ideas on how a future should be shaped, they embrace all ideas.’ Furedi’s On Tolerance likewise notes that, at a time when overt nationalist sentiments are less acceptable, tolerance becomes the opt-out clause. As he argues, this is an approach ‘of political pragmatism’ for a society that finds it difficulty to inspire the public, develop a sense of commonality or to give meaning to national unity.

Today’s bizarre concern about football fans singing songs and waving flags, the ridiculous talk about religious hate crime, and the impassioned language of offence have nothing to do with sectarianism and everything to do with the elites’ and the middle classes’ moral crutch of tolerance. The irony in Scotland is that there are no real differences in the lives of Catholics and Protestants – and any differences that do exist are dying out fast. ‘Sectarianism’ is kept alive not by the ‘hate-filled bigots’ at football grounds, but by the new tolerant elites desperate to hold onto an issue that gives them a momentary sense of common goodness and moral purpose.

Stuart Waiton is a sociology and criminology lecturer at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland, a director of Generation Youth Issues and founder of Take a Liberty (Scotland).

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Topics Politics


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