RELIGION has been one of the most powerful forces in European

political history. It has shaped identities and loyalties. It has

influenced political attitudes and values. In modern Europe religiously

based political parties still exist. Elsewhere in Europe, though not in

Scotland, Catholics are likely to vote for parties of the right. So

Scotland is unexceptional in having witnessed a link between politics

and religion. What is unusual is the support Catholics have given to the

Labour Party, on the left, rather than to the Tories on the right.

This is explained not by religion but by immigration. Irish Catholics

came to the West of Scotland during this and the last century in large

numbers. The anti-immigrant sentiment which was fomented by the right

was consequently anti-Catholic. Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic

sentiment was at its height in the 1920s and 1930s when there were high

levels of unemployment. Like immigrant communities everywhere, Irish

Catholics coming to Scotland suffered discrimination in housing and

employment from the host community as well as being blamed for economic

problems. Patterns of settlement which developed provided the basis for

continued sectarianism.

As the party of the underdog, Labour became the party of the immigrant

community. The Irish Question also polarised support, with Labour more

sympathetic to Irish nationalism and the Tories articulating a staunch

British Unionism.

But religion and sectarianism should not be confused, though some

commentators have. A political party's support may be drawn heavily from

one group but this does not mean it will discriminate against others.

The basis for sectarian politics certainly existed in those areas where

religion was a strong determinant of voting behaviour and the temptation

existed to ''favour your own'' but it does not follow that it occurred.

Over the post-war period sectarianism has declined. The rise of

peripheral housing schemes and new towns disrupted the old communities

based on religion. Employment practices changed, especially in the

nationalised industries, and if sectarian practices occurred they were

more covert. Sectarianism still exists but its social base was weakened

as Scotland modernised. The same process of modernisation which aided

the rise of Scottish nationalism has seen a decline in sectarianism. It

was no surprise to find that the SNP did well in new towns. None the

less, the tendency of Catholics to vote Labour and Protestants to vote

Conservative continues. It is absurd to suggest that this makes either

party, or these voters, sectarian.

The study of the 1992 election conducted at Strathclyde University

shows that sectarianism is weaker than in any previous election surveyed

but the secularisation of Scottish politics has occurred gradually and

affected some areas and communities more than others. Labour and Tory

still draw disproportionately on support from Catholics and Protestants.

SNP support is drawn disproportionately from those belonging to no

religious denomination, as one would expect, and remarkably

proportionately from Catholic and Protestant communities.

So how do we explain Monklands? The social base for sectarianism

exists. Coatbridge is largely Catholic and Airdrie is largely

Protestant. The disruption of old traditional communities which

predominantly consisted of one religious denomination and creation of

mixed communities which has marked much of west-central Scotland in

post-war Scotland has not occurred to anything like the same extent in

Monklands. At least, that is the perception, and perceptions are

important in these matters.

The fact that all Labour councillors are Catholic may be a

coincidence, but it has fuelled the perceptions of bias. Anything likely

to be seen as discriminatory is bound to be seen as sectarian. Until the

by-election, it was relatively easy to sweep these accusations under the

carpet. Almost uniquely in a by-election, the agenda of the local

population dominated debate and forced these issues out into the open.

The by-election only brought these to the surface.

IF the by-election was as seedy and unsavoury as commentators suggest,

then that was because the deep resentment and sense of injustice had

finally found a voice after being suppressed for too long. Brushing a

problem under the carpet does not get rid of it but merely allows it to

fester. The scandal is that no serious attempt was made to deal with

this issue -- whether by refuting the claims of sectarian bias in

spending or ensuring that it was halted. Whether Helen Liddell or Jim

Brooks is correct regarding council spending is less important than that

the perception was left to exist that something is amiss.

But again, it must be stressed that religion and sectarianism should

not be confused. The democratic basis of Presbyterianism and the social

ethics of Catholicism have played a singular part in shaping

contemporary Scottish politics. Far from being at war with each other,

they have complemented each other.

Indeed, at its most influential, religion has been vitally important

as the backdrop against which political attitudes have been formed. Few

would argue that this has been negative. The corruption of the

relationship between religion and politics in the form of sectarianism

is another matter. The lesson from Monklands is simple -- problems left

to fester may erupt in an unsavoury manner.

* James Mitchell of the Department of Government, Strathclyde

University, is the author of Conservatives and the Union.