I have a visual memory which means that I recall things, people, places and events as if I had my own personal cinema running continuously in my head. I remember being on a bus in Glasgow with my gran, when I was very young, and seeing a man riding a large white horse coming towards me at the head of thousands of other men. I remember their uniforms, suits and their pride. I remember their flags, their strange hats and the orange that they all wore.
I remember walking in a group to school in Largs on a golden morning after the long summer holiday. Our scheme (local authority housing project) wasn’t far from the schools and I remember saying 'see ye later’ to half my friends as they passed through the gates of St Mary’s primary and the rest of us carried on to continue our 'non-denominational’ education.
I remember sitting with a smaller and more mature group of friends on the train, for two years, as we travelled between Largs and Ardrossan in our quest for the required number of Highers for university. We, the Ardrossan Academy pupils, sat in our blue blazers in one chattering, rattling carriage while the St Andrews Academy kids, in their black blazers, all sat in another. I remember us all bumping into each other at university, people we’d grown up with, endlessly played football with, climbed the hills with...looking at each other with the nervous smiles that old friends share.
I remember, as a student, walking through Mount Florida in Glasgow in the warm early evening on 10 May 1980 to catch the bus to my digs in Castlemilk. The streets were deserted, most of the shops were shut and there was a strange silence that not even the birds dared break. I had been travelling all afternoon and had no idea that the Scottish cup final had ended in the 'battle of Hampden’. I discovered the seriousness of the situation when I got on the bus and the driver gave me a very stern look and asked me if I was 'a straggler’.
When I was young I supported Largs Thistle, still do. I spent many happy winter afternoons and early summer evenings at Barrfields Park waiting for the boys to deliver glory to my town. In those days Thistle played in the North Ayrshire junior league, playing the teams from all the other towns in what I considered to be God’s own country. Irvine Meadow, Saltcoats Victoria, Beith Juniors and, in the cup competitions, exotic visitors from south Ayrshire (Cumnock in particular) and the east and north of Scotland would visit, bringing large groups of supporters.
However, the most special days were reserved for the visit of Kilbirnie Ladeside, our mortal enemies, only eight miles away across the hills on the road to Paisley. There was an enmity between the two towns, Largs a genteel holiday resort and Kilbirnie an industrial town with a large steel works, that we didn’t find hard to understand. So there was always an intimidating atmosphere, the promise of violence, when the teams met.
I remember standing in our crowd behind the 'stand’ at Barrfields, yelling my head off at their crowd about 20 yards away. Yelling at the top of my voice as the bottles, cans and stones began to fly. And the only thought that ran through my head as I yelled was, 'Yaaaaaaaaaaah! Let’s go!’.
I was going to university and was therefore considered, in some circles, to be among the top 5% of the population. And there I was, yelling at a group of strangers from another town: 'Yaaaaaaaaaaah! Let’s go!’ Inexplicable, irrational, completely spontaneous and utterly invigorating. Many people excuse it as being nothing other than Celtic exuberance: we are exuberant people and our exuberance occasionally gets out of hand at football matches.
I’m afraid that it won’t do.
Football stadia are the most publicly available spaces where our young men can prove themselves. They are where our males meet to beat their chests. It needn’t be football, it could be any other activity that obsesses our male population to the same extent. The idea that violence at our football events is a purely football matter is a pretence – a refusal on the part of our authorities to take responsibility for solving a national cultural problem. We can no longer take our claymores in hand and head out on the heather to take vengeance on the clan that, just last week, killed one of our cousins and stole some of our cattle. But we should not be blithely allowed to continue simulating that ancient experience every Saturday afternoon.
The violent scenes at the end of last season’s cup final, 36 years after the 'Battle of Hampden’ and the online images of hangings in effigy and toilet-smashing at the recent Old Firm game, brought it all flooding back to me. And it’s clear that we have not and will not overcome this problem because we refuse to acknowledge it for what it is and we are in denial about its extent.
We, all of us, are still tribal.
We see tribalism evident everywhere throughout our small country, and not only at our football stadia. In our city centres, day and night where incidents of shouting, the tinkle of smashing glass and parting of crowds of shoppers to let the runners pass are common. In our law courts where tribalism of one kind or another is rife and goes a long way to explaining a number of 'strange’ legal outcomes in Scotland over the years; most recently the Scottish legal establishment’s obvious compliance with the wishes of whatever political hegemony is in power. Here the Scottish Review stands as an important witness to something that has actually been happening for hundreds of years.
We see a clear tribal dynamic at play in the Scottish Parliament where the innovative electoral system was designed to ensure that a spirit of co-operation between parties would grow for the good of the people of Scotland. The word 'inclusive’ was often heard in those heady days. I think we can agree that this did not happen and the hatred between the SNP and Labour has disfigured the original vision to a fatal extent. There is absolutely no possibility of any member of Clan Labour or Clan SNP ever acknowledging that the other has come forward with a good idea or proposal. Scotland’s politics and therefore system of government is paralysed, as it has been since the Union of the Crowns, by tribalism.
This is strongly reflected in our use of social media where non-physically violent encounters often take place and intelligent discussion of real issues is seldom possible. Our education system remains blighted by the tribal certainty of party ideologues and by the segregation that appears indestructible. We split into tribes in our places of work, in those factories and building sites that are left and in our offices and corporate structures. We are fragmented and disunited at every level of our society. The word 'clannish’ does not exist in a vacuum.
Now, I am certainly not saying that Scotland is the only country where this happens; diverse interests divide every society in every country on earth because it is normal human behaviour. However, I have not been to any advanced western country where loyalty to the tribe remains as strong as it is in Scotland. I have not been in a western country that is not at war, where casual everyday violence between citizens is tolerated, even excused, to the extent it is in Scotland.
We embrace our differences, we bear our life-long grudges with pride, even within our families. We refuse to accept new ideas, or even simple reality, if they run counter to the beliefs of our tribe. We are encouraged to set ourselves apart from each other at a young age through our school system and our heritage. It is, not surprisingly, who we are and it would be better for us if we stopped denying it, stopped blaming something or somebody else.
I remind you that Donald Trump’s mother was Scottish, from the islands. As we well know, Donald Trump’s run for the presidency of the United States of America is based on sowing and exaggerating the divisions that already exist within the country. He identified his audience, successfully became their mirror as every populist must, and has sought to exacerbate the swollen sense of primordial grievance that much of blue and white collar white America has felt for a long time. He has not tried to heal any of the fault lines in American society; on the contrary. If nothing else, Donald Trump understands the strength of the tribe. The loyalty of the clan he has created in the past nine months may well carry him to the White House.
I confess, while watching Donald Trump speak to ‘his people’, I find myself experiencing a strong sense of empathy because what he is saying and thinking much of the time is simply 'Yaaaaaaaaaaah! Let’s go!’
The issue here is not religion or history or economics or personal and national slights. It’s not about Catholics and Protestants, Rangers and Celtic, Scotland and England, Labour and SNP. These conflicts are only symptoms of the fundamental problem. Tribalism is difficult to explain to people who don’t feel it as strongly as we do and feeling it as we do makes it difficult for us to rationalise.
But it comes down to this: if there is no them, then there can’t be us.