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Is Scotland on the Verge of Breaking Away from the UK?

sign welcoming motorists to Scotland


Greg Daly - published on 09/10/14

Both sides jittery ahead of Sept. 18 referendum.

With opinion polls indicating that the fate of the United Kingdom is on a knife-edge, British politicians from both sides of the Scottish border have embarked on increasingly desperate attempts to save the union.

Yesterday, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown began a tour of Scotland, proposing an enhanced form of devolution if his fellow Scots voted against independence. Within hours, Brown’s plan received the support of Ed Miliband and David Cameron, his respective successors as leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

That Brown is proposing so generous a “bribe,” as Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, has characterized the idea, shows just how precarious Britain’s future is.

In early August, YouGov found the “yes” side—those supporting independencewere trailing their pro-union “no” opponents by 22 points, but a fresh poll on Sept. 2 found the gap between the two camps had narrowed to six points. Following the second public debate between Salmond and Alastair Darling, formerly Brown’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and public face of the “No” campaign, a third YouGov poll revealed that when undecided voters were discounted, “Yes” was now leading 51-49. Another polling company showed the two sides evenly split, and an aggregate of the last six polls now shows that although “no” still leads, its lead52-48is narrow enough to be within the margin of error.

The outcome of the referendum is too close to call, and with older Scots tending towards retaining the union, and younger ones inclined towards independence, everything could depend on turnout, which some observers expect to be 80% or higher.

While not taking sides, both Scottish archbishops have encouraged Scotland’s Catholics to vote, Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow asking them to do so “with complete freedom of choice and in accordance with their prayerful judgment of what is best for the future.” Calling to mind the duty of Catholics to work for peace, contribute to the common good, and promote human rights and “moral values based upon our common humanity,” Edinburgh’s Archbishop Leo Cushley has urged his flock to consider the issues “in the light of Catholic social teaching” and to do their “civic duty” on the day of the referendum.

Although the hierarchy has refrained from taking sides in the dispute, the independence cause is now more popular among Catholics than any other religious groups in Scotland, according to Professor Tom Devine, perhaps Scotland’s most eminent historian, and a recent convert to the independence cause, who believes that the union was never more than “a marriage of convenience.”

For Devine, the union’s stability between the 1750s and the 1980s was mainly due to a cluster of factors, all of which “have gone or been massively diluted,” leaving little in the union “except sentiment, history and family.” Among the factors that had upheld the union has been Britain’s Protestant identity, something which has been decades on the wane.

Noting how Catholic opposition to devolution was one of the main reasons why Scottish home rule had polled badly in western Scotland in 1979, Devine says that the 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes survey suggests that there has been a “silent revolution” among Scotland’s Catholics. He attributes the willingness of today’s Scottish Catholics to embrace independence to an increased confidence due to the “death of structural sectarianism and labor market discrimination.”

Others believe Devine too blasé about the position of Catholics in modern Scotland. Glasgow’s former MP George Galloway has warned of a "historic crossover between Scottish nationalism and anti-Irish-Roman Catholicism." But while Devine has dismissed Galloway’s concerns as “rhetoric,” they have been echoed by more respectable commentators such as John Haldane, professor of philosophy  at the University of St. Andrews and a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Writing in First Things, Haldane observed that “while traditional nationalists are motivated by a sense of Scotland’s past as an independent country, those on the economic left see independence as providing an opportunity to create a socialist state, while progressive secular liberals envisage an independent Scotland as the first formal embodiment of a post-religious Europe.”

“Nowhere,” he added, “is this vision more evident than in the discussion surrounding the Catholic Church.”

There is already something deeply ironic about how David Cameron, having originally rejected Alex Salmond’s proposal for a referendum including the option of enhanced devolution in favor of a simple “yes or no” ballot, has been forced to transform “no” into the very “Devo Max” Salmond had originally wanted in order to stave off the "yes" that even a month ago looked unimaginable.

It would be doubly ironic if by supporting an independent Scotland, Scottish Catholics were to bring to power the very forces that would see them reduced to a footnote in Scotland’s history.

Greg Daly covers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.

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