hen the debate on Scottish independence got going seriously last year I promised myself (and others close to me) that I would remain quiet about it until it was all over. My promise lasted about 24 hours. I have close friends, associates and family on both sides of the argument and it is a toxically divisive subject in Scotland now which leads to outrageous accusations from all quarters. For example, frontbenchers of the Scottish National Party (SNP) regularly accuse unionists of being “antiScottish”. It is also the only debate in town, and looks as if it will stay that way for years to come.
As a result, normal political life is paralysed for the foreseeable future. It feels as if everything else has come to an ossified halt until the constitutional issue is sorted out. And that might only be the start of it. If the SNP wins the vote to break up Britain, there would be a generation or two for whom the only priority north of the border would be nation-building. Everything else will grind to a standstill – and there would be casualties. The finest political minds in Scotland on the Left, Right and centre have been committed, one way or another, to finding paths towards social justice and handling the plight of our poor and dispossessed. There are fears that all this will be placed on the back burner indefinitely.
Some might say, of course, that there would be nothing new in that, Labour having presided cynically over endemic social and economic disintegration in Scotland. After decades of oneparty rule there are still criminal levels of poverty and deprivation. The new middle-class Labour activist is quite happy to use the urban poor as voting fodder, paying lip-service to the mantra about alleviating their economic inequalities. What they are far more passionate about though, is the promotion of what the philosopher John Haldane describes as “recreational individualism and lifestyle liberalism”. This is one of the reasons that many Scottish Catholics in recent years, from cardinals to the ordinary man and woman at Mass, have started abandoning their tribal affections for Labour, and drifting into the arms of the SNP. The First Minister Alex Salmond, one of the shrewdest politicians ever seen here, has been “playing a blinder”, in the words of one politician, in his relations with the Catholic Church. For example, on the vexed issue of Catholic schools, always under attack from the bien pensant, he has been conspicuous in his outspoken praise of what these schools offer society. He has been very careful to position himself as a champion of educational pluralism and religious freedom. This, and other Catholic-friendly rhetoric, has gone down extremely well with the Catholic leadership. So much so that Cardinal O’Brien of St Andrews and Edinburgh has consistently talked up the advantages of separation. Asked if the Church could be indifferent to a move towards independence in Scotland, he once declared: “In my travels I have had much experience of small countries and I have seen what benefits independence can bring.
“There is currently some frustration among the Scots about the say they have over what happens here, and that is part of what is pushing the independence movement... and... it is difficult to argue that ecclesiastical independence is acceptable but political independence is not.” On some things the Cardinal has been at one with the SNP’s leftist programme. He is vehemently against nuclear weapons which would be scrapped in an independent Scotland. He has described the plans to replace the Trident system as “iniquitous, irrational and absurd”, adding: “The groundswell of feeling in Scotland against the Trident missile system has highlighted a deep sense of frustration among many Scots. We have no wish to pay for or host these evil weapons, yet we have no power to remove them.” But this new-found confidence in Salmond’s secessionism among the Catholic leadership took a huge knock recently when it became clear that his ministers were pushing the same-sex marriage agenda. The assiduous wooing of the Catholics has been coldly rebuffed in recent months as the hierarchy face up to the realisation that the SNP might not, after all, offer the expected and hoped-for alternatives to the ubiquitous and seemingly invincible progress of “recreational individualism and lifestyle liberalism”. On the issues of abortion and euthanasia Salmond and his party leadership seem “on message” with the liberal agenda, in spite of a degree of practised slipperiness on his part. These issues can still influence the political sway in Scotland. Some say, although it can be fiercely disputed, that Scotland is still more socially and ethically conservative than England. Perhaps that fuelled the wishful thinking behind the Church’s swooning into the embrace of the SNP. If so, I feel they are in for a nasty shock.
A few years ago there was an attempt to establish the Scottish wing of a new party based on the principles of classic, European Christian Democracy. It received a warm welcome from some in the Scottish Church leadership. Unfortunately, the project was derailed and the party turned into a tiny, sectarian and confessional operation. The Catholic interest in it evaporated. But, the original initiative is now in the process of being revived and there are hopes that the Christian Democrats, standing as Centre Democrats, will attract a wide base of support in the years to come. But when they announced their intention to re-launch recently the Scottish media were only interested in their position on independence.
There is a vacuum on the Centre-Right of Scottish politics. All parties except the Conservatives have signed up to a leftist project, socially and economically. In the long run the SNP are just more of the same old, same old. For a number of reasons, therefore, the outlook for the country is pretty dire. The Tories north of the border have been toxic since Thatcher and the Poll Tax. But when Murdo Fraser stood for the leadership of that party last year, he offered the radical solution of redefining and re-aligning the Centre-Right. Outside the party there was considerable interest and excitement at the prospect. The party itself, however, took the coward’s route and elected another faceless, visionless Cameronian “moderniser”. The Tories will continue to fade into the wilderness and there is still no viable Scottish alternative to the Left and its multi-party policies of cultural, social and economic degradation.
The most level-headed Catholic response to the independence debate should be studied scepticism and an ability to take a longer view. Failure to do that opens the door to a virtuoso snake-oil salesman whose political successes may come with a heavy price for those who value the Judeo-Christian principles on which our civilisation and society are built. In that sense, the SNP are no different from any other secular, liberal wheelers and dealers in the political market place. The only truly radical, counter-cultural challenge to all of this in Scotland can come from firm pro-life and pro-family principles. These days, those values are found on the Centre-Right. The Church will realise sooner or later that, on these essentials, the SNP cannot and never will deliver. James MacMillan is a leading composer