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In St. Andrews on Thursday, September 18, I voted in the Scottish referendum and the following morning flew to Ireland to give a lecture in the International Centre for Newman Studies at University College Dublin. The subject was Religion, Science and Philosophy, but it was hardly possible not to begin with a few remarks about the previous day’s “No” to Scottish Independence vote (55.3 percent). Whatever the significance for those in Scotland, and whatever the interest across the world, for many politicians and commentators in Ireland this was a surprise and a disappointment.

The evening of the lecture was Culture Night when arts, cultural organizations, and historic institutions across the Irish Republic put on free events and welcome the public to attend them. The venue for the lecture was Newman House on St. Stephen’s Green and on the floor above that on which I was speaking there was an exhibition and performance entitled Acts and Arms: The Road to Woodenbridge, September 1914. This commemorated the signing into law on September 18, 1914, of the Government of Ireland Act, which provided for Home Rule. It also marked a gathering two days later at which John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, called upon the Irish Volunteers to join the British armed forces in fighting against imperial Germany.

It was unnecessary for me to remind the Dublin audience of the history of oppression of the people of Ireland by English sovereigns and governments, and by colonists put on the island to maintain British control of it. Nor was it required to detail the painful and bloody history that led from the 1916 Easter uprising, to the war of independence (1919–21), to the declaration of the Irish Free State and partition, to the Civil War (1921–23), in which more people were killed than in the previous Anglo-Irish conflict, and to the creation of the Irish Republic in 1949. Having suffered hundreds of years of conquest and oppression, Ireland then spent the first half of the twentieth century establishing itself as a fully autonomous republic.

Given that troubled history, the idea that a fellow “Celtic nation” that had also spent part of the medieval period fighting English invaders, and been garrisoned by English troops in the eighteenth century, might have the opportunity in the course of a single day’s voting to rebuff the rule of Westminster, was welcomed and celebrated in the expectation that the Scots would give “perfidious Albion” a bloody nose and put an end to the Union. The fact that this would also discomfort the Ulster Unionists, who derive from the seventeenth century Protestant plantations enacted to civilize and Anglicise the north of Ireland, was an extra bonus.

On a clear day it is possible to see across the channel between Scotland and Ireland. September 18 was misty but even so it is easy to imagine figures on either side looking out and recalling that as well as being the day of the Scottish referendum it was also the centenary of the Irish Home Rule law that was immediately suspended because of the First World War. Had it been implemented, John Redmond would likely have become the head of an Irish Government in Dublin, the Easter Uprising might not have occurred, and nor perhaps the Irish Civil War. Redmond had persuaded the English Prime Minister Herbert Asquith of the case for home rule just as Salmond had persuaded David Cameron of the legitimacy of an independence referendum. To the Irish of the present day the possibility available to the Scots of self-determined independence seemed a ripe fruit waiting to be picked which were it not might then rot away. And yet Scotland said “No.” Why?


First, the experience of the two countries and their relationship to England is only superficially similar. Scotland was never a colony, nor was it subject to lengthy English conquest. The Kingdom of Scotland came into being in the tenth century with the Scottish Parliament existing from the early thirteenth. An English invasion in 1296 led to the Wars of Scottish Independence, and in 1320 at the Abbey of Arbroath the Scots declared their sovereignty and called upon the Pope to acknowledge it, which he (John XXII) did, followed by European principalities and kingdoms. In the next century the universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Aberdeen were created adding a system of higher education to a separate legal system. The sixteenth century saw the founding of Edinburgh University subsequent to the Reformation which established the national church, “the Kirk.” In the seventeenth century, the Kingdoms of Scotland and England were united by the Stuarts under the Union of the Crowns, and in 1707, the Scottish Parliament voted to join with that of Westminster in creating a full political union.

In the period between the two World Wars, a Scottish Home rule movement was established and in 1934 the Scottish National Party was born, but it was only in the last thirty years that the appetite for political autonomy grew to the point where a devolved Parliament was created in 1998 and met for the first time the following year. The drafters of the voting system for its election tried to ensure that no party would ever have an overall majority, though it was assumed that unionist parties would be dominant. It was a shock, therefore, when the SNP secured a clear overall majority in the 2011 Scottish general election, and it was not long before it agreed with London on a determinative referendum on the issue of complete independence.

So we come to the day in history, September 18, 2014 and the result that grieved the Irish—not to say 44.7 percent of the 85 percent of the Scottish electorate that turned out to vote. A further aspect of Irish interest was due to the large scale immigration from there to Scotland that began in the eighteenth century and has continued intermittently even to the present. With the near destruction of the Catholic Faith in the centuries following the Reformation the subsequent growth of the Scottish Church in the nineteenth and twentieth was due largely to immigrants, those from Italy, Poland and Lithuania supplementing the Irish population.

Scottish politics is sometimes represented as historically and unmovably socialist and certainly it has returned significant numbers of Labour MPs to Westminster since the 1920s; but twice in the 1950s Conservatives held the majority of Scottish seats, though they now only hold one of the fifty-nine; and while Labour progressively came to dominate, the recent rise of the Nationalists shows that socialist ‘ownership’ of Scottish poolitics can no longer be presumed. Given this variation in party fortunes, a particularly bad argument in the recent referendum campaign was that if you wanted to avoid Conservative government you should vote for independence. In the period before they came to power, no-one predicted the Westminster electoral triumphs of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair, or the Nationalist ones in the election for the Edinburgh parliament, and likewise no-one can say where Scottish politics might be in a decade or two.

Scotland voted “No” for one main reason, and for several lesser ones. First, there was a real doubt as to how an independent Scotland would stand. Would it be able to use the pound? would it be admitted to the European Union? or to Nato? or to the United Nations? Without clear answers to these questions caution took precedence. Beyond that there were doubts about the leadership and capacity of the Scottish Nationalists and of the other Scottish political parties; and there was also a dislike of the idea of separating Scotland from the rest of the U.K.: As it was often put, “Why break up the most successful political union of nations in modern history?”


Looking at the electoral map of the country it is striking to see the disposition of the voting. Geographically twenty-eight of the thirty-two electoral areas returned “No” majorities ranging from to 50.08 percent to 67.2 percent; while four returned “Yes” majorities ranging from 51.07 percent to 57.35 percent. More telling is the character of the locations. In brief, the “Yes” came from two urban areas—Glasgow and its surrounds and Dundee: cities one and four by population (with Edinburgh and Aberdeen—cities two and three—voting “No”). Glasgow and Dundee are also the principal centres of urban blight with only two-thirds of the working age populations in employment, and the highest Scottish levels of children living in poverty, to which can be added high levels of ill health and of alcohol and drug abuse.

Image courtesy of the BBC

These figures can be cited to contrary conclusions. One may argue that the areas that voted “Yes” were those marked by a variety of pathologies and that they were the least able to take a broad, active social-participant view of wider British society. Equally, however, one may argue from the same facts of poverty and deprivation to the conclusion that these are people whom Great Britain is failing and they are choosing to try to improve their lot by seeking governance closer to home.

There is a further factor to be mentioned which again recalls the Irish parallel. The areas that voted “Yes” include the largest percentages of people of Catholic identity in a broad sociological sense. In fact, the rate of lapsation among Catholics has been considerable, though at a notional 16 percent of the population they manage to turn out as many Sunday worshippers as the Church of Scotland which represents a notional 34 percent—each having somewhere over 100,000 active worshippers. There is, however, a system of local government–funded Catholic schools which provides an etiolated form of religious identity.

So was the vote in part religious? In recent years Alex Salmond had worked to win the Catholic population from its traditional attachment to Labour and to that end had praised and promised to protect the provision of Catholic schools. But in the wake of the “No” vote Salmond has stated his intention to resign, and the next generation of SNP leaders have no special fondness for the Catholic Church. Indeed to the extent that there has been a religious theme in recent Scottish public discourse and commentary, it has been that of sexual scandals, not of priestly abuse of the young but of sexual misconduct by priests with adults, including one another. Additionally and relatedly, the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage, to abortion, and to euthanasia are presented by the liberal commentariat, that has also been the main cheerleader for the “Yes” campaign, as indicating its unfitness to be part of a “new, equal, just and progressive Scotland.”

I don’t think there is a significant correlation between Catholic belief and support of independence but to the extent that there might be it, it could also have been a non-intentional disposition to hasten the day of the further decline of the Catholic Church as a force and even a presence in Scottish society giving support to proponents of radical secularization. Surely the Irish who longed for the Scots to say “Yes” to independence would not have wanted that?

I don’t know. As I flew back from Dublin to Edinburgh I read the Sunday edition of the Irish Independent the headline of which was “POLL: Act Now on Abortion say voters” with the story continuing: “The most seismic shift [in the Irish public’s attitude to abortion] is that a clear majority (56%) now favour a new referendum to repeal the current position, which gives equal right to life to the mother and foetus.”

It looks, then, as if the Irish will soon have their own referendum and that a majority will vote to say “Yes” to liberalized abortion, thereby expressing their own commitment to the idea of a ‘progressive’ society. In the meantime, they are still wondering why Scotland didn’t vote for independence.

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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