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The Road to the Present

In 1707, the Scottish Parliament ‘adjourned’ sine die, having voted to enter into union with England thereby creating the United Kingdom. That multi-nation state, also including Wales and Ireland, grew steadily in power to the point where, by 1907, it had the largest empire in history ruling over a fifth of the world’s population, with Scots prominent in the military, colonial administration, medicine, and missionary work. Thereafter, however, a long process of contraction and decline began. With it grew a movement for Scottish ‘Home Rule,’ far less vigorous than the corresponding Irish movement but encouraged by that example.

For a long period, however, most Scots showed little interest in devolution let alone independence. Shortly before Margartet Thatcher’s election in 1979, the then Labour government drafted legislation for the creation of a Scottish Assembly and put the matter to a Scot’s referendum, but it failed. Under Thatcher, however, resentment began to grow. The country’s strong socialist and trade union tradition led to organized protests against the anti-union, free-market policies of Thatcher’s London administration. By the time she left office in 1990, mining, industrial manufacture and ship-building had contracted leaving large-scale unemployment and welfare dependency, akin to the situation in the U.S. rust belt.

By then much of Scotland had adopted an oppositional role towards Westminster rule. In an effort to retain support, the Labour U.K. government of Tony Blair, elected in 1997, proposed a more substantial form of devolved governance. This time the referendum was successful, leading to the establishment in 1999 of a restored parliament in Edinburgh, though with the Westminster Parliament and Government retaining powers over defence, foreign affairs and fiscal policy, plus sundry other matters.

Devolution was seen as a process rather than an event, but a significant division existed among the political and commentariat classes as to whether that process would lead inevitably to independence or whether it would serve to drain away the spirit of separationist nationalism. A decade later the Scottish National Party (SNP), which is committed to full independence, secured the largest parliamentary representation and formed a minority administration. In 2011 it was returned with an overall majority leading to negotiations with David Cameron and the Westminster Government resulting in agreement to a Scottish referendum on full independence.

Thus, on September 18, over four million Scottish residents will have the opportunity to answer the question, “Should Scotland be an Independent Country?” If the majority vote yes, this will initiate a process leading to independence on March 24, 2016, 309 years to the day that the Act of Union was signed—and with it will occur the dissolution of the United Kingdom. As I write the polls show 42 percent in favor, 48 percent against, and 10 percent undecided, but a month ago the figures were 35 percent, 54 percent, and 12 percent respectively. There is a sense that the current is running towards ‘yes’ with a real sense of excitement, especially among the young, that a historic event is about to occur. Some, however, predict that serious uncertainties about the monetary and fiscal arrangements of an independent Scotland and its capacity to fund its large socialized health, housing, schooling and higher education systems, will lead most to draw back in the polling booths and vote no.

Implications and Reactions

The referendum is confined to the Scottish electorate, and in an obvious sense the issue is primarily one of domestic Scottish politics; but by bringing about the dissolution of the United Kingdom, it would have serious implications for England, for the European Union, and for wider international affairs. Three consequences might well follow. First, the beginning of the end of the British monarchy. Since the union of the Scottish and English crowns is constitutionally distinct from the later parliamentary union even under independence Queen Elizabeth would remain monarch of Scotland, (as she is Queen of Australia and of Canada) but that could change. Prince Charles remains unpopular and while Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge were educated and met here at the University of St Andrews, and were recently granted the Scottish titles of Earl and Countess of Strathearn, these links are too weak and too elitist to build a new royalist sentiment in what is largely a socialist country. Second, a yes vote will be taken as a European precedent, increasing demands for independence referenda by separatist parties in Belgium, France, Italy, and Spain. Third, the dissolution of the U.K. may prompt efforts to remove “residual Britain” from permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council and other leading world fora.

It may be the latter prospect that prompted the (Scottish) former General Secretary of NATO, George Robertson, to say that “The loudest cheers for the break-up of Britain would be from our adversaries and from our enemies” and similarly encouraged President Obama to express his unease at the prospect of Scottish independence. Speaking at the end of the G7 meeting in Brussels on June 5th he said: “There is a referendum process in place and it is up to the people of Scotland. We obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united and effective partner. But ultimately these are decisions that are to be made by the folks there.”

A week later in Spain, Pope Francis commentented to a journalist “All national division worries me. . . . You have to study each case individually. Scotland, La Padania [northern Italy], Catalonia. There will be cases that are just and others that are unjust, but the secession of a nation without a history of forced unity has to be handled with tweezers and analysed case by case.” Whatever his intent, this was read as favoring “no” to Scotland’s separation.

The following week the Chinese premier Li Keqiang said in London that he wanted “a strong, prosperous and united, United Kingdom,” and in August the Australian Premier Tony Abbott told the (London) Times that “What Scots do is a matter for the Scots and not for a moment do I presume to tell Scottish voters which way they should vote. But as a friend of Britain, as an observer from afar, it’s hard to see how the world would be helped by an independent Scotland.” Two weeks ahead of the referendum the Canadian premier Stephen Harper likened the issue to debates about the future of Quebec: “We think, from a Canadian perspective, that a strong and united United Kingdom is an overwhelmingly positive force in the world. There’s nothing in dividing those countries that would serve either greater global interests or frankly the interests of ordinary people in these countries.”

The world has a serious interest in the outcome of the referendum vote and there is real international concern at the prospect of the break-up of the U.K. To what extent this may influence Scots voters is uncertain since the referendum debate is exclusively focused on the domestic future of Scotland in or out of the Union. In considering this, however, a present but largely suppressed topic is the place of religion in Scottish society and in particular the impact of independence on the position of Catholicism.

Secularism and Sectarianism

While traditional nationalists are motivated by a sense of Scotland’s past as an independent country, those on the economic left see independence as providing an opportunity to create a socialist state, while progressive secular liberals envisage an independent Scotland as the first formal embodiment of a post-religious Europe. Nowhere is this vision more evident than in the discussion surrounding the Catholic Church. Scottish Catholicism is very largely an immigrant Church, beginning in the nineteenth century with an influx of Irish in search of work, and continuing into the mid-twentieth century, with parallel streams of Italians, Poles and Lithuanians. With the Irish came anti-English and anti-Protestant sentiment and a fiery brand of radical politics. This led to conflicts and to the founding in 1920 of the Scottish Protestant League, a political party the main policies of which were to repeal the 1918 education act that allowed Catholic schools state funding, to stop Irish immigration, to subsidise the repatriation of those already here, and to deport Irish people on welfare. Similar sentiments were expressed within the presbyterian Church of Scotland, with its 1923 General Assembly publishing a pamphlet entitled The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality, and over the next decade the ‘Church Interest Committee’ maintained a programme of anti-Catholic, anti-Irish propaganda depicting both as alien threats to a Protestant Scotland.

This extended a previous history of intolerance. By legislation of the Scottish Parliament of 1560 Scotland had become officially Protestant with Catholic practice being prohibited and punishable by fine, imprisonment and death, and still today the Church of Scotland, “The Kirk,” is the national church identified and protected as such by law. Its membership, however, as with many Christian denominations, is in steep decline, and although nominally it has 32 percent of the population (1.7 million) with Catholicism having half of that, currently Sunday church attendance by Kirk members and by Roman Catholics is roughly equal at about 150,000 each and it looks as it Catholic attendance will soon take the lead.

The universities of St Andrews (1413), Glasgow (1451), and Aberdeen (1495) were all Catholic foundations but within a century and a half of their establishment came the systematic purging of the ‘Romish faith’, and two centuries later they, along with Edinburgh, nurtured an intellectual movement—the Scottish Enlightenment—that prepared the way for a new anti-religious polemic. This second revolution has been invoked by Scottish commentators in support of a growing campaign to complete the work of secularization. Of late it has become a significant strand in the campaign for independence. Something of the spirit of this is captured in the slogan of the Scottish Secular Society: “No deals, no priviliges, no exemptions.”

This campaign is principally aimed against the Catholic Church. The most recent target has been its opposition to same-sex marriage, but of longer standing is its animus against the existence of publicly supported Catholic Schools. Insofar as other Christian churches are less clear in their positions on abortion, euthanasia and marriage, or are liberal regarding them, and since they are not involved in denominational education, it is unsurprising that the secular attack is focused on Catholicism, or that it has intensified following the sexual scandal surrounding Cardinal O’Brien, the former Archbishop of Edinburgh and St Andrews.

But there is another reason for the focus and ferocity of the attack. This is the long tradition of Scottish anti-Catholicism originating in Protestant polemics, and continuing in responses to Catholic immigration which has been renewed in recent times by Poles, including priests sent from Poland to provide for them. As a result, the Church is now assailed on one side by liberal secular humanists in the press, in the professions, and among the political class, and on the other by a population that has grown up with a folk legend of Catholics as a priest-ridden, immigrant underclass. Perhaps only time and forgetfulness will dispel this historical myth but it contributes to a climate favorable to the second line of attack, that against Catholic schools.

Education and Religious Liberty

While the issue of same-sex marriage is now effectively resolved, there remains a critical question of the strength of the conscience protection clauses. In March the Scottish Parliament legislated to allow for civil and religious same-sex marriage while permitting individual clergy and religious groups to decline to conduct ceremonies. Victory for the marriage reform campaigners is seen to represent a defeat for the Church and the issue of schooling is again to the fore, now with the additional complaint that given its teachings on sex and marriage Catholic schools are at best an obstacle and at worst a threat to the establishment of toleration and civility.

This charge is already coming from public institutions. In its guidance on the Westminster’s Parliament’s Same-Sex Marriage Act, the U.K.’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) states that “No school, or individual teacher, is under a duty to support, promote or endorse marriage of same sex couples.” In Scotland the government is consulting on its Draft Guidance on the Conduct of Relationships, Sexual Health and Parental Education in Scottish Schools. The corresponding element to the EHRC statement runs: “In issuing this guidance it is the Scottish Government’s expectation that if a teacher, child or young person is asked to do something against his or her conscience, he or she should be able to raise this with the school or local authority. The Scottish Government would expect alternative arrangements to be made where possible.”

This is already a weaker protection but the Scottish Human Rights Commission, established by the Scottish Parliament, proposes that “The Draft Guidance should be amended to include an explicit recognition of the child’s right to effective sexual and reproductive health education at the outset. . . . [T]he parental right to ensure education according to their religious and philosophical convictions is subsidiary to the child’s right to education.” This would hand the determination of what counts as “effective sexual and reproductive health education” to a source other than parents and one potentially at odds with their deepest convictions about the human good and the interests of their children.

Yet more threatening are submissions from local government and National Health boards. NHS Highland and Highland Council propose rewording the guidance to state that “The Scottish Government would expect all teachers to deal with issues such as sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity in an impartial, even-handed and non-judgemental manner.” The purpose of this is reserved to the accompanying ‘rationale’: “There would be a range of difficulties in specific parts of Scotland where the majority of teachers in a given school may have homophobic views. As far as children and young people are concerned, it is difficult to imagine what they might be asked to do which would be against their consciences.”

Note the contrast with the EHRC guidance that “no school, or individual teacher, is under a duty to support, promote or endorse marriage of same sex couples.” For the policy drafters of Scotland’s regional Councils, failure to support or endorse is tantamount to homophobia, and no thought is given to the possibility that young people might themselves have reservations. The determination of the legitimacy of their views seems, like the matter of acceptable sex education, to lie with someone other than teachers, parents, or pupils.

The place of religion in education is certainly an issue apt for dispute given the depth and importance of the matters it deals with. It needs to be allowed, therefore, that this is an area in which agreement is unlikely to be easily reached or long maintained. The main charges against Scottish Catholic schools are that they are socially divisive, encouraging religious intolerance and practicing indoctrination rather than education. In a trivial sense, social division is implied by the truth that no two schools are identical; and, without clear evidence of detrimental effects on social cohesion resulting from the existence of such schools, there is no reason to think that diversity is intrinsically divisive in some substantial sense. Indeed, diversity may enrich society.

The reply that religion is still a mark of basic social divisions and that separate schooling sustains these, reveals that the real target is not denominational schools but the very existence of religious communities. Even if uniform secularism could be secured it would be an abuse of the education system to use it to eliminate diversity of fundamental beliefs and practices. To engage in this would be to practice precisely that vice of which advocates of religious schools stand accused, namely, failing to respect the autonomy of those in their charge.

Any move to eliminate denominational schools against the interest and expressed desire of the communities they serve would simultaneously breach liberal political principles, violate international conventions, and conflict with existing statutory provisions. Even so, the move in that direction is evident in the rhetoric of a ” Progressive Scotland.” It is this ideological and evangelizing secularism that poses the greatest threat to the future of the Catholic faith in Scotland: first, by attacking its character and credentials, second by restricting its expression, and third by limiting its scope for education.

Institutionalizing Secularism

The particular salience of these matters in the context of possible independence is that while there are those who think that a newly reestablished Scotland might make a better basis for a religious revival, the most prominent press and media advocates for independence see a vote for the latter as an expression of a new, progressive, secular national outlook. Similiarly, and in consequence of the power of the media, the trend among nationalists more generally is away from the idea that religious faith and Christianity in particular, which has undoubtedly shaped the countries institutions and culture, should be given explicit recognition and respect as a feature of Scottish identity.

The governing Scottish National Party has committed itself, should Scotland vote for independence, to introducing a “Constitution for Scotland.” One SNP member of the Scottish Parliament, who is also convener of the “Christians for Independence” group, recently stated that “Freedom for religious conscience and expression must be in constitution or new Scotland is not worth a candle. Some want religion banished from public square. It needs explicit protection.” But this was met with objections to the idea that the Constitution should recognize any historic role of faith groups in the development of the country, or any allowance made for religious conscience in relation to matters of education or employment. As for the government itself, its comment was simply that it would honor its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. This, however, does not amount to much, as those in Europe have already learned; and the ECHR provisions are in any case limited with regard to expressions of belief and would be unlikely to provide protection for Catholic schools and charities.

Scottish Catholics are insufficiently aware of these threats and whatever the outcome of the referendum, they will need to defend themselves against specious arguments and to rebuild an intellectual culture that might appeal to those for whom the world of ideas is currently associated exclusively with secular humanism. The question of Scotland’s independence is an important one, and if achieved the world will be watching to see how an ancient European nation transforms itself into the newest European state. If there is to be a new age of Scottish Enlightenment it must include respect for religion and given past and recent history, and the substantiality of Catholic faith and practice, the principal test of that will be respect for Catholicism.

John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs in the University of St Andrews, Senior Fellow of the Center for Ethics and Culture, University of Notre Dame, and Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture, Rome.

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