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We must prepare for an independent Scotland

by
21 May 2021

The C of E and the Kirk need to talk more about the future of the Union, argues Doug Gay

THE dust is beginning to settle after the drama of the Scottish Parliamentary Elections on 6 May, in which the SNP and the Greens won a clear pro-independence majority (Leader Comment, 14 May). I’m a Kirk minister, an academic, and, I hope, a firm friend of the C of E. I’m also a member of the SNP. I’m glad of this chance to share some reflections on our constitutional future.

It has been said often in recent months that the era of British politics is now gone, replaced by distinctive political contests in each of the four nations of the UK. We’ve now had three more polls since the 2014 independence referendum, when 55 per cent voted No and 45 per cent voted Yes. In the 2016 Brexit Referendum, Scotland voted 62 per cent to Remain; in the 2019 Westminster Election, the SNP won 48 out of 59 Scottish seats; and, in 2021, the SNP and the Greens have just won 72 of 129 seats at Holyrood.

Paradoxically, defeat in 2014 meant that SNP membership surged, but it was the 2016 referendum that changed everything. Professor John Curtice noted last week that the campaign for Indyref2 could never have been reactivated so quickly and so strongly without Brexit.

 

THIS is where politics in England and Scotland diverge dramatically. In England, I hear many voices urging the country to accept Brexit, unite, and move on. It’s not like that up here.

A pitch for “Better Together” (No) in 2014 was that, if Scotland voted Yes, we would lose our place in the EU. It is not just that Scotland voted strongly Remain: there are hard feelings about how the issue of EU membership was used to leverage a No vote in 2014. Brexit, against the will of the majority, is said to be the substantive change of circumstances which justifies pressing for a fresh referendum on independence within “a generation”.

Behind all this lies a longer story. The Conservatives have not won a majority in Scotland in a Westminster election since 1955, but they have been in power at Westminster for 44 of the years since then.

Up here, this is known as “the democratic deficit”. Simply put, folk in Scotland mostly do not get the government in London that most of us vote for. We didn’t in 2010, nor in 2015. This was reinforced in 2016, when we did not get the Brexit outcome that 62 per cent of us voted for. It was confirmed in 2017, and reconfirmed in 2019.

My point in writing this is not to convince people that I am right, but to help to create a better understanding of how the Union is changing. I worry that increasing numbers of people in Scotland and England distrust each other’s political choices and instincts.

One minute, Scots hear talk of being love-bombed and of huge new public investments; the next, we are told that we already get far too much subsidy from England. UK-wide newspapers routinely use different headlines in their English and Scottish editions, knowing that they will be read differently.

 

IN THIS time of increasing divergence and misunderstanding, Churches in Scotland and England need to talk and listen to one another more effectively.

It is very clear, for example, that if Yes had won in 2014, our Churches would not have been remotely prepared. The SNP affirms the Union of the Crowns (with a separate Scottish coronation), but wants only a co-operating social union, not a parliamentary one, with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Post-Brexit, questions about borders are more challenging: the issue of currency and debt is a potential minefield. Scotland’s position on these may seem weak, but where would England/the rest of the UK put the Trident fleet, and at what cost?

Even if independence does not come, change is coming. The House of Lords in its present form has no future. The SNP has long boycotted it; so the largest party in Scotland has no peers at all. The C of E is established only in England, but it has privileged representation in the Lords, while the Kirk has none. Bloated by patronage, and still not clear of hereditaries, the Lords is an ancien régime living on borrowed time.

As “national Churches”, I think we need to talk, but I am not sure that the Church of England is ready for this conversation. I am troubled by the relative lack of engagement with constitutional questions among Anglican public theologians. I worry that Anglican reluctance to talk about the Union is rooted in a reluctance to talk about your own establishment, and how that needs to evolve (or end?).

Whatever lies ahead, it is time for us to work together as wise dialogue partners and loving peacemakers. Our countries need us.


The Revd Dr Doug Gay is Principal of Trinity College and Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Glasgow. His books include
Honey from the Lion: Christianity and the ethics of nationalism (SCM Press, 2013), and Reforming The Kirk: The future of the Church of Scotland (St Andrew Press, 2018).

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