Voter turnout at the last General Election was 65%. For a number of reasons 35% opted-out of the democratic process. That’s just over a third of the voting population. Of course, democracy is easily taken for granted as the enormity of the sacrifices made to obtain it fade into history. But such incredible levels of apathy have less to do with any disillusionment with democracy than disenchantment with modern politics. What would Kier Hardie make of expenses-fiddlers, spin doctors and sound-bites? Kier who? Look him up – somewhere below Neil Hamilton, former Tory MP and husband of Christine (third place ‘I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here’, 2002).
The clenched fist in Edinburgh
In living memory, settling political debates with an ‘X’ was only one option for the electorate. The British working class often felt compelled to take their arguments onto the streets. In political terms, the clenched fist has traditionally been the symbol of the firebrand left. In a few increasingly weatherworn neuks and crannies in Edinburgh you can see fists stencilled into walls. These examples of politicized graffiti date from the 1930’s. This was a period of often violent social turmoil throughout Western Europe, when mass withdrawal from democracy had catastrophic consequences. But they were not the street brand of New Labour’s long-extinct revolutionary socialist ancestors. These were no hands of brotherhood. They represented hate.
The ink hieroglyphics translated as ‘No Popery’. At a time when Spain, Hungary, Italy and Germany had all experienced right versus left struggles resulting in overwhelming victory for the men in blackshirts, Scotland’s working class were engaged in one of their perennial national pastimes: sectarian in-fighting.
Mosley visits the Usher Hall
If sectarianism is an important Holyrood issue today, its various guises were altogether more abhorrent 70 years ago. On June 1 1934, British Union of Fascists leader, Oswald Mosley, travelled to Edinburgh’s Usher Hall to whip up xenophobia amongst disillusioned Scottish democrats. But his followers faced a two-pronged battle in Lothian Road. Leftist sympathisers on one hand. And the equally hostile supporters of Protestant Action. The latter had no time for some tinpot English aristocrat telling them the world’s evils emanated from Jews. Their own ‘fuehrer’, John Cormack, had already outlined that culprits’ identity.
A fundamentalist Baptist preacher, Cormack shared Mosley’s venomous desire to create scapegoats. But his sights were fixed on an altogether larger minority than the Jews. His pariahs accounted for around 10% of the Scottish population. Roman Catholics. And the Irish and Italian communities scrabbling for jobs and housing during the worldwide recession were a far more visible target. Although comprising less than 10% of the population, Catholics were in danger of taking the jobs and homes away from native Presbyterians. Whatever else Cormack may have possessed, the semi-literate, ex-Black and Tan had a knack for distilling sweeping statements and moronic one-dimensional dogma into slogans and soundbites, borrowing the overacted theatrical oratory of all the brainwashing dictators of the day. Hitler and Mussolini would have been ideal role models had he not been so immersed in his conspiracy theories that fascism and the Vatican were in cahoots.
Fortunately, the blackshirts attracted limited support on both sides of the border. By 1936, Protestant Action’s most successful year, the British economy was being increasingly geared towards rearmament as the potential European fascist menace grew, particularly after the
triumph of Franco’s anti-democracy rebellion during the Spanish Civil War. When war erupted in 1939 Mosley was interned as a potential collaborator.
Social divisions dissolved in the face of the terrifying newsreels depicting Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, a
vision of total war where individual Protestant/Catholic rivalries were instantly consigned to the funeral pyres beneath the Stukas and Panzers.