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Catholic Church silent as Scotland prepares to vote on independence

The flag of St George, the flag of Scotland and the Union flag fly on the border (PA)

The Scottish referendum on independence has resulted in probably the longest election campaign in recent democratic history. Most polls indicate a win on September 18 for Better Together, the pro-devolution alliance which rejects separation. But the intensity of campaigning has altered attitudes and much else besides.

In the small towns and rural communities which are the electoral power base of the Scottish National Party (SNP), polls show that its umbrella “Yes for Scotland” campaign is trailing badly. But the situation is almost the reverse in many heavily urban communities from Dundee to Ayrshire. Here rejection of the SNP kept it in the wilderness for most of its 80-year history.

In SNP strongholds, many doubt that Alex Salmond’s economic plans add up and what they hear about how absolute the break could prove to be with the rest of Britain, unsettles them. The SNP still has no idea what the currency of a post-British Scotland would be. It has been slow to release costs for the transition to a new state and what level of services can be maintained. The figures so far produced have been subject to withering analysis from many economists.

It was the SNP’s shaky economic credibility which, in the past, made it an impractical option in working-class Scotland. The Labour Party was seen as the chief guarantor of jobs and social progress. But Labour’s appeal has diminished as many working-class areas have become jobless communities facing welfare cuts. The middle-class profile of Labour, its absence from government in both London and Edinburgh and its inability to deliver benefits to its electoral strongholds have thrown it on the defensive.

A demographic which is proving particularly volatile is Scotland’s 850,000 Catholics. They ceased to be Labour’s most loyal voting group at the turn of the century and in 2011 those in working-class areas swung heavily to the SNP.

Profound changes in the community have made a lot of its members susceptible to its bold and stirring message.

Economic inactivity has produced alienation which can be channelled into resentment towards a faraway English elite. The SNP’s message of defiance strikes a chord with people who may never move far from their areas and now have very few direct links with the rest of Britain.

For the first time many Scots of modest means believe in independence irrespective of the economic outcome. Popular culture now extols risk-taking and bold expression of individuality. This is particularly true for men between the ages of 25 and 50. Family responsibilities and religious attachment would in the past have encouraged restraint and put a break on political radicalism, but as marriage has retreated as an institution, a lot of men have drifted from regular religious practice.

A consumer-based culture where there is distrust of commitments and certainties is displacing one with a far clearer moral framework.

It is evident from the men who predominate at often well-attended Yes meetings in areas where many Catholics live that Alex Salmond’s image as a rule-breaker and agitator goes down well with Scots who may often have plenty of time on their hands. The vivid online culture that has sprung up around the Celtic football club is now also heavily nationalist in character: younger men, often with jobs, have swung behind the independence cause because it chimes in with the rebellious mock-Irish culture that has been Celtic’s defining trademark.

Nationalism has become a comfort blanket for a lot of Catholics whose identity is no longer anchored in religious faith. The SNP exhorts members of a previously introspective community that faced high levels of discrimination because of its religious and ethnic background to come in from the cold. The SNP’s message to Catholics could be summarised this way: “Come and join us on a thrilling adventure. There is a place for you in the new plural Scotland whose multi-faceted identity will finally banish the tinge of sectarianism from the land.” To the extent that this helps to erode communal suspicions, it is to be warmly welcomed.

A counter-narrative is articulated only by a relatively few people who spring from the Catholic community or enjoy respect within it. The composer James MacMillan has expressed public concerns about the SNP’s anti-imperialist rhetoric swinging towards reactionary anti-Englishness. The MP Jim Murphy has embarked on a “100 meetings in 100 days” speaking tour across Scotland to warn audiences about what he sees as the SNP’s irresponsible populism.

Meanwhile, the maverick MP George Galloway attracts big and sometimes acrimonious crowds at his “Just say Naw” speaking events. He argues that partitioning Britain would ensure that Tories are in power for a long time on both sides of any island barrier; rather unusually for a politician expelled from the Labour Party in 2005, he insists that it is the Labour Party that is primarily responsible for the changes that improved the lives of low-income Scots after 1945.

The Catholic Church appears anxious, like many Scots, for the referendum to come to an end. The bishops have no plans to make any statements on the issue. It seems unlikely that the laity will be advised to ponder whether a yes or a no vote strengthens the position of faith or the economic well-being of Scots. By contrast, secularist groups, which have become very vocal in the last decade, have no hesitation in nailing their colours to the independence mast.

There has recently been an extensive turnover of bishops and many of them are confronting the huge task of closing parishes and producing a more streamlined and less costly Church. Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the former Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, was outspoken on a wide range of issues and his example may be seen as one to avoid. But by last autumn it was clear that the Cardinal O’Brien scandal was already fading into the background and the reputational damage to the Church may be rather less than was initially feared.

At a time of unprecedented turbulence, when mobilised interest groups are grappling for influence in the new Scotland, Scottish Catholics often seem to be operating in silos. There is a surprising lack of interaction between people in different branches of Church life, from education to parts of the media and the different offices of the Church. This makes it easier for political forces with their own agendas to muscle in and even try to bend parts of Church life to an essentially secular will.

A referendum campaign which, it is now clear, has polarised Scotland has given a governing party numerous opportunities to tighten its grip on national life. Techniques of influence and control have been refined to an unusual degree for a ruling party still operating within a democratic framework. The trade unions, the business world, NGOs and the civil service are beginning to fall under the SNP’s direct sway in subtle or overt ways. It operates through favouring groups or individuals who can deliver compliance, or else through calculated deployment or withdrawal of state patronage.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the Church will be operating in a new and unfamiliar climate. Post-Catholics, who make good use of social media and sometimes refer to their renunciation of faith as a sign of their capacity to integrate with the wider nation, have been prominent on the Yes side. It would be unusual if some of them did not close ranks with those within the administrative and academic elites, who are keen to legislate as much of the country’s Christian culture out of existence as they can. Little will be off-limits, especially if it is a No vote. Thwarted nation-builders will look for other ways to alter the face of Scotland – and it is unclear if everyone in the Scottish Church’s leadership grasps this.

Tom Gallagher’s book Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis (Argyll Publishing) was published last year

This article was first published in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (8/8/14)