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The lessons my father taught me

THE south side of Glasgow closest to the Clyde was dominated in the 1930s, as it is today, by the Govan Road, which winds through the city's ancient centre around the perimeter dominated by two monumental structures:

MAIN PHOTOGRAPH:Jimmy Reid, centre, with his young daughters Shona (on his right) and Eileen (on his left) on an anti-Vietnam War protest march in Glasgow in the 1960sFAR LEFTJimmy Reid with daughter  Eileen as a baby
MAIN PHOTOGRAPH:Jimmy Reid, centre, with his young daughters Shona (on his right) and Eileen (on his left) on an anti-Vietnam War protest march in Glasgow in the 1960sFAR LEFTJimmy Reid with daughter Eileen as a baby

the Govan cranes in the west and Ibrox Stadium in the east. In between these giant sentries can be found the Pearce Institute, the shipbuilding monument, the Old Govan Parish Church with its ancient stones, The Louden Tavern and the site of St Gerard's Secondary Roman Catholic School - the alma mater of Billy Connolly and my dad, Jimmy Reid.

The famous old Glasgow school has been demolished. Once surrounded by tenements in the days when Ibrox and Govan merged boundaryless, now the old stadium stands alone in its redstone, distressed splendour. The Albion training ground lies neglected; no more do we see young boys daydreaming as they peer through the fence at their heroes. Perpetually at the mercy of global capitalism and the vagaries of a UK Government, the Govan cranes stand in rugged defiance.

In the 1930s, Jimmy and his three surviving elder siblings, Isa, Betty and John, were born in poverty in an Ibrox tenement in Whitefield Road, just a few closes away from the giant stadium. Leo, my grandfather, was a docker who queued each day - sometimes for hours in the 1930s - praying to be chosen to work that day, or any day.

The Reid children went to St Saviour's Primary School. Dad sometimes sang and tapdanced outside the Ibrox ground. Yep, a wee Catholic who busked outside Ibrox. It was inconceivable that he'd busk in the east end of Glasgow. Why would he? Rangers were the local team. The players in those days lived within a 30-mile radius of the ground, their supporters within one mile, sometimes just yards away. In those days most communities supported the local team unless there was a very good reason to support another.

From Ibrox, the family moved to Kintra Street in Govan: an area known then as "Wine Alley". The Reids were known for their sociability, their singing, dancing and playing of musical instruments thanks to the wise old Leo, who, despite their poverty, insisted his kids should widen their horizons. According to Dad, he would have played football for Scotland if his big sisters hadn't nicked his ration coupons for shoes to "buy nylons". Betty and Isa retaliated by the retelling over and over of James's early career as a "choirboy" uninterested in football, which of course he denied to the day he died.

To be sure, football was part of the Reid social life, as it was for families in many working-class communities. But for the Reids and other local families of that time, there was a remarkable absence of vicious sectarianism. In those days, an Old Firm match was considered an opportunity for merrymaking at some party or another - especially the traditional New Year's match, where both sets of supporters would gather afterwards at the Greens's place in Henderson Street, Maryhill (Aunt Betty's husband's family), regardless of the score. None of them wore scarves or colours to the matches: the thought of a grown man wearing a football shirt in public was inconceivable.

Dad came to hate Old Firm matches, particularly in the decade before he died. Yet as a child, and for most of his adulthood, he attended them with his Protestant brothers-in-law, Catholic brother and pals from both religious backgrounds. All eschewed the tribalism associated with supporting either club. And there was much hilarity to be found in the Old Firm rivalry. My Uncle Bill (a Rangers supporter) was famous for falling deeply asleep after a few drinks - just about anywhere. At one Old Firm match he dozed off, missing half-time and the change of ends. His in-laws never let him forget his enthusiastic cheering of Celtic's winning goal.

Of course the link between the two major teams and their respective supporters did not always follow the traditional local demographic, for reasons known all too well. Perhaps I am blinkered or naïve, but sectarianism in Glasgow today seems to be restricted to a virulent minority - unfortunately that minority is powerful enough to be identified as part of Scottish culture and worse, part of a unique Scottish identity. And this must be a concern as we contemplate the momentous decision whether to vote for independence.

Some fear - perhaps unjustly, perhaps not - that an independent Scotland would only serve to deepen this stain on our culture. Take the reaction to the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Offensive Communications (Scotland) Act. There was widespread outrage at the measure, accompanied by the invocation of that hallowed right, the right of freedom of speech, and the disingenuous claim that these men were merely chanting innocent ditties. This attitude makes a mockery of the freedom of speech, trivialises hatred and incitement to violence, and betrays such naïvety that we can only contemplate independence with foreboding if this is Scotland's attitude to sectarianism. Furthermore, the glee at the demise of Rangers Football Club is worrying.

So what is to be done? Scotland has wonderful traditions and preserving the best of them is something to advocate with genuine pride, whether we vote Yes or No. But to contemplate independence seriously we must recognise our faultlines along with the cultural achievements that justly do us proud. This requires the self-confidence to own up to - and to discard - what is shameful.

A concern many share is that the outward-­looking, innovative, welcoming, inventive Scottishness to which many Scots aspire will be thwarted by the prevalence of inward-looking and culturally trivial residues of an earlier history. But it need not be so. I'd like to put the case for adapting and extracting precious social and cultural behaviours of my parents' generation.

Strangely enough, the early days of working-class life in Ibrox and Govan did not witness tribal sentiments associated with Celtic or Rangers in the way they are witnessed today. The sense of community that pervaded working and social life extended beyond the sectarian divide and in those days you could contemplate, if you wanted, a healthy Old Firm rivalry. Sectarianism, and its potential for tribal viciousness, was relatively insignificant compared to the challenges of absolute poverty.

And therein lies an apparent contradiction: widely-held academic opinion of the 1930s considers the decade the period when sectarianism was at its worst - yet the story I am telling seems to contradict academic opinion. No, the overwhelming feature of life was the crushing poverty of the working class.

Dad often talked about the Clydeside of those times, which had the highest infant mortality rate in Europe. He described the disease-ridden slums where children were grossly undernourished; tuberculosis was widespread; rickets cruelly distorted the bones of young men and women; diphtheria was rampant. Yet at school they were taught that Glasgow was the second city of a rich empire.

He told me that of his three sisters who died in infancy as a result of poverty, he could only remember Sally, who was nearest to him in age. Another of his sisters died in the dawn of a new year. Auld Lang Syne rang out from surrounding slums as people tried to drown the miseries of the old year in cheap booze and mawkish sentiments. Years later his mother told him that after the death of this daughter, his father lost interest in religion but went through the motions for her sake. For the rest of their lives, the Reid family ensured that their parents were never alone on Hogmanay.

Such were the conditions in 1930s Glasgow. It was poverty that impassioned the working-class then and, rightly so, now. Tribalism around Rangers and Celtic did not. The Second World War provided relief - dad told me that the war was terrible, but with tragic irony, the peace, as his generation endured it, was much worse. "The war actually brought hope that things might permanently be changed for the better," he said. "My early experience of life made me a dedicated advocate of change. But I want change that liberates and empowers the oppressed, the poor, the weak, the sick."

Providing hope for the poor and the disenfranchised, and delivering tangible improvements in the quality of life, that is what matters in politics. Scots need to develop a better nose for distinguishing traditions worth preserving from those that should never have been allowed to take root in the first place. In his brilliant paper The Dangers Of Tolerance, the philosopher and social scientist Ernest Gellner wrote: "The blindly unselective conservative blithely takes for granted that the tradition, within which he indeed can be so blessedly complacent, is not one of those many unspeakably repellent traditions which are pervaded by oppression, superstition, brutality … for such is the stuff of most traditions. Traditional societies traditionally smell."

As a Scottish tradition, the sectarianism associated with Rangers and Celtic is a cultural practice as entrenched as a Burns Supper. Would that it were as harmless or uplifting.

As we approach the referendum in September, the question of Scottish identity is fraught with confusion, heated discussion and a great deal of emotion and passion. That our identity is tied up with various groupings is undoubtedly the case: family, community, club, workplace, city and nation. Problems, however, seem to emerge with over-identification with a grouping or a "passion". If only we had the self-confidence to reassess sectarian attitudes, to develop a rational detachment from the interests of tribes and group identity whilst retaining our passion.

What is required is an attractive view of Scottishness whose priorities are the eradication of poverty in this small country and an unself­conscious participation in Scottish life, as was the case in that bygone era. Jimmy exemplified the Scottish traditions of which we should be proud, but he also knew which we need not defend. I'd like to quote him in full:

"Over the past 500 years the Scottish nation has arguably contributed more, per capita, to humanity's intellectual treasure house than any other nation on Earth. I believe that every nation has an absolute right to self-determination, including the Scottish nation … As a Reid/McLean, I could lay claim to a number of tartans but haven't done so. I am not interested in tartans and kilts. The toast, 'Here's tae us, wha's like us' makes me squirm because it reeks of an inferiority that hides behind a compensating over-assertiveness. I detest the cult of Bonnie Prince Charlie who was an alcoholic, syphilitic, feudal-minded, poncing, snivelling, bampot."

Dad could never have done Twitter…

But the interesting cultural point is this: sectarianism was a sideline. It was the preserve of men who would never be taken seriously - the wearers of football shirts, the idiots, many of whom did not live in the Govan/Ibrox continuum, as our family did. Neither Rangers nor Celtic elevated his passions, no, as he said: "The blood stirs in my veins when I hear the names of David Hume, Lord Kelvin, James Watt; John Napier who put the dot into the decimal fraction; James Clerk Maxwell who revealed the indissoluble link between electricity and magnetism…" And on he continued, listing illustrious engineers, industrialists, poets before adding that "all our great innovators were philosophers and got steamed up about morality and the arts … The Scottish Enlightenment lit up the world. With a pedigree like that, who needs fripperies?"

Why get "steamed up", you may ask? In recent times, we have done just that. A traditional, malignant frippery pervades our nation. Dad again: "The only cause for real shame in Scotland's development during the second millennium was in the sectarian hatreds it spawned in the aftermath of a reformation that was a two-edged sword. It opened the floodgates that swept away obscurantism in many secular fields of Scottish life and led to enlightened developments. On the other hand it engendered primitive sectarian hatreds that scarred our nation's culture … the religious bigots in Scotland are no longer to be found, en masse, in the churches but at Celtic Park and Ibrox Park."

It is interesting to note that Scotland has regressed. Sectarianism may be less prevalent across the population, but the minority, like most minorities, are virulent. For example, the possible demise of Rangers, and with it the magnificent stadium that dominated the south side of Glasgow, is met with glee or existential horror depending on where you stand, or hang.

We have a lot to learn from our forefathers and foremothers about tradition and nostalgia if we are to be serious about independence. An independent Scotland would be self-confident and secure enough not to have to draw its strength from the country's attention to its great traditions and cultural values of the past, whatever they may be. That is conservatism.

A self-confident Scotland would know how to "smell" a tradition that needs to be scrapped. A self-confident Scotland would acknowledge our philosophers, poets, writers, artists and inventors who hailed from all classes, including the working classes. A self-confident Scotland would admit that poverty is its greatest challenge.

Finally, a self-confident Scotland would acknowledge that your local football team is your team - just as the Reids did in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. That is a Scotland worth fighting for: a Scotland seamless from the Govan cranes to Ibrox Stadium.

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