AT LONG last, there are signs that the Scottish independence
debate is coming to life. Until recently, it had seemed to be
over-focused on the minutiae of economic policy, and whether people
would be "better off" in an independent Scotland. The identity
question - whether people feel Scottish in a way that needs to be
expressed in separate constitutional arrangements - has hardly
featured at all.
The Churches in general have taken the view that they should not
support either side. The Church of Scotland calls that neutral; I
have called it agnostic. We recognise that we all have members who
are honourably on either side of this debate. My background in
Northern Ireland leaves me firmly of the view that faith and flags
should not mix. Such mingling is one of the building-blocks of
The polls suggest that opinion is moving, although there is
still a majority against independence. My own - entirely anecdotal
- impression is that there are people for whom the idea of Scottish
independence has not been particularly important, but who are now
giving it serious consideration.
I think that two significant issues were to blame for the way
that the debate has been slow to get going. First, there have been
difficulties about the projected relationship of an independent
Scotland with the European Union. Those problems arise partly from
the current economic difficulties in Europe, and partly because
most large European nations have minority groups within them - for
example, Spain and Catalonia. They do not wish to give heart to
separatist movements within their own borders.
Second, the Scottish financial sector emerged from the economic
crisis of 2008 in a bad state. Far from being a model of Scottish
prudence, the leadership of the financial institutions in Scotland
was shown to be as incompetent as elsewhere. Scottish national
pride and confidence in the management of its financial sector were
severely damaged. Some apprehension about cutting loose from the
bigger UK economy is understandable, and questions about the
"lender of last resort" continue to arise.
It is that latter question that has shaped the recent phase of
the debate as a confrontation between Holyrood and Westminster over
whether an independent Scotland could be part of a sterling
currency union. The SNP suggests that this is bluff on the part of
the British Government. Only time will tell; but it does inform our
understanding of what the independence debate is actually
YOU might have expected that the vision of an independent Scotland
would have been presented as the opportunity for a nation to choose
self-determination and to become a fully independent state. But
some internal debate in the SNP led to the decision to offer a form
of independence that is actually much closer to an enhanced form of
devolution; so the Queen is still head of state, and sterling
remains as the currency.
The hope, therefore, is that the difficult questions about
interest rates, public-sector pensions, membership of the EU, and
the rest can be sidestepped.
It is this "softer" form of independence which the British
Government has been trying to discredit in the debate of the past
few weeks. At this point, it is hard to see what the outcome will
be. But the negative impact of London voices telling Scots what
they can and cannot do is always a potent force.
THE fact that the Churches have chosen to be agnostic or neutral
does not mean that we are not part of the debate. The Scottish
Episcopal Church is increasingly comfortable with its position as a
historic Scottish Church, and is determined to live beyond the
sectarian "English Church" jibe.
Impending constitutional change means that the Church of
Scotland, as the National Church in Scotland, is slightly nervous
about its statusin an independent country. Scottish devolution and
the establishmentof the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood had a
significant impacton the Kirk's standing in Scottish society.
Before devolution, the General Assembly of the Church of
Scotland carried significant authority - almost as if it was a
Scottish Parliament. Devolution diminished that status.
Independence might further erode it.
Around the edges of that concern have been some determined
efforts on the part of the National Secular Society to remove
church influence from the education sector and elsewhere. The aim
is obviously to shape an independent Scotland as a secularist
Meanwhile, the Kirk has been running a Scotland-wide series of
consultations about independence; it published the results at the
end of last month. The conclusion was that people wished to see the
debate focus on "real issues" rather than the transfer of
The Convener of the Church of Scotland's Church and Society
Council, the Revd Ian Galloway, said: "The key issue is to ensure
that social justice is improved by any constitutional change.
Neither independence for Scotland, nor increased devolution, nor
the status quo are prizes in themselves. The real victory lies in
the alleviation of poverty, the reduction of ill-health,
forgiveness in the criminal-justice system and in society."
I suspect that such conclusions give expression to a strand of
the independence debate which is highly significant, but not yet
fully in play. Scotland is different. Its self-understanding is
that it is more communitarian and more compassionate than the rest
The question that the Scottish electorate will have to resolve
in the next few months is whether it perceives such differences in
political culture and identity as real, and as sufficient to
justify a vote in favour of the independence question. Time will
The Most Revd David Chillingworth is the Bishop of St
Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane, and Primus of the Scottish