Scotland Decides ’14: what’s God got to do with it?

How would God vote? tymesynk, CC BY-SA

Scotland’s spiritual leaders have been making their presence felt in the independence debate lately. The Church of Scotland is to hold a reconciliation service the Sunday after a vote to help bring the country back together.

Earlier this week its General Assembly housed an independence debate between shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander and leading theologian Doug Gay. Not to be outdone, the Free Church has also been getting in on the act. We asked our panel what religion could bring to the debate.


Lesley Riddoch, PhD student at Strathclyde University, broadcaster and journalist

The Church of Scotland did a pretty extensive exercise around the country with their congregations a few months ago, holding discussions about the referendum. I would give them a big up for that because very few organisations have taken it upon themselves to have such a widespread and grassroots discussion.

I don’t mind that they haven’t taken a position on the referendum. It means they are in a better position to be honest brokers after it. It’s such a close race that you’ll inevitably offend people if you do.

Coming from Northern Ireland, I see this question of a presbyterian Scottish psyche in a different light to many people. Nothing in Scotland could be as underpinned by religious difference. I have never really thought that Scotland was as religious as many people seem to think.

We are what we are. We are reserved to some degree. We are fairly tediously law-abiding people who have a great faith in fairness working things out in the end. It’s why people waited for land reform that never came. The Scottish people are both patient and continually disappointed.

I don’t mind the projection of a rather dour, restrained image – it’s partly true. But I take exception to the flip side. There’s a Jekyll and Hyde idea that has been around for a very long time. On the one hand you get the sophisticated, civilised Adam Smith or Sir Walter Scott types, while on the other there’s the wild-eyed hairy Highlanders who can’t control themselves.

This is my problem with the church’s discussion of reconciliation four months before the vote. It plays to this idea of a darker side to the Scots – if you scratch us, the calm veneer will drop and everything will fall out – unless a man of the cloth is there to pick up the pieces. That image has been exaggerated and fabricated by all sorts of forces, many of them from outside our borders.

Reconciliation as a concept makes me think of Northern Ireland or Soweto. Surely we can all agree that nothing in the independence debate is that fatally fractious. The only thing that is polarised is the question in the referendum, and even that had three until quite recently.

I’d prefer the church talked about facilitation. If we could use that word, I do think it has a role to play in keeping the ball rolling after the vote. Unbelievable amounts of energy have been released by the referendum – don’t we want to encourage them to do more?

Chris Whatley, Professor of Scottish History, University of Dundee

The keystone in the union arch at the very outset was the Protestant succession. In 1706 Queen Anne and her ministers wanted the Scots to agree to the Protestant succession that had been agreed in Westminster in 1701. The union was forged at the time of the so-called Counter-Reformation of the Catholic church, aided and abetted by Louis XIV of France, which had led to a paranoia of a Catholic resurgence in Protestant Britain.

In spite of this, the Church of Scotland was initially nervous about going into the union because it feared being dominated by the Church of England. For this reason, the agreement comprised two acts, one of which was for securing the Church of Scotland within the union.

There were always Scots on the extreme edges of presbyterianism who saw the union as sinful because the Church of England was Anglican, which included bishops and all the other vestiges of Catholicism. But mainstream presbyterians accepted the union and saw it as being about securing Protestantism until up until about the 1950s.

At that point, you start to see the demise of Christianity in terms of church membership. With that decline, the value of the union in securing people’s religious beliefs became less important. This is one of the reasons the union is now much more vulnerable than at any time since 1740.

For centuries there has been a sense of Scottish distinctiveness and identity. Much of it was concealed during the high watermark of unionism in the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century. But the tide of unionism has ebbed and we are now left with the rocks of Scottish national feeling.

It’s interesting that the Church of Scotland is not taking a position on independence. Fifty years ago they would probably have been strongly supporting the union, but I sense there is now a variety of views within the church. Instead their big concern is what happens after the vote, which I share. This vote mustn’t lead to ugly divisions within Scottish society. The church is rightly calling for calm and reason and forgiveness and healing.

As for the Scottish national character, presbyterian caution certainly led to the two acts of union. We also know that many Scots prayed to God for guidance about whether the union would be a good thing. Saying that, there were others who were cautiously opposed to the union, such as the Jacobites, who were mainly Episcopalian, so you can’t pin it to presbyterianism.

Wherever it comes from, my sense is that there’s a strong element of caution, of canniness, in the Scottish character, which you are seeing in the present debate. My reading is that there’s still a sizeable proportion of the population, the don’t knows, who remain to be convinced about independence. They are the archetypally cautious Scots looking for more security with currency, VAT, pensions, business and so on.

In 1707, the financial terms of the union were settled before the vote in the Scottish parliament. Now we are in a situation where we have the option of independence but we don’t have the detail. That’s why the canny Scots are saying they want greater certainty about the future.

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