With the vote looming, doubts remain.
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Just days after thousands of Protestant Orangemen paraded through the streets of Edinburgh, and with the prominent Scottish Catholic philosopher John Haldane having expressed concerns about the fate of the Church in an independent Scotland, a hundred of his fellow Scottish Catholics have paid for an advertisement to proclaim that “a ‘Yes’ vote in this week’s referendum makes possible a more socially just Scotland.”
Those who have signed the letter, published in the Herald newspaper, include historian Owen Dudley Edwards, whose sister Ruth has claimed that Scottish independence could inflame sectarian tensions; Sir Harry Burns, formerly Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, and Professor Duncan MacLaren, onetime Secretary General of the Church’s aid and development agency, Caritas Internationalis.
“As part of the UK, we live in the world’s fourth most unequal state,” said MacLaren, adding, “Independence will allow us to follow Pope Francis’s words and say ‘no’ to ‘an economy of exclusion and inequality,’ not just for our own citizens but through a foreign policy based on solidarity with the poorest, for those who suffer from hunger and exploitation throughout the world.”
Citing Evangelii Gaudium, MacLaren seemed to draw a different lesson than did rocker Bob Geldof from the principle that “’no’ is not always a negative.” For MacLaren, Scotland could better serve the common good at home and abroad as an independent country than as a constituent part of the UK. In this, Scotland would be in line with other northern European countries such as Norway, which spends almost a third as much on international aid as the UK does, despite having only five million people. (This compared to the UK’s 64 million; or Ireland, which last month had 336 troops on UN peacekeeping missions compared to 282 from the UK.)
Another signatory, Harry Schnitker, senior research fellow at Dundee’s St. Ninian’s Institute, argues there is little hope of Westminster politicians voting in line with the principles of Catholic Scots.
“It is true that the Scottish Parliament has passed bills opposed by the Catholic Church,” he said, the most recent example being the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill, which Scotland’s parliament passed in February. “But the same bills have been passed in the UK Parliament. On the whole, however, policies passed by the Scottish Parliament have been more in line with Catholic thinking.”
There is a common perception in Scotland that welfare reform in England and Wales has constituted an onslaught on the poorest and weakest. The irony of this is that work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith famously committed himself to helping Britain’s most vulnerable in 2002, following a visit to Glasgow’s Easterhouse estate. The first senior Conservative politician ever to speak at the Labour Party conference, in 2005, he insisted at a Christian Socialist movement debate that “everybody should have enough money to live properly in their community,” and that “at some point we’ve got to redistribute assets, not just income.”
Alas, despite taking office in 2010 with the aim of eradicating poverty through a universal credit system, he saw matters worsen across Britain. This June, the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee accused the Department for Work and Pensions of ignoring a 400 percent increase in food bank use between 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, saying that “There’s no doubt that the increase can be connected directly to benefit sanctions and other issues.”
Catholics like Harry Schnitker hope that in an independent Scotland, things might be different.
A major concern for Catholics about Scottish independence is that an independent Scotland would prove an anti-Catholic Scotland. John Haldane, professor of philosophy at St. Andrew’s University, has argued that “progressive secular liberals envisage an independent Scotland as the first formal embodiment of a post-religious Europe.” This is especially evident in discussions about the Catholic Church upon which, he says, “the secular attack is focused.”
Haldane might take some solace from the most recent polls that point to independence being rejected 52-48, but also from comments made by Holyrood’s minister for legal affairs, Roseanna Cunningham, MSP. Cunningham pointed out that an independent Scotland would require a written constitution, and insisted that “The constitution in place on Independence Day will uphold the rights and liberties of all, including freedom of religion and the protection of Catholic education.”
This assurance was welcomed by Peter Kearney, director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, who drew attention to Cunningham’s promised protection for Catholic education. However, Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Educating Service, said that while such protection would be “appropriate,” it would remain to be seen what such protection would involve. That, he said, “is just one of the details that’s still unclear prior to the referendum.”
A group of academics, including Sir Tom Devine and Deirde McCann of curham Law School, have offered suggestions as to how such protections should be implemented. According to "Religious Freedom in Scotland: A Legal Proposal," a Scottish constitution should recognize the value of Scotland’s religious communities, explicitly list religious freedom as a fundamental freedom and basic right, bar discrimination on the grounds of belief, recognize the rights of religious communities to have their children educated in their faith, and include a reasonable mechanism to balance the employer’s needs with employees’ religious practices.
Edinburgh’s Archbishop Leo Cushley has said he doubts Scotland ‘s vote on Thursday will make much difference to Scotland’s attitudes towards freedom of conscience and religion. Whether independent, or in possession of further devolved powers, Cushley said, “the general social and political consensus that exists in western Europe would not change.”
In these days, does consensus mean a detante wherein religion is marginalized and misunderstood? John Haldane might yet be proved right when he says that—given Scotland’s history and the substantiality of Catholic faith and practice—“the principal test” of whether an independent Scotland can usher in a new age of Scottish Enlightenment “will be respect for Catholicism.”
Greg Dalycovers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.