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29 September 2014

Will the Catholic church confess to Scotland vote sin?

Alex Salmond
Alex Salmond

A row is developing over the role of the Scottish Roman Catholic hierarchy in the referendum, kicked off last week when, in a Spectator blog, Professor Tom Gallagher accused them of covertly supporting the Yes campaign.

I know Professor Gallagher and I admire his sceptical mind and his often unfashionable opinions, not least because I share many of them myself. The professor describes himself as having "spent 32 years teaching politics and casting doubt on seductive cure-alls from European integration to Scottish nationalism".

A Catholic-born atheist, he respects Christian ethics and is regretful that sectarian strife gave bullying secular elites the opportunity to impose their values on Scotland, accusing both Labour and the SNP of having destabilised society through their opposition to family values.

He wrote a Daily Telegraph blog a few weeks ago, defending the right of the Orange Order to march in defence of the Union, pointing out how the Scottish Orange Order had defied militants who wanted to help Northern Irish paramilitaries, had gradually discarded sectarianism and was a force for stability in some deprived areas.

He is in a long-term gay relationship, but he deplores the way in which gay marriage was pushed through the Scottish Parliament in the teeth of overwhelming public opposition.

Historically, Catholics feared that devolution would lead to Presbyterian domination. But in recent years, poorer Catholics in particular have proved susceptible to Anglophobic nationalist propaganda about how the overthrow of an uncaring, posh Westminster government would lead to an oil-financed Scotland of beer and chocolate.

The 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey showed 36% of Catholics and only 16% of Presbyterians favoured independence.

So, it was no accident that in Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire, where Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion, the majority vote was for independence.

Professor Gallagher was shocked at the church's failure to stay out of politics. The well-known Catholic composer James MacMillan went public, too, with his disappointment that the bishops "had turned a blind eye to priests and officers of the church who campaigned openly for one side in the referendum" and said nothing "about the disgracefully bullying tactics operated by thuggish nationalists, who hounded down Catholic MP Jim Murphy in the streets".

There was in truth a great deal of intimidation: when Sammy Wilson spoke in the Assembly the other day of "tartan terror tactics", he was on the money. Professor Gallagher was also dismayed by the violence, writing of how Alex Salmond had done nothing to discourage angry followers from marching on the BBC to demand the sacking of political editor Nick Robinson for doing his job.

Mind you, less pleasingly for Mr Wilson, he compared Salmond's stoking of the Yes mob with Ian Paisley "in his volcanic phase".

The English Catholic commentator Damian Thompson weighed in to say that he had never seen "a senior cleric suck up to a politician so shamelessly" as had Glasgow's Archbishop Philip Tartaglia – in his capacity as the President of the Bishops Conference of Scotland – in his "gruesomely sycophantic" letter to Alex Salmond about his resignation as First Minister.

"With good reason, you have been described as one of the most able and influential political leaders that Scotland and the United Kingdom has ever produced" was one of the less nauseating sentences.

The context is that because of Scottish Catholicism's terror that a Scottish government would withdraw support from Catholic schools, the church has been pathetically grateful that Mr Salmond ignored the desire of almost two-thirds of SNP grassroots members to phase out Catholic schools.

They must be scared now.

James MacMillan was horrified by the "oleaginous" letter. "O'Brien", he wrote (referring to Cardinal Keith O'Brien, kicked out in 2013 after revelations of sexual activity with junior priests), "damaged the church in sucking up to the SNP, who must regard some Catholics here as their useful idiots".

He added: "There is no advantage to the church in being close to the guileful, ruthless politicians of our age, of any stripe. In the light of its disappointing referendum behaviour, our church will have to re-learn this again. From scratch."

Will the bishops and their defenders come out fighting?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards