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Churches agnostic on independence

14 March 2014

Questions of identity have not fully emerged in Scotland, says David Chillingworth


All part of the debate: First Minister Alex Salmond last month

All part of the debate: First Minister Alex Salmond last month

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 deep-rooted sectarianism.

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 about.

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 society.

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 power.

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 of Britain.

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 tell.

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

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