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People Make Glasgow

People Make Glasgow

Why do we as a nation collude, by our apparent political impotence, with the poisonous bigotry – often in the name of football – that stains our reputation and provocatively taunts us with its assumed [mainly male, white] privilege? 

Why are we so afraid to speak its name?

I had never heard the word ‘sectarianism’ until I was in my early 20s and working as a reporter for the Evening Times in Glasgow.

Thirty-plus years on, I still feel the burn of humiliation, having questioned why it was such a big story that Mo Johnson was playing for Rangers. 

And who was Tim, anyway?

I had never been previously exposed to the religious divide that runs through the west of Scotland.

I had no idea what was really meant when people asked you what school you had gone to, where you lived, where your name was from or which football team you supported.

I hadn’t yet experienced what it meant to be ‘othered’ by people that looked and talked like me. I simply didn’t know there was a divide.

I hadn’t yet moved to Glasgow’s west end, where in that leafy enclave, we, as the neighbours of Neil Lennon in the early 2000s, would hardly look twice – because of the regularity – at the Saturday morning graffiti chalked on the pavement outside his home.

Those pretty pastels in sharp contrast to the vile messages they spelt out. The death threats, slurs and pictures of nooses that eventually pushed him away and over to Edinburgh. 

I hadn’t yet walked past Lennon on Byres Road and questioned why a man of his stature was always so humble, cowed, looking as if he was about to get jumped.

And I hadn’t yet heard people blaming him for the aggression inflicted upon him. He, just by being, was, apparently, the cause of other people’s bigotry.

And today, when that hatred, perhaps only notionally now rooted in religion, is just seemingly accepted, my innocence and ignorance of what was already a deep-seated and bitterly fought issue in a part of Scotland that I was new to seems quite extraordinary.

Now I see it tolerated, accepted and even, in some cases, encouraged by our political classes, and wonder why, when we have the powers of a parliament designed to find Scottish solutions to Scottish problems, we are resigned to sectarianism – or, say it, anti-Catholicism – being a blight we must just live with. 

Are we so supine that the fear of confronting what should be our collective shame has reduced us to cowardice, prisoners to both a religious and increasingly now, as is the way of all things Scottish, a constitutional sclerosis?

There is a strange paradox here, so neatly illustrated in Glasgow over the space of just three days this May. Kenmure Street and George Square – two battlegrounds. One we laud and the other we despise and yet both are rooted in the treatment of minorities.

On the one hand, Glaswegians will rebel against the inherent racism of an immigration policy that has put hostility at its heart and stand up for people that are desperate to make this their home, but on the other, will look on appalled by, but somehow removed from, their own fellow citizens wreaking havoc while chanting anti-Catholic songs. 

People, as it goes, make Glasgow. But we sure pick and choose our sides.

People protest the attempted extradition of two men in Kenmure Street

I accept that the yobs in Glasgow, fuelled by drink and high on the game, are also victims of their past – inherited views, a legacy of deprivation and poverty in all its guises – but that doesn’t mean we should accept their bigotry as part of our national psyche.

There is a Scottish exceptionalism at the core of this. We assume we are better and to pick too hard at the scab of a hate based in religion is seen as anathema to our sensibilities, our sense of who we are, so it’s best to ignore it. 

We Scots are all Jock Tamson’s bairns, aren’t we? A society of fair-minded people? A welcoming community, tolerant and unforgiving of racial disharmony or prejudice based on difference?
Standing up for the underdog is what we Scots do. 

There is a strange paradox here, so neatly illustrated in Glasgow over the space of just three days this May. Kenmure Street and George Square – two battlegrounds. One we laud and the other we despise and yet both are rooted in the treatment of minorities.

And our strength is in our solidarity, shared values and sense of nationhood. Ask what it means to be Scottish and it is about all of the above. 

But this is a false narrative. It’s a pick ‘n’ mix of values and of what makes us good while ignoring the bad and not dealing with the systemic causes of how we have bred such sourness and, worse still, allowed it to fester.

We have seen the best and worst of Glasgow recently, but one good does not cancel out the evil of the other. And having them sit so close together should make us confront our own hypocrisy.

If people make Glasgow, which people are we talking of? The people of Kenmure Street who spontaneously reacted with their heart or the foul-mouthed morons who beat the shit out of each other while, ironically, on the same side and collectively celebrating a win for their team?

This is not a problem with one match, one Saturday, one win, one gathering versus another, it is the simmering tension that permeates throughout Glasgow. It’s about right-minded Glaswegians avoiding the city centre when the football is on.

It’s about anger, and displays of a toxic masculinity, a misplaced and self-righteous sense of a perceived oppression.

It’s about underlying causes of hate among an underclass of men and boys who have been dragged up respecting nothing, expecting less and contributing little.

It’s about an age-old grievance woven into the tapestry of their impoverished lives. And it’s about not calling out the hatred inflicted on others.

I remember a broadcaster during the Troubles asking a young boy in Northern Ireland throwing bricks at soldiers why he was doing what he was doing.

He replied it was because the others were. That was as deep as it got. Because the others were.

In the last issue of Holyrood, the lawyer Aamer Anwar, who was at the fore of the Kenmure Street protest, challenged our MSPs to grow a spine when it came to tackling racism.

They need to do the same about sectarianism, and saying its name would be a start.

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