Twenty years ago, in August 1999, I made a speech at the Edinburgh International Festival called “Scotland’s Shame” arguing that anti-Catholicism was a barrier to genuine pluralism. At the time it seemed to cause a bit of a stir. But looking back, it seems more like a storm in a teacup.
There were many voices raised at the time, and in the months and years afterwards, which illustrated the potency of the topic in Scottish debate. Some held the view, similar to mine at the time, that there was an issue here that needed to be addressed. Others claimed it wasn’t much of a problem and that anti-Catholic feeling was fading away. “Experts” lined up on both sides of the argument – sociologists, politicians, journalists, historians, clergy, writers – and the Scottish media seemed to be full of it for a long while.
There was government action and conferences called, and books and academic papers written. For some time it seemed like the only topic of discussion in Scotland’s public square. It was curious that a subject deemed by some to be a non-issue gripped the public imagination for so long. But no conclusion appeared to be reached on how important or unimportant it was, and eventually everyone moved on to more pressing things.
Speaking personally, two decades later, it does feel like an odd episode. I wonder if I’m at all interested in it now, which is strange as it was a serious reflection for me at the time. The white heat of commitment has gone cold. And anti-Catholicism has a bigger, more complex, more contemporary and more international context than the parish-pump historicism in Scotland.
For me, life moved on quickly to other things – there was so much music to be written, for example, and the imaginative life became busier and busier and took me all over the world.
I still get asked about it though, and most are curious as to why a composer, of all people, might bother about such things. Should I have gone to the trouble? I don’t know. It probably needed some kind of discussion, if just to get a hidden minority perspective out in the open for a change. And why should a composer have done it? Why not? The “experts” can easily get lost in their own self-referential bubbles, appearing unable to do, say or write anything much of wider import, influence or significance. Or maybe it was just the sheer unexpected oddity of a composer, rather than an academic, saying these things that got it all going. Others picked up the baton and had their say, one way or another.
I concede that I do develop obsessions of one sort or another. Most of these are musical thankfully, and can lead organically to other things, such as my excitement at building up The Cumnock Tryst, the festival of music I established in my old Ayrshire home town. Some other obsessions don’t lead anywhere at all, and wither away.
My “Scotland’s Shame” speech was one of those. However, hate crime statistics emerged last year suggesting that Scottish Catholics are targeted more than all other religious groups combined. A more recent government report on religiously aggravated crimes shows that 57 per cent of all reported offences were directed towards Catholics.
I don’t know how we can just wish those figures away.
What I recall most about the response to my speech was the defensiveness of many in the public eye, as well as the fear of several within the Catholic community about having a freewheeling, open discussion about their place in the “new Scotland”. Perhaps the problem was that taboos were being broken – I had asked that a minority might look at its role in the wider society, and I also asked what kind of Scotland could work for all its citizens.
I am afraid there is as much disinclination on the part of powerful elements – the media, politicians, those in academia, the chattering classes generally and, crucially, those in Catholic officialdom – to grasp these nettles today as there was in 1999. And worryingly, the political and social atmosphere in Scotland is more troubling now than it was back then.
Perhaps “Scotland’s Shame” has been superseded by new toxicities, new divisions and more potent breaches in our society and country that will impact more directly on our polity, and which could be even harder to heal and to solve in the coming years.
Sir James MacMillan is a composer and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald