John Deighan FAITH MAGAZINE November - December 2014
This United Kingdom
The Scottish independence referendum campaign grew in passion and determination towards 18 September. It culminated in a fraught day and evening of voting and counting in which the nationalists fell short of their dream.
It is surprising how people’s perceptions and experiences of the campaign differed so widely. Experiences ranged from an exhilarating political adventure to an unpleasant period of hostility and intimidation. Certainly there was much emotion and energy and it is not surprising that this may have led to instances of ugliness and unpleasantness. It also led to excitement and euphoria which swept up many in the swelling numbers that just a week before the vote seemed to be on the verge of winning a Yes vote.
The heat of the election battle was not easily dissipated and considerable numbers of nationalist supporters have attempted to keep alive their campaign for what they see as freedom. The political momentum has prompted much talk that there has to be change and that new powers will be granted to the Scottish Parliament. This was given headwind by desperate promises from Westminster politicians who were panicked by last-minute polls showing that an independence vote was a possibility. We will see the first fruits of these discussions on 25 January, when the Smith Commission, set up to examine further devolution, reports.
“Secular causes have taken advantage of the new Scottish Parliament, and the Scottish Secular Society said on its website that ‘a Yes vote is the holy grail of secularism’ ”
The timetable certainly seems too hurried, but politics typically is reactive and rushed because of short-term pressures and challenges. Perhaps rather longer is needed to let the dust settle, analyse why people are so desirous of change and then identify any constitutional or political adjustments that may be required. But the political and media world has a life of its own, which will push on.
Alex Salmond and those who worked with him did a remarkable job to raise support for their cause but interestingly didn’t seem to consider the possible damage to that cause from pushing through same-sex marriage in the face of strong opposition. With little more than a week to go the First Minister was still promising that “independence is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to embed and enhance LGBTI rights… in a written constitution”.
Secular causes have certainly taken advantage of the new Scottish Parliament, and the Scottish Secular Society said on its website that “a Yes vote is the holy grail of secularism”. The last 15 years of the Scottish Parliament must have encouraged secularists to think that the trajectory in this direction could be hastened. However, the personal instincts of Mr Salmond to support community groups left a dilemma for many. He has strongly spoken out for Catholic schools and he put considerable energy behind making the papal visit of 2010 a success.
Mr Salmond’s approach did lead to inconsistencies and he allowed the cultural tide to resolve these. His departure from leadership leaves a question mark over how such issues will be dealt with in future. His appreciation of the Catholic Church in the history and life of the Scottish nation was genuine even if he did not fully understand why secularism was a threat to it. His departure is likely to mean the loss of a supportive voice.
The religious dimension was not ostensibly very evident save for inferred loyalties from the intervention of the Orange Order and from a group of independence supporters advertising their faith to encourage fellow Catholics to join their political cause. The bishops clearly understood the importance of ensuring that our faith is a source of unity and not an excuse for partisan politicking. They wisely avoided entwining the faith in a political campaign, as that could only have undermined the effectiveness of our evangelical role.
Assessing the future I can only attempt to identify some lessons that I think may continue to exert their influence on Scotland and the United Kingdom.
First, the display of raw emotion and the profound belief that a political cause can solve social problems must be harnessed and directed toward a deeper analysis. The use of emotivism for selling an idea is too prevalent in politics – as is the willingness to denigrate those with whom one disagrees, though whether any such vilification took place during the campaign was hotly contended. Much was at stake, and if football fans can turn passion into aggression it can be of little surprise that the same thing happens with regard to the constitutional future of one’s country.
The era of Margaret Thatcher is iconic in Scottish politics. She was vilified as the cause of just about every social problem. As a result it is widely seen as an insult just to identify someone as a Tory. Poisoning the wells in this way could not have been foreseen as endangering the Union that Labour supports. Even on a practical level the party must know that without Scotland it could find itself in perpetual opposition. But co-operating with the Conservatives in defence of the Union made it possible for Labour to be at the wrong end of anti-Tory hostility – a hostility which Labour has fostered and from which it has previously benefited.
The referendum campaign also demonstrated the way politics has become an area of entertainment, in which ding-dong battles between protagonists heighten the drama. The world has enough problems without injecting unwarranted hostility into our own political system. Politics is about making prudential judgements, and an awareness that any such judgement has at least some chance of being wrong should add a bit of humility and understanding to political debate. Is it too much to ask that those working for the common good of our country or state should refrain from loathing each other? Strong debate is the lifeblood of democracy but it needs a unifying culture to hold it together. That is a demand which challenges the virtue of our politicians and the Church should be well placed to foster such a culture for the greater good of the country.
“The bishops clearly understood the importance of ensuring that our faith is a source of unity and not an excuse for partisan politicking”
A feature of the referendum was dissatisfaction with the current state of society, and also of politics – partly, I believe, because we expect too much from it. Stronger communities with more participative citizens are vital to overcoming that attitude; they will also provide a better basis for genuine devolved governance, an area not explored greatly in the referendum debate.
It is to be hoped that the dramatic rise in SNP party membership from about 25,000 a year or so ago to around 77,000 signifies a grassroots willingness to get involved in politics that will spread to other parties. In this way parties will have a better chance of focusing on real issues, rather than the politically correct ones which have percolated into the political system in recent years through the influence of small interest groups.
The swell of numbers could, however, mean more than another push for independence. Radical socialist groups were a voluble element of the campaign for independence and could penetrate the SNP as Militant did with Labour in the 1980s. The SNP is a well-oiled machine that is streets ahead of Labour in Scotland; it could harness its new membership to achieve political dominance in once-unassailable Labour heartlands.
Labour has much to recover before the general election, yet whether it can fight a united campaign in 2015 is far from assured, and in socialist-minded Scotland the nationalists are seen as having surpassed Labour in their socialist rhetoric. The party will be hoping that the energy will dissipate from the ranks of its opponents. Perhaps simple changes in tone and style will be able to address the concerns of many prospective supporters.
Ensuring that the United Kingdom is not seen as synonymous with England may simply need a more tactful presentation of Scotland on the international scene. That Westminster is perceived to be more in touch with the four corners of the United Kingdom is widely recognised. The Scottish Parliament and Government try to reach all parts of Scotland by convening meetings in different parts of the country. Similar initiatives cannot be too difficult for the authorities at Westminster to instigate or expand. More determined efforts at collaboration between the UK and the Scottish government seem necessary to strengthen the bonds within a unified state, which is the option the Scottish electorate have chosen, albeit that democracy can never deliver the answer that everyone likes.
Giving Scottish ministers a role in European negotiations, or in cabinet meetings in Westminster, may help to foster co-operation; but whether any such offers would be accepted by those in power in Scotland remains to be seen. Strong commitments to working together may need to be sought as the Smith Commission prepares its roadmap for change in Scotland. The issue of independence has shaken the political establishment and the rise of the UK Independence Party promises further radical realignment.
John Deighan is the Parliamentary Officer for the Bishops' Conference of Scotland.