Dundee Education Politics Scotland Solas The Church in Scotland

Devine Lessons – Sectarianism in Modern Scotland


Prof Tom Devine’s Margaret Harris Lecture on Sectarianism in Scotland at Dundee University, 27th November 2013

Last night I had the enormous privilege of being a guest at the annual Margaret Harris lecture at the Dalhousie building in the University of Dundee.  Apart from a group of drama students inadvertently interrupting the lecture by setting of a fire alarm with their smoke machines, it was a stimulating and pleasant evening.  The lecture itself was superb and it was a joy to have a superb dinner with Prof Devine and guests afterwards.  Tom Devine is Scotland’s premier historian and therefore it was no surprise that his lecture was stimulating, challenging and provocative.   I loved it.  I won’t give a blow-by-blow account but rather his major points with some lessons that we can learn from them.

1) Sectarianism was a major problem in some areas of Scotland in the 20th Century

The evidence for this is overwhelming, particularly in the Church of Scotland in the 1920’s and 30’s, where a combination of fear about Irish immigration and the refusal of the Catholic population to integrate resulted in a strong sectarian divide, particularly in the West of Scotland.  This was seen in politics where the Catholic working class were strongly Labour whereas the Protestant working class were largely unionist and Tory.  The collapse of this distinction is one of the major reasons for the decline of the Conservative party in Scotland, which as late as the 1950s was the largest political party.

2) Sectarianism ceased to be a major problem by the 1990s

Prof Devine spoke of how people would come up to him with anecdotes about how they had been discriminated against, but almost all of these were pre 1970. By the 1990s everything had changed to the extent that structural sectarianism (the kind that affects your career and future) is now dead.   Since the Scottish Government (first under Labour and then the SNP) introduced specific anti-sectarian hate crime legislation there have been very few offences.  In Dundee there were only 5, in the Highlands and Borders, none.  Compared with the few hundred ‘sectarian ‘ offences (mostly involving verbal abuse) the 60,000 domestic abuse cases are far more important.

3) Sectarianism is now associated more with football and alcohol than anything else. The vast majority of ‘sectarian’ offences are associated with football and drunkenness.  So for example when a drunken football fan calls a policeman ‘a Fenian so and so’, this is classed as a sectarian crime – even though the perpetrator does not know the religion of the policeman who may well be a loyal member of the Orange order!  Celtic and Rangers have now become tribal social manifestations in a post-Christian secular Scotland rather than religious identities.

4) The Scottish Media have largely been responsible for fuelling hysteria about sectarianism41% of Glaswegians thought there was an on-going problem with sectarianism.  Only 1% had ever experienced this – in any form.   The perception is very different from the reality and this is largely fuelled by the media.   Steve Bruce, Professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen also argues that sectarianism is a social myth fuelled by the media.   He recounts how the Sunday Mail ran an article about the burning down of the Catholic Chapel in Stornoway headlined “Real Toll of Old Firm Mayhem”.  It turns out that the Chapel burned because of an electrical fault, a fact which was reported in much smaller print much later on, leaving many people with the impression that sectarian strife was on going in Scotland.  Steve Bruce had an excellent article on this in the Guardian – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2011/apr/24/scotland-sectarianism-research-data

5) The Scottish Government panicked and brought in unnecessary and unworkable legislation to combat this non-problem. When sectarianism was really a problem the powers that be were reluctant to talk about it because they did not want to import the problems of Northern Ireland into Scotland (although as Prof Devine told us this was an unnecessary fear.  He recounted how one senior police officer told him that the police could easily have handled it – the UDA, Ulster Defence Association, were known by the police as ‘the Union of Dumb Amateurs”!  But when sectarianism had ceased to be a problem, or at least was in steep decline, the government started talking about it as though it were still a major issue.   Alarmed by some stories that travelled worldwide, the Scottish government were understandably concerned about the perception of Scotland abroad.  And like good politicians, they wanted to be seen to be doing something about it.   As a result millions of pounds have been poured into anti-sectarian groups and measures.

Prof Devine mentioned an anti-sectarian group in Brora who were given £2,500.  As the former minister of Brora Free Church I found this revelation astonishing.   I never came across any sectarianism in Brora.  In fact the Free Church sold its Manse glebe to the Roman Catholic Church who then built a Chapel there.   Tom Devine thought this was hilarious.   But it does illustrate another aspect of modern life, when the government funds so much.  It is in the interest of anti-sectarian charities to talk up the problem in order for them to get funding.  This is a danger across the board.  It is in the interests of Stonewall to talk up homophobic bullying in schools, as it is in the interests of some Christian Concern to talk up Christian persecution (although the latter group are unlikely to get state funding!).

6) The Catholic Church is now targeted more by secularist groups than Protestant. Prof Devine pointed out that in the current troubles of the Catholic Church, the Protestant churches have not by and large engaged in schadenfreude.  Indeed they have been forthright in their support.  Even the Orange lodges have been largely quiet.  Instead it is the secularist groups who have taken on the anti-Catholic mantel.  Why?  Largely because the Catholic church has been more effective in the media and elsewhere in opposing militant secularism, and therefore is perceived as the enemy.

7) Denominational schools are better at helping working class pupils than non-denominational.  Given that I had just given a paper at the Solas ‘Out of the Silent Church’ conference on the subject of education and the poor, I found this fascinating.   It confirmed my suspicion that militant atheistic secular humanism leads to a less equal, rather than a more equal society.   One wonders what the militant secularists would say if they became aware of the fact that Christian schools have actually been more helpful to the poor, than non-Christian.  Would they for the sake of their ideology still seek to prevent Christian state schools?

Secular Sectarianism?  The lecture was fascinating, delivered by a master of his craft.  I greatly enjoyed both it and talking with Prof Devine at the dinner afterwards.  I am immensely thankful that the scourge of sectarianism has largely been removed from Scottish society.  I look forward to the day when we can actually get on and deal with the many real problems that face us today.   One of them is the increasing intoleration and discrimination against, not only Catholics, but also any Christian church that dares to differ from the fundamentalist atheistic secularism now espoused as the default and only philosophy for our society.  One wonders if the Scottish government will as quick to deal with the rising problem of secular sectarianism, as they have been to deal with the declining one of the Protestant/Catholic divide?!

(this article first appeared on the Solas website – http://www.solas-cpc.org)

David Robertson

Solas CPC


November 28th 2013


  1. It’s interesting to read that Professor Devine finally regards the sectarian industry as bogus and the talk of widespread sectarianism in Scotland as hogwash. Professor Steve Bruce was saying so 10 years ago but no-one as listening. Given Devine’s previous statements on this issue, and his general hostility to Protestantism, I wonder what has prompted such a U-turn. I don’t imagine the Holy Spirit has visited him in the night so I do wonder what his endgame is here. Call me cynical.

    On a couple of points, he may well say that the Catholic Church has a far bigger issue with atheist/secularist groups than Protestant churches but then the majority of Protestant churches have either been cowed into silence (for fear of being called bigots if they criticise Catholic doctrine) or simply don’t know what they believe anymore.

    I’d love to hear his rationale for denominational schools being more academically beneficial than non-denominational. Is this reflected in the school league tables? Of course, defenders of the Jim Crow Laws used to argue that blacks would hinder the academic development of whites if they were in the same class. This simply seems to be a more sophisticated way of saying the same thing.

  2. It sounds as though Tom Devine was promoting the official RC/Peter Kearney line that sectarianism fundamentally means anti-catholicism. In this interpretation Protestants are never on the receiving end. Perhaps, David, rather than taking a euphoric view of sectarianism from Devine’s point of view you should look at employment policy in RC schools and non-denoms. While you are at it have a look at Glasgow City Council, its education department and its relationship with Celtic football club. Interesting that you give the police acronym for UDA. Did they have one for IRA, I wonder. No chance of this coming over to Scotland, though. Just have a look at the banners at Celtic park the other night.
    I think you are being over optimistic and you probably need to meet a wider circle of Scottish historians.

  3. I am afraid that I am no longer able to say what is happening at Celtic Park, although I think it is of little significance.
    David, I am glad that you are following this path.
    The old sectarian divide is a blind alley.
    Those on the front line often do not know what the fight is all about.
    I think we have missed the whole notion of responsibility and the importance of the virtuous life in our haste to condemn the catholic fallacy.

  4. I think most people realised that the Scottish sectarianism industry was bogus after the “Hokey Cokey” incident…….

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