This article is from the March issue of Total Politics

The Oxford English Dictionary defines tribalism as “the state or fact of being organised in a tribe or tribes”. It is, in lexicographical terms, ‘chiefly derogatory’, being ‘the behaviour and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group’. It’s almost tempting to ask the dictionary to add a secondary definition for Scottish political tribalism. It might read: ‘All of the above, only much more visceral.’

This could reach new heights with an independence referendum looming in 2014. Former Scottish Conservative leadership candidate Murdo Fraser MSP explains: “The peculiarity that exists in Scotland is the Cybernat: blindly and viciously loyal to the SNP and vociferous; extremely personal and nasty to those who don’t share their point of view – they go along with a tendency on every occasion to play the man not the ball. And it will get worse. For a lot of people in the SNP this is their life’s work, the only chance they have of getting independence. So you can just see the heat getting even higher over the next two years.”

A transient spat earlier this year provided a useful insight into Scotland’s predominant political tribes. Apparently enraged by David Cameron’s high-stakes intervention in Scottish politics, the SNP MSP Joan McAlpine tweeted that “interfering” in the independence referendum was “anti-Scottish”, as was the UK government’s “refusal to compromise on popular desire 4 [sic] powers to Scotland”.

Although the tweet was subsequently removed, McAlpine was unrepentant when deputy Tory leader Jackson Carlaw said her comments were “a form of political racism”.

Predictably, it did not end there. Tom Harris, the Scottish Labour Party’s social media tsar, doctored a scene from the 2004 film Downfall on, as McAlpine later sneered, his “bedroom computer”. This depicted the Scottish first minister (Hitler) exploding at news of McAlpine’s “anti-Scottish” remarks. Despite everyone from Gordon Brown to Sir Alex Ferguson having been similarly spoofed, Harris was bombarded with faux-outrage from incensed nationalists. Not only was it not funny, they argued (tribalism rarely tolerates humour), but it implied the SNP were Nazis and their leader, Alex Salmond, the German dictator.

While McAlpine lived to fight another day as an aide to the first minister, Harris, ironically, experienced a downfall of his own. It says a lot about Scottish politics that Nazi allusions are relatively common. When the SNP first formed a minority administration in 2007, Anne Moffat, the former Labour MP for East Lothian, lamented that proportional representation had given “Germany Adolf Hitler, and in Scotland to a lesser degree…the member for Banff and Buchan”. More recently Ian Davidson, also a Labour MP, attacked what he called the “narrow, neo-fascism of the nationalists”.

Tribalism, of course, exists beyond Scotland. After last year’s referendum on voting reform, for example, Vince Cable attacked his Conservative coalition partners as “ruthless, calculating and thoroughly tribal”. But in Scotland it is all that and more: politics is personal and multi-layered. There’s an old – and accurate – adage that, in addition to British and Scottish politics, there exists ‘Glasgow politics’. At each level things get nastier, more simplistic and, ultimately, more destructive.

Scale has a lot to do with it. Scottish politics is a small world in which each party has a relatively small membership base (the biggest, the SNP’s, stands at over 21,000). It’s easier to be tribal when you can see the whites of the other tribes’ eyes. Most senior activists and elected representatives, meanwhile, have been around a long time. While Ed Miliband and David Cameron may know only a handful of their opponents well, in Scotland Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont (the new Scottish Labour leader) have been crossing swords for decades.

The institutional context is also different. The Palace of Westminster is not known as the best club in London for nothing. There, Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem MPs mingle more or less on equal terms, disagreeing politically but playing by the rules of a very old game (even Salmond was seduced by that atmosphere while an MP). Their party leaders are also drawn from a similar milieu: the metropolitan elite. Even when behaving tribally, they do so with a smile on their face.

In Scotland, party leaders tend to be more diverse, less privileged and therefore more inclined to go for the jugular. Another crucial factor is ideological. Although political convergence is not new, in England, Labour and the Conservatives do not – although there is a degree of overlap – compete for the same votes. In Scotland, however, the SNP and Labour essentially fight over the same centre-left territory. When the nationalists first rose to prominence in the late 1960s and 1970s, Labour could more easily dismiss them as ‘Tartan Tories’, but since the 1980s, when under Salmond’s leadership the party developed a (largely rhetorical) social democratic philosophy, Labour sensed it had competition. And when a tribe comes under attack, it tends to fight back.

But the chief difference in Scotland is, of course, the ‘national’ question. Having dominated Scottish political discourse since the 1970s, the often-prosaic debate over Scotland’s constitutional future has elevated existing tribalism to another level. In the 1980s, this crystallised around the notion that Mrs Thatcher and her supporters were ‘anti-Scottish’. As Michael Gove told me when I was researching a book on Thatcherism and Scotland, “You could only be a good Scot if you were pro-Scottish Parliament and anti-Thatcher: the three became one.”

But what began as a pejorative term for Conservatives has now become a general charge levelled at all opponents of independence, hence Joan McAlpine’s tweet last month, which borrowed language also used by Labour politicians against the coalition government. Movement from one tribe to the other does occur, but it often generates lingering suspicion. Although former Labour MP Jim Sillars and his protégé Alex Neil (now an SNP minister) both joined the SNP several decades ago, some nationalists still suspect they are unionist entryists, intent upon destroying the SNP from within.

Tom Harris, prior to his downfall, contested the Scottish Labour leadership. He is acutely aware of the tribal divide between the two parties, but is also conscious that it is not a divide at all. “I planned to write an article during last year’s Holyrood election, proposing a grand coalition between the SNP and Labour,” he recalls. “I phoned Iain Gray [the then Scottish Labour leader] to tell him, and he asked me not to write it. That was understandable because the animosity between Labour and the SNP is just so intense. But if you get beyond the constitutional question, we pretty much agree on everything else.”

Ironically, there is a widely-held view that Scottish politics is, in fact, relatively consensual. This gained traction in the late 1980s and 1990s, when ‘civic Scotland’ sat alongside Labour and the Lib Dems in the Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC) to draw up a blueprint for what became the Scottish Parliament. Although there were consensual elements – Labour agreed, for example, to PR elections, at considerable cost to their electoral hegemony – this exercise masked deep divisions between the SCC and the SNP (who boycotted it), not to mention the pro and anti-devolution tribes (the Conservatives derided the SCC as little more than “pretentious posturing”).

Some commentators envisaged a Scottish Parliament full of writers, thinkers and worthy figures who would sit around agreeing with each other about how wonderfully egalitarian the ‘new Scotland’ was. The first elections in 1999 put paid to that quixotic notion, for civic Scotland had underestimated the persistence of tribal allegiances. Even now, as Scotland’s three unionist tribes prepare to face down the nationalists in a referendum, Labour’s Jim Murphy refuses to share a platform with a “Tory” (in Scotland, “Tory” is spat rather than spoken).

Alas, I have first-hand experience of the uncompromising nature of Scottish politics. For a year and a half following the 2005 general election, I took a break from journalism to work as a researcher for David Mundell, then (and still) Scotland’s only Conservative MP. My duties were pretty low-grade: constituency casework, drafting press releases and general bag-carrying; I did not join the Conservative Party and nor was I asked to do so. But judging by the reaction of my erstwhile colleagues in the Scottish press corps, you would have thought I’d become involved with the National Front.

Alf Young, formerly a research officer for the Scottish Labour Party, made a similar transition in the early 1980s. Appalled at tribalism within the Labour Party, he quit to pursue a journalistic career on the Glasgow Herald. “Even today, I’m constantly attacked for points of view, for an allegiance, I haven’t held in at least 30 years,” he says. “Although I’ve frequently criticised Labour policies in print, and have voted for several political parties, I’m still seen as belonging to one particular tribe.”

The nationalist tribe usually attacks Alf online; via the comments facility on the website of The Scotsman, for whom he now writes. Indeed, the rise of social media has turned elements of Scotland’s political tribes into what old newspaper hands call the “green-ink brigade”. The former political journalist Douglas Fraser (now BBC Scotland’s business and economy editor) described “the interplay of anonymity, group psychology and bullying. This is not unique to… Scottish politics, but as the content and tone of this conversation represents a daily injection of poison into the well of Scottish public life, we are all worse off for it.”

It was Labour peer and former MSP Lord Foulkes who coined the term “cybernats” to describe this phenomenon, for although virtual vitriol is by no means confined to SNP supporters, many of the worst offenders have a definite nationalist tinge. In his last speech as Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray even felt compelled to warn his successors that cybernats and “bedsit bloggers” would smear them as a “traitor, quisling, lapdog, liar and worse”. The SNP dismissed Gray’s speech as the “bizarre” ramblings of a leader still reeling from defeat, while the SNP MP and regular tweeter Pete Wishart maintains that the vast majority of cybernats have nothing to do with his party. “We genuinely don’t know who these people are and we’re not responsible for them,” he says. “Some of the stuff on Twitter is bordering on unacceptable in terms of political discussion, but there’s not much you can do about that; it’s beyond regulation. We have our own social media strategy, and it’s got nothing to do with much of the stuff you see online.”

Whatever the provenance of the worst online commentary, Scottish political tribalism is unlikely to resolve its differences anytime soon. On the contrary, with an independence referendum due in the autumn of 2014, it can only get worse. Tribes relish the prospect of an all-or-nothing battle, and this is one that will pitch two interconnected tribes against one another: unionist and nationalist, Labour and SNP. Scottish political tribalism is gearing up for the war to end all political wars.

David Torrance is a freelance journalist and author of Salmond: Against the Odds

Tags: Alex Salmond, Factionalism, Scotland, Scottish independence referendum, Scottish National Party