A Different Country
The novel ‘The Go Between’ by LP Hartley begins with the line: ‘The past is a different country, they do things differently there.’ In that sense, we are all products of our times and it is difficult to judge people from the past from our modern viewpoint. The death this week of Ian Paisley saw the passing of a man who was very much a product of his time. He was a man whose most controversial rhetoric would be found offensive by most people today. He followed in the tradition of firebrand, rabble rousing Protestant preachers in the north of Ireland; Men such as ‘Roaring Hugh Hanna,’ who in the mid nineteenth Century addressed large outdoor evangelical meetings and often used anti-Catholic rhetoric to inflame sectarian tensions in Belfast. Paisley, who once said of Catholics that they ‘breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin,’ is regarded by some as an arch bigot and by others as a man of God. I’ll leave such judgments to history and to those who experienced first-hand his particular brand of fundamentalism. His near death experience in 2004 which some claim changed him into a peacemaker still can’t excuse some of his wilder actions and utterances.
I only saw him once in the flesh and it came strangely enough in the fine city of Oxford where I lived for some years. He was standing at the Martyr’s memorial in the Centre of the city roaring at bemused passers-by and waving his bible. I stopped to watch from a few yards away as he spotted a passing Church of England minister and harangued him for ‘Being in bed with the Harlot of Rome.’ This comment related to ecumenical meetings between the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury. The man listened patiently before replying in that understated English way, ‘Mr Paisley, I’d put your hat on, there are a lot of woodpeckers about this year.’ The small crowd gathered laughed at this and the said Mr Paisley was furious. Demagogues do not like being laughed at.
My son saw a picture of this weekend’s pro-union demonstration and asked me who the man was on one of the banners being carried by the Orangemen. I explained that the Scotland of the 1920s and 1930s also produced a few Paisley like characters. The great depression which followed the Wall Street crash of 1929 threw millions out of work across the world and, as is the way of such things, a brainless minority went looking for scapegoats among the immigrant poor instead of looking in the board rooms of the banks where the real culprits skulked. In Edinburgh, John Cormack’s Protestant Action party sought to gain electoral success on the back of bigotry. They attempted to intimidate Edinburgh’s Catholic community by holding a variety of ‘No Popery’ rallies and used their more unruly elements, known as ‘Klan Kaledonia’ to engage in street battles with the Scottish-Irish community. Indeed there were several running battles in the Canongate, Grassmarket and Cowgate areas which the Police found difficult to contain. The local Catholic community, no shrinking violets, organised a defence force among its young men and on more than one occasion they confronted and drove the bigots from their areas.
Such was the feeling of the time, Protestant Action obtained 24% of the vote in local elections, and this rose to 32% in 1936. Similarly, Alexander Ratcliffe’s ‘Protestant League’ was gaining 23% of council votes in Glasgow. Ratcliffe, a convert to fascism, shared Cormack’s virulent hatred of Catholicism. This was also the era when the Church of Scotland General Assembly debated the need for deportation of the Irish from Scotland and released the now embarrassingly racist document ‘The Menace of the Irish Race to Our Scottish Nationality.’ Things came to a head with the Eucharistic Conference held in Edinburgh. Cormack warned the Edinburgh City Council it would learn “what a real ‘smash-up’ was” if it granted the Catholic Young Men’s Society a reception in the lead up to Edinburgh’s Eucharistic Congress. The Council ignored him, and 10,000 protestors gathered at both the reception and the Congress, held in Morningside. Riots ensued, with missiles hurled and buses overturned. Archbishop Joseph McDonald wrote to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to protest that:
“Priests were savagely assailed, elderly women attacked and kicked, bus-loads of children mercilessly stoned and inoffensive citizens abused and assailed in a manner that is most unbelievable in any civilised country today.”
The Lord Provost of Edinburgh had had enough and warned the bigots in no uncertain words that the full force of the law would be used to end the violence and intimidation. It is to his credit that he would have no truck with bigots and law breakers. In an era where European Fascism was on the rise and the Jews of Nazi Germany were already being singled out for harassment, he said…
‘The sectarian spirit is a heady thing and some people seem to have lost their moral and mental balance over this subject. Every honest minded British citizen deplores Jew baiting in Nazi Germany, we want no baiting of Roman Catholics here. There is enough ill will in the world, even in our own country, without adding the fires of religious fanaticism to it.’The Lord Provost acted without fear or favour as did the Police who cracked down on the more extreme elements among Cormack’s followers. Few educated people of the time saw them as anything other than thugs and the courts dealt harshly with them.
Although sectarianism clearly lingers on in some dark corners of Scottish society, it is now the dying echo of a spent force. That is why the sight of those Orangemen at the pro-union parade in Edinburgh today holding aloft a banner showing Cormack was so incongruous. To celebrate a man whose sole political policy was opposition to all things Catholic in a parade aimed at maintaining the union was simply outdated nonsense. Do they not realise that 800,000 of their fellow Scots who will vote next week are Catholics? Or, as is more likely, do they not care? What place should men like Cormack hold in the Scotland of 2014? His attitudes and prejudices are the very antithesis of the progressive, inclusive Scotland most of us want to see. Like Ian Paisley, he was a product of his time and that time has passed into history.
While we should be wary of judging those born into a very different context from ourselves, we can still learn from their folly. Modern Scotland is a place for all faiths and none. Ideas of Scottishness have moved beyond blood and church to ideas of a more civic national identity where to be a Scot relies on accepting basic values such as fairness, democracy, respect and tolerance. It does not rely on ethnicity, religious persuasion or any other narrow definition. We are a much more open nation than we were in those ‘bygone days of yore’ and for that we should be thankful.
We learn from the past, we live in the present and we hope for a better future.