The question, ‘Should Scotland’s Catholics should be concerned about independence?’ has been raised again recently. There are at least a couple of strands to this question that I want to think about. One is whether independence could aggravate sectarian bigotry, and the other is whether an independent Scotland would sign up to a secular constitution.
Angela Haggerty discussed some of the issues in Bella Caledonia a couple of weeks ago:
Channel 4 News discussed the question this week:
It was also the subject of debate a couple of years ago, when the Scottish Government was struggling to get to grips with tackling what it understood to be the problem of sectarianism in Scotland. Many high profile Catholics contributed to that debate, including George Galloway MP, and the late Paul McBride QC. For ease of reference, here is a useful summary of what they had to say on the matter:
The crux of their concern was that independence could aggravate sectarianism. If the Scottish Government were unable to deal with this social problem adequately under the existing constitutional arrangement, how much more serious would things get for Scottish Catholics if the influence, checks and balances of Westminster were completely removed?
According to Paul McBride, this could ‘encourage an atmosphere where sectarianism could blossom’. George Galloway made a similar point, that ‘the break-up of the Union would remove a protection from Scottish Catholics that would lead to greater sectarianism’.
Whilst I respect their right to hold this opinion, I have never fully understood the fear that existing sectarian tensions could increase, and matters made worse for Catholics living in this country, as a result of Scotland no longer being part of the United Kingdom.
I can understand it to an extent, in that there may be an early backlash and show of defiance from some religiously bigoted unionists who feel that they have had an intrinsic part of their identity ripped out of them. Perhaps this is the fear that George Galloway was expressing when he spoke elsewhere about there being sufficient numbers of ‘swivel eyed loyalists’ to make life difficult for Catholics in an independent Scotland.
However, if the problem of sectarianism already exists in Scotland as part of the United Kingdom, I am not at all sure why leaving the United Kingdom would make it worse.
We would need to be working on the assumption that the political and economic framework that created this problem in the first place has matured to the point that, although sectarianism still endures within it, that same framework has now become a necessary condition for keeping sectarianism under control. It is both the cause and the control. I am not convinced.
In addition to the perceived protection offered within the United Kingdom – absurdly, a constitutional framework predicated on anti-Catholicism – some Scots might feel that the English are generally more tolerant of Catholics, and therefore Scotland’s Catholics would immediately find themselves very much in a minority in an isolated and hostile country. I struggle to share this concern for two main reasons.
Firstly, whilst a large number of Scotland’s Catholics are Irish in descent and generations of Irish Catholics living in Scotland suffered terrible discrimination, particularly regarding social housing, rented accommodation and employment, and even in the streets as encouraged by official Church of Scotland publications, that aspect of the problem has certainly diminished over the years, even if the memory of it is still fresh among an older generation of Scotland’s Catholics.
What hasn’t disappeared are instances of religious hate crimes on some of Scotland’s streets and in social media. However we need to be very careful. Hate crimes judged to have been motivated by religious prejudice are often so intricately tied up with other socially destructive attitudes and circumstances that the true intent may not always be clear cut, despite the context and the type of language used in committing the crime.
Nor can such crimes be taken as a reason to think that things could get worse in an independent Scotland, without believing in the assumption that Westminster provides a higher level of protection for Scotland’s Catholics than the Scottish Government is able to provide on its own. However, when both concerns are taken together, I can understand why some people may think this way – one could be understood as a direct continuation of the other, with no end point in sight.
Secondly, whilst certain unionist campaigners have been keen to draw attention to the SNP’s historical anti-Catholic roots (clearly forgetting those of the United Kingdom!) in order to raise suspicion about their plans for Scotland, Alex Salmond has repeatedly spoken in favour of faith schools, including Catholic ones, and recognises the positive contribution a faith based education makes to our society.
There is no evidence to believe that this position would change because of independence, unless faith schools were to be forever abolished by the people of Scotland – including leaders and representatives of various faith groups that make up our society – demanding a secular constitution. Again, I am just not convinced by that concern.
Should Scotland’s Catholics be concerned about independence? Not any more than anyone else should be. Should Scotland’s Catholics be concerned about the future of Catholicism (in Scotland)? Possibly, but that is a different question and I doubt very much that the answer would have anything to do with independence.