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In touch with true Scottishness

02 November 2012

National distinctiveness could justify independence, says David Chillingworth


Question time: the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood

Question time: the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood

THE signing of an agreement last month by Alex Salmond and David Cameron about a referendum on Scottish independence brings decision time a little closer. There will be a vote in 2014 ( Comment, 22 June).

The ballot paper will offer only the independence option. The alternative choice of enhanced devolution - more powers to the existing Holyrood Parliament - will not be presented (although the Calman Commission of 2009 established the popularity of this with the Scottish electorate).

Young people aged 16 and 17 will be allowed to vote. For both Westminster and Holyrood governments, the political stakes are high.

I believe that Churches and faith groups should be agnostic about issues of flags and jurisdiction. My Irish background tells me that it is profoundly unwise for Churches to become advocates or defenders of particular constitutional arrangements. But we should make a strong contribution to discussion of the values and character of any new state that may emerge. And we should be particularly alert to any tendency to shape the debate in adversarial terms around questions of identity.

There are some significant issues that need to be addressed. Scottish independence has been a vision, and, as the debate proceeds, that vision will need to take concrete form in plans, policies, and proposals.

One of the first signs of this has been the Scottish National Party's decision to commit itself to future membership of NATO. This has been described as the SNP's "Clause 4" moment. It is significant, because the removal of nuclear weapons from Scottish lochs has long been a uniting issue in the nationalist movement and beyond. But I wonder whether it is realistic to think that an independent Scotland that is a member of NATO can still get rid of nuclear weapons.

the list of other challenging issues grows ever longer. There is financial regulation and the currency, health-care, defence, and education policy. At a deeper level, it seems not quite clear what the independence debate is about. Terms such as "national self-determination" are not much used.

Scotland is undoubtedly distinctive in law, education, culture - and a surprising liberalism. But is that distinctiveness such that it justifies independence, or requires independence to protect it? Economic issues will inevitably be important: people will need to be convinced that they will be no worse off in an independent Scotland.

One further issue interests me. I am at present attending the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Auckland. The preservation and use of the Maori language is at the heart of the complex nationhood of New Zealand. Yet the place of Scots Gaelic at the heart of the life of an independent Scotland is hardly mentioned.

What is needed is a political debate that makes a strong case for the economic and political viability of an independent Scotland. My colours are nailed firmly to the fence; but let me offer you this picture of how it looks to me.

My heart is with the self-confidence and the vigour of small and independent nations - as I believe Scotland could become. I proudly carry my Irish passport. I am not an instinctive unionist. I respond with caution to the suggestion that we can survive and thrive only as part of something bigger.

Yet it does seem to me that there are two significant issues that make Scottish independence a difficult political challenge at this point. Scotland has seen itself as a place of high-quality management in the financial sector. The excesses and the bonus culture that destroyed the reputation of the City of London as a financial centre were never so obvious here; so the collapse of the Scottish banks has greatly damaged Scottish self-confidence. People worry about the ability of an independent Scotland to survive a further crisis in the financial sector. They see what has happened to Ireland and Iceland.

The second significant change is the position of the European project, and the problems of the euro. Even ten years ago, it would have been possible to promote the idea that Scotland might substitute the shelter of the European Union for the shelter of the United Kingdom. It is not so now. I do not believe that the European dream is over, but I do not think that it is available for 2014 as a Scottish-independence vote-winner.

Finally, I think that we in the Scottish Episcopal Church need to be careful of our identity and belonging. It is right to be agnostic about the outcome of the referendum. But that requires us to make clear that we will live comfortably with either outcome.

We need to show that we are in touch with the Scottishness of our culture and history as a Church. The "English Church" jibe is still all too common. We can easily become complicit in allowing others to dispossess us of our Scottishness.

This is not, however, just about our relationship with our past. It is about the future - our future in mission in the complexities and challenges of 21st-century Scotland, whether independent or not. This is our story. We are part of it, and part of it we shall remain, whatever the outcome.

The Most Revd David Chillingworth is the Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane, and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.


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