Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Guess who won’t be coming to dinner...

                                  Should Catholicism expect a seat in the new Scotland?

Gerry Hassan had an interesting piece in The Scotsman on Saturday (here) bemoaning the vitriolic nature of political debate in Scotland.

One of the reasons I started this blog was a desire to a) take part in the construction of a level of political debate in Scotland that was not so much focused on the ephemera of immediate party politics but on longer term reflections about Scottish (and Western) society; and b) make sure that Catholicism had a role in that debate.

To the extent that Hassan is arguing for a deeper, more reflective Scottish politics, who can disagree? Both in Scotland and the UK in general, a lot of what passes for politics is daily jockeying for position between the parties, mainly done with an eye for immediate success in the opinion polls. There is nothing wrong with that per se, indeed it’s an essential part of parliamentary democracy, but if it’s the only game going on, then there is a difficulty.

In Scotland, there is the additional problem that we are only gradually developing a functional political culture after many years when power and reflection on power has been centred in London. Now that some powers are invested in the Edinburgh parliament and more are likely to arrive in the near future –whether by way of increased devolution or independence- we are only gradually developing that sort of deeper, surrounding political debate and the institutions for such a debate.

So quite right on the need for deep, reflective politics. But one aspect of the article deserves more careful scrutiny.

While we believe we are a friendly, warm, welcoming people, the other side of our society is a shaming record of violence, crime and alcohol abuse which is off the record compared to others.
Some of this echoes Carol Craig’s analysis in The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence, just reprinted in a revised second edition. She argues that it is commonplace for people to be labelled and judged worthless and traces this back to Scotland’s religious past and the division into the saved and the damned.
I don’t think it is an accident that the Rangers versus Celtic divide originated around religion, and that the Labour versus SNP fissure often feels like a throwback to Scotland’s embattled religious sects.

According to Hassan, religion is the historical cause of Scotland’s impaired and violent political discourse, and the ‘feel’ of the nastier side of modern Scottish politics is that of odium theologicum. The implausibility of the historical case –do the modern successors to Calvinist Holland or Geneva suffer from a similarly inept politics or damaged psyches?- is rather less important than the fact that Hassan, a leading Scottish political commentator, sees the issues in this way. For him, a narrative of having to break away from its religious past is the central element of what forming a modern Scotland is about.

Now in the rest of the UK and the West, you’ll find similar views. Turn to Dawkins’ site or the Guardian and you’ll find loads of commentators assuming that to be religious is to be out of date. Secularization is progress and religion is against progress. So Catholic contributions to politics in Scotland have to fight the normal prejudice of the chattering classes, particularly on the Left, against religious belief. But Scotland (like Northern Ireland) has an additional problem in that, undoubtedly, religion is a problem in modern Scotland. Even a passing familiarity with political discussion here reveals that the problems of sectarianism –Catholic vs Protestant- are a major factor in Scottish political debate, quite apart from whatever daily sectarian realities in ordinary people’s lives actually exist. A simplistic conclusion from the fact that religion is a problem in Scotland is the thought that religion needs to be done away with (or tamed or excluded). Whilst Catholics would regard such a solution as being as helpful as the suggestion that, because an asthmatic is struggling for breath, he should simply stop breathing, it is obvious how easily such a conclusion comes to those who, sharing the normal mindset of the secular intelligentsia, are predisposed to regard religion as in general outmoded.

New political realities are forming in Scotland as a result of existing devolution and the push of the SNP for independence. I take absolutely no view on this blog as to the rights and wrongs of independence vs devolution vs straightforward unionism: all I am advocating is a thoughtful Scottish culture and a Catholic contribution to that culture, and that should be an aim welcomed by Catholics (and I'd hope others) regardless of party politics. But we need to be aware how widespread the assumption of a need to exclude religion from the public space is amongst opinion formers, and how, in Scotland, the particular history of religion and sectarianism here is being used –consciously or not- to bolster the argument that modern Scotland has no place for religion. Issues such as gay ‘marriage’ thus take on for their proponents a symbolic function quite in excess of any supposed direct contribution to the common good, marking the building of a modern Scotland over the grave of old religion.

Hassan’s article can be seen as broadly sympathetic to many of the Scottish Church’s concerns over sectarianism. Even more striking therefore that, at its base, is a view of religion as something to be left behind.


  1. I'm an Englishman and have only been to Scotland twice, but Scottish politics does seem very interesting, especially now that devolved government has been introduced. Proportional representation makes the party system a bit more fluid. Do you think there is any prospect of a new "Christian" party emerging and becoming a force there? Maybe that would become a possibility if enough Christians felt disillusioned with the main parties.

    By the way, this story about the anti-sectarianism bill might interest you:


  2. I agree that Scottish politics is in a fascinating period just now! The independence referendum is going to dominate discussions for the next few years. I can't see any sign of a specifically Christian party emerging, although Murdo Fraser's unsuccessful candidature for the Conservative Party leadership, had it succeeded, would have meant a new centre-right party in Scotland to replace (or at least rebrand!) the Tories (James MacMillan blogs on this here http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/jmacmillan/100055846/how-murdo-fraser-could-win-over-ex-labour-voters-an-open-letter-from-james-macmillan/.)

    There's a wide variety of political views amongst Catholics and you'll find supporters of all the main parties. The SNP I think has a particular problem with this issue in that it has attracted (deliberately) Muslim and Catholic votes in previous years from Labour and Bishop Tartaglia's warning (http://www.journal-online.co.uk/article/7995-antigay-marriage-bishop-meets-with-first-minister)of a 'big chill' in Catholic/SNP relations has to be seen in that light. One of the good things that may come out the current proposals is a closer working relationship between Muslims, Catholics and orthodox Protestants in the area of social policy (http://www.christian.org.uk/news/muslims-and-roman-catholics-meet-to-protect-marriage/).

    I don't think it's ultimately in the interest of any party to be seen to be pushing an agenda identified solely with a metropolitan elite. I think the main political danger of the SSM proposal is a general disillusionment and lack of enthusiasm for Scottish politics amongst the religious -a lack of engagement with the political process rather than opting for a new Christian party (which it's hard to imagine being anything other than a pressure group)- and perhaps a sense of detachment from all the parties.

    On the sectarianism issue, it's all a bit of a mess! Although I've rarely encountered it directly, it does exist at some level (certainly in the football ground). There's very little agreement on how widespread the problem is, how to analyse it, and how to deal with it.