Concerns about COVID-19, another independence campaign, religious sectarianism and rural isolation dominated the discussions we held in Scotland for the Talk/together project.
Participants in the online discussions came from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perthshire, Inverness and the Highlands. We also held a discussion where half the participants came from Berwick-upon-Tweed and the rest from Eyemouth, a small town just over the Scottish border.
Since we started Talk Together back in May 2020, we have been very aware of how the public mood can change from week-to-week. Our Scotland discussions took place in a week that was full of optimistic news of vaccines. Although people voiced worries about the economic impact of COVID-19, the atmosphere in the online groups was a good deal more buoyant than the previous week’s discussions.
“In the spring lockdown, it was the whole country that was in it. I’m in Glasgow so we’ve had these tight restrictions for quite some time now. When it was announced –‘Oh God, do we have to go through with this again?’ – It was quite depressing. As you get into it, it was OK, and when you heard the news about the vaccine, it definitely makes you feel that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
We selected those who took part in the discussions so that they were representative of the range of public opinion on independence. Despite differences of opinion on independence, most people thought that Nicola Sturgeon had performed well in her management of the pandemic. However, some people felt that as time had gone on, the response to the virus had become too party political and the different lockdown rules across the four nations of the UK were unnecessarily divisive. We were told that Scotland has adopted different public health rules to England “just to be different.”
As might be expected, much of the discussion focused on the independence debate, an issue that will be centre stage in next May’s Scottish elections. Some people felt that it was the wrong time to open up this issue, as dealing with the pandemic and its aftermath should be paramount. The run-up to the 2014 referendum had been painful for many people, with participants telling us they had fallen out with friends and family or made the decision to avoid discussion on this subject. Others had been able to have an open discussion where different opinions were respected.
We asked participants how people could have respectful debates with people who had different views on independence. It was felt that politicians had to take responsibility to call out hatred. There was an appeal for a more respectful debate on social media, and a view that schools could do more to teach children about online civility.
The discussions also explored the social divisions that participants felt were different in Scotland. Some 75% of Scotland’s landmass is predominantly rural, with low population density, and small settlements that are often remote from towns and cities. In comparison, England’s rural communities are less remote and closer to conurbations. Young people have moved away from Scotland’s remote rural areas, to study or to find work and many never return. This population movement threatens the viability of services and businesses, with villages losing their pubs and schools.
There was some anger in the groups about perceived under-investment in rural services, an issue that has also been voiced south of the border. Farming and rural tourism underpin other parts of the economy, and it was felt that this was not recognised. We heard about non-existent public transport, housing shortages and poor broadband connections which made it near-impossible to work from home. Participants also told us about loneliness and isolation in the countryside, an issue felt most acutely among young people and the elderly.
We talked about social relations in rural areas, with participants debating whether there were stronger social bonds in villages, or whether tight-knit communities could be suspicious of outsiders. We were also told of how Syrian refugees had been welcomed on Bute, a group of islands off the West Coast of Scotland.
Sectarianism was an issue raised by the participants who lived or had links to the central belt of Scotland. People talked about feeling unsafe in some areas, particularly when the ‘Old Firm’ was playing. Orange Order marches on 12 July are also a focus of division. There was a debate about the extent to which religious sectarianism had a direct effect on people’s lives, outside the days that Rangers and Celtic were playing each other. It was felt that the biggest impact of this division was in education, with children from Roman Catholic and Protestant families attending different schools. Similar to the Northern Ireland discussions, some participants felt that their school uniform marked them out as belonging to a particular ‘side’. Divides and prejudice were perpetuated because of limited social mixing at school.
Efforts to address sectarianism and segregated education have sometimes met with opposition. Clearly, football clubs have a key role. In many schools in central Scotland, children explore sectarianism as part of the curriculum and are helped to understand and respond to this form of prejudice. There are some successful school linking programmes where classes of children from different faith backgrounds meet for shared activities. Scotland also has a few ‘Joint Campus’ schools, where faith and non-denominational (usually Roman Catholic) schools are based on the same campus, with pupils taught separately for some subjects, but coming together to eat, at breaktimes and for sport. However, there is still some debate about the extent of meaningful social mixing in such schools.
Of course, it is not just in Scottish schools that experience social segregation by faith. Where such social divisions exist, education has a key role in promoting meaningful social contact across faith and other types of social divide. The challenge is to make sure that such social contact leads to diverse friendship groups and a reduction of prejudice.
Talk/together is the UK’s biggest-ever public conversation about what divides and unites us, and what could bring our society together in these difficult times. It is coordinated by British Future as part of /Together, a new coalition of household names like the NHS and the Scouts and local organisations from across the UK. Please share your views by completing our short online survey at www.together.org.uk