The Catholic politician Jim Murphy, who last weekend resigned as leader of the Scottish Labour Party, was one of the biggest casualties of the Scottish National Party’s electoral surge. The nationalist end of the Scottish media crowed with delight: this inveterate jogger had finally run out of road.
Murphy’s seat of Renfrewshire East would have been a safe Tory one if located in England. This tough but gregarious politician had held on to it for 18 years by being assiduous in his constituency duties. But he also rose fast in Tony Blair’s government, only for his Westminster career to dip with the arrival of Ed Miliband as leader in 2010.
Murphy was an aspirational social democrat who believed it was right for working-class children to improve themselves. His leader was an upper middle-class London socialist who preached class warfare.
Murphy only came to prominence during the closing stages of the lengthy referendum campaign on Scottish independence. Last summer he energised a faltering “No” campaign through a speaking tour which soon attracted swarms of angry “Yes” supporters.
The SNP suffered a technical defeat on September 18 but converted it into a huge victory as previously unaligned Scots flocked to the party. By this spring, in an atmosphere of raw fervour, one in 50 Scots were members. Mobilisation was intense in areas of the west of Scotland which had seen heavy Catholic emigration over a century ago and where a “rebel” Irish identity was still discernible.
With a poorly led British Labour Party in increasing disarray, Murphy took charge of his party a mere 20 weeks ago. His job was to stem the collapse in Labour support. He did so by emphasising his party’s “patriotic” credentials, underlining that the post-Thatcher Tories remained “toxic”, and promoting proposals to give young people lacking skills and educational qualifications a real start .
The first two approaches were desperate attempts to outflank the SNP and his thoughtful start-up initiative was drowned out by attacks that he himself was a “Red Tory”. Polls pointed to an SNP landslide. But the hostility from SNP activists towards Labour figures as they sought to canvass, and to Murphy and Miliband when they staged events in Glasgow, revealed an ugly mood.
Some would argue that Scotland had always been a land of dominant orthodoxies with little room for pluralism. Several of Murphy’s fiercest online and street opponents possessed Irish names. This is highly ironic. Perhaps no other community had found integration into Scottish life as difficult as the Clydeside Irish. For generations they were seen as an alien presence, leading to systematic discrimination in the labour market, which only receded in the 1980s with the retreat of Protestant Scotland.
When Murphy was 12 his family emigrated to apartheid South Africa. The politician claims that the challenges he faced in avoiding military conscription there and then facing hard economic times, scraping a living by doing menial jobs back in Glasgow, utterly eclipse his current troubles.
The Labour Party at least had been a Scottish institution which opened its doors to Catholics. But by the 1990s it was very much under the sway of middle-class secularists who had little time for Catholic social teaching on the sanctity of life. Murphy was one of numerous Catholics who made little effort to challenge Labour’s permissive approach to abortion. The Catholic Church, which had seen Labour as a community defender in the past, was increasingly drawn towards the SNP.
Probably the political influence of the Church is now exaggerated, but Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow has issued what might be seen as effusive statements praising Alex Salmond on his retirement and welcoming the arrival of his successor, Nicola Sturgeon.
No bishop has spoken out about the need for social calm, especially as signs that much of the street militancy was emanating from members of their own flock grew. Middle-aged men in particular, who often wear their Catholicism lightly, see nationalism as a far more fulfilling substitute faith. Growing numbers of commentators have remarked upon the cult-like appeal of the SNP, which I had spotted in 2009 and then analysed in a book, The Illusion of Freedom, published that year.
The SNP’s manifesto was taken apart by economists who argued that if its spending plans were ever implemented then austerity in Scotland would last longer than anywhere else in Britain. Yet it is clear that many who might be harmed by the SNP’s populist radicalism flocked to the party, hardly caring about the nature of its policies or whether it even had any.
Scotland has become a global outpost of populism with the fervour generated by Sturgeon meriting comparison with the passions Eva Perón unleashed in the Argentina of the 1940s. A lot of Catholics have emerged from their enclave and made their peace with Scotland as it contemplates hurtling down the separatist path. The anti-British traditions which lingered in a community facing poverty and exclusion are now avowedly mainstream.
High-profile Catholic academics and journalists, cultivated by the SNP, have been vocal in arguing that Britain has been a source of global injustice, and that it is ‘‘obsolete’’ England that is the main source of instability in these islands.
Jim Murphy, having been the most prominent Scottish Catholic in British politics in my lifetime, is now a pariah for many Catholics. He has paid a stiff price for standing up to nationalism and arguing that it offers no lasting way forward for Scotland. But before his departure, he intends to initiate long overdue modernisation in Scottish Labour. In time, he may well be vindicated for having confronted a movement long on passion and short on practical remedies for Scotland’s ills.
Tom Gallagher’s book Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis (Argyll Publishing) was published in 2013
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (22/5/15).
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