The continuing nationalist surge in Scotland means Britain may face constitutional turmoil that is unparalleled since the unrest that led most of Ireland to depart the Union in 1922 and which engulfed Northern Ireland for a generation after 1969.
Religion is often seen as an accessory of nationalism in Ireland but, in both these crises, the leadership of the Catholic Church – and many of the clergy – usually behaved with caution. However real the grievances of some of their flock, a militant church line was seen as potentially disastrous.
Nowadays, such caution is less in evidence among the leaders of the Catholic Church in Scotland. Last September, shortly after 55 per cent of voters, on an 86 per cent turnout, endorsed the 307-year union in a referendum, the Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartagalia, wrote an adulatory letter to Alex Salmond, the then leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) who had just announced he was resigning as First Minister. The letter referred to Salmond’s “outstanding career in politics” and to his having been “a wonderful ambassador and champion for Scotland at home and abroad”.
Similar stellar praise from the top of the Church greeted the emergence of Nicola Sturgeon last December. The historically-minded Salmond is mindful of the Church’s role as an emblem of past independence. Sturgeon is a secular lawyer who, as Minister of Health, was clearly unsympathetic towards Catholic employees in the NHS unwilling to participate in abortions, and who offered very public backing for same-sex marriage.
Archbishop Tartaglia appears to be on the same political journey as the numerous Catholics who have swelled the ranks of the SNP in recent years. At times, priests in his archdiocese have struggled to separate their pro-independence sympathies from discharging their religious duties. For years, several of the leading officials who advise the Scottish hierarchy have also been well known for their pro-SNP views. They include Peter Kearney, director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, and David Kerr, an adviser to the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Leo Cushley.
Archbishop Cushley insisted in 2014 that a rowdy referendum campaign, marked at times by open intimidation, had been civil and constructive, turning a deaf ear when presented with evidence to the contrary.
The Church of Scotland is less sanguine. The current Moderator of Scotland’s established church, the Rt Revd John Chalmers, felt the need to announce a service of reconciliation on 21 September, one which both Salmond and Sturgeon declined to attend. Almost 70 per cent of voters who defined themselves as Protestants voted against the split, while 57 per cent of Catholics, often claiming Irish ancestry, voted in favour of separation.
The Church has not encouraged questioning of the wisdom of dividing an economically viable country made up of four national territories, and whether the same standard of life can be maintained in a post-British Scotland where a tiny tax base will sustain an extensive public sector. A pastoral letter issued this month emphasised key issues championed by the SNP, such as the removal of nuclear weapons and challenging inequality. But it failed to urge restraint with feelings already running high. In Glasgow East, where Archbishop Tartaglia grew up, Margaret Curran, the sitting Labour MP, has regularly encountered SNP activists who heckle and photograph her as she knocks doors in the constituency.
Church authorities have reacted with nonchalance to the decision last month of St George’s Catholic school in Glasgow to invite far-left agitator Tommy Sheridan to talk about politics to primary age pupils who later mounted their own demonstration in the city against austerity. Yet the Church’s view is that in a school where it has an important managerial role, any action is up to the city council.
Archbishop Tartaglia’s growing support for the SNP may yet leave the Church exposed and vulnerable if Scotland becomes a major political headache that acquires global significance.
Tom Gallagher is the author of Divided Scotland: Christian Crisis and Ethnic Tensions, Argyll Publications, 2011
Top: Archbishop Tartaglia and (above) Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, who led the 'No' campaign