“A Respectful Dialogue”: the Church of Scotland debates independence

Today the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland held “A Respectful Dialogue” in advance of the forthcoming referendum in September on independence for Scotland. Following are our edited versions of the two main speeches: the full text is available by clicking on the links.

Speech by the Rt hon Douglas Alexander MP

“That today’s event is not a debate but a respectful conversation is in itself a reflection of the Kirk’s contribution to the shaping of Scotland; reminding us that we are at our best when we focus on what connects us, not what divides us. I felt that sense of connectedness when I entered this place again today … But my connectedness with this place is more than my ancestry; for I come here today not so much as a politician as a parishioner.

For so many of us family and past may bring us here. Faith holds us here. That is a perilous statement from a politician. I am instinctively wary of religious certainty expressing itself in politics … I come not because I have certainty, but because I struggle with doubt.

(…)

In just four months, across Scotland, we will make the most important choice in our nation’s constitutional history. Whether to remain part of the UK or walk away from our neighbours is an individual choice for each voter in Scotland but it is also a decision about the nation we are and the better nation we want to become. Given the degree of integration between the Scottish and UK economies, it is inevitable and appropriate that serious economic questions will continue to be asked in the months ahead. But this debate will, and must, involve more than accountancy. It will involve deep and profound discussions about our identity and our ideals, about neighbourliness and community in the 21st century.

It was in this very room in 1999 that the first meeting of the Scottish Parliament for 300 years eliminated Scotland’s democratic deficit, returning its distinctive institutions to the direct accountability of its people. We have a strong Scottish Parliament and more powers are on the way. Given that historic change it cannot be argued seriously any longer that Scotland’s culture, its distinctive institutions, or its nationhood are today threatened by the partnership that is the United Kingdom.

The referendum, in fact, is an opportunity to reaffirm the common endeavour of sharing risks, resources and rewards across these islands and to uphold the ethic and the practice of neighbourliness – being our brother and sister’s keeper. And it is because of that sense of connection to my neighbour that I believe that even if it is the case that Westminster is broken, as some would have you believe is the basis of a case for separation, then why would we walk away from our neighbours and leave that which is broken for them to fix? In the same way, if at the moment, thanks to the accident of oil, we pay a little more tax per head of population than our neighbours, surely that is a good example of sharing what we have, not walking away and keeping wealth for ourselves.

In recent years in Renfrewshire I have worked with local churches to launch a food bank. Its necessity is a moral outrage, but it is also a testament to the power today of neighbours helping neighbours, as we work together to build a common life. That ideal and the practice of solidarity is what most challenges the notion that somehow Scotland needs independence because Scots are better at being fair than the English, or at least, we’d be better at it if the English weren’t around. Tell that to William Wilberforce who led the fight to outlaw slavery. Tell that to Emily Davidson and the Pankhurst sisters who fought for women’s rights and equality. Tell that to William Beveridge and Clement Attlee who created the Welfare state. Tell that to the thousands from across the UK who marched with us against poverty here in Edinburgh in 2005.

Friends, the break-up of the United Kingdom would represent a defeat for progressive ideals and a retreat from a shared vision of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-national state. The future, I believe, will belong to those who build networks of cooperation, because they understand, because they feel, that while our differences do matter our common humanity matters more. Can we have inclusive communities or must they be exclusive? Can we have a shared future or must our futures be separate? I believe that in answering those 21st century challenges here in Scotland, we have a three century head start.

 As the historian Simon Schama wrote earlier this month “the United kingdom is a nation state whose glory over the centuries has been precisely that it does not correspond to some imagined romance of tribal singularity but has been made up of many peoples, languages, customs, all jumbled together in the expansive, inclusive, British home”. In our interdependent, interconnected world, decisions about Scottish affairs are already diffused across communities and capitals in Edinburgh, London and Brussels. But to my mind just because we are to varying degrees Scottish, British and European, it does not follow that loyalty to one must come at the price of denial of the others. I believe that this United Kingdom, this oldest political union, embodies a quintessentially modern idea – that this coming together of neighbours, families, friends, ideas, institutions and identities is broadening, not narrowing, and is a strength and not a weakness for 21st century Scotland.

(…)

I will vote for a principled and pragmatic solidarity that shares risks, rewards and resources across these islands. A positive vote to sustain the deep connection expressed in our political, economic and social ties with our neighbours across the United Kingdom. A covenant with Scotland that we all share and can make real now, not tomorrow, not after September or after independence, but now; a covenant with my neighbour that I will put their needs first, knowing that in their needs being met so mine will be also.”

Speech by The Revd Doug Gay

“I want us in the Kirk to find our voices in this debate – firstly because we too are Scotland – in the recent Census, more Scots individually identified in some way with the Church of Scotland than with any other single body in Scottish life.. Secondly, because a liberal democracy benefits from the contribution of organized groups and associations – from trade unions to employers’ associations, from women’s groups to supporters clubs, from political parties to churches. Together, Scotland’s Churches, Catholic and Protestant, have more than ten times as many members as all Scotland’s political parties put together. So our voices and our voice matters – alongside many other voices in Scottish life – and we are committed to being part of a respectful dialogue.

As Christians, we need to join in a common conversation in the public sphere. In a pluralist society … atheists, humanists and folk from every faith tradition are allowed to bring to the table not only their proposals for public policy but their reasons for making those proposals. Our faith shapes our reasoning. Such conversations are a crucial preparation for democratic decision making. And Presbyterians are fierce advocates of democracy, in both church and society. As Christians, we believe that respectful dialogue commits us to listen to the other, including our opponents, with attentiveness and respect. We believe it involves us speaking the truth in love.

Among the most disturbing things I ever heard a Christian politician say was Tony Blair saying he didn’t have a reverse gear. We all need a reverse gear. We need it because of basic Christian convictions about human nature and repentance. We are flawed and fallible people – in our political and economic life, as in our personal and social life, there is a lot we don’t know, a lot we don’t control and a lot we get wrong. And if our political scripts or party whips don’t allow us to say that – then we need to change them.

Another basic Christian conviction is that what we have in common is more important than what makes us distinctive. We are all the bairns o’ Adam, the daughters of Eve – our shared humanity is more fundamental to who we are than our ethnicity or nationality. We are one human race made in the image of God: equal in worth and dignity, equal in our fallibility and sinfulness. We owe one another a basic respect and recognition in relation to our cultural differences – God has no favourites…

… I have no truck with narrow nationalism, the nationalism I espouse and the one which is to the fore in Scotland at the moment is a generous, hospitable, liberal civic nationalism … one which welcomes new Scots who settle here and welcomes those of many nationalities who come to Scotland for a season – one which wants to enjoy a warm and respectful social union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland – to be open to a constructive currency union, to maintain a co-operative union with Europe and the Commonwealth – one which wants to take its place as an equal partner in the family of nations.

For Christians who identify as nationalists … our nationalisms need to be disciple … No Christian can ever say my country right or wrong. We place our political allegiances under the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. There are moreover, many who will be voting YES in September who do not identify as nationalists but who are pro-independence. Remember the YES campaign is not the Salmond campaign or the SNP campaign – it is a cross-party and civil society campaign for political self-determination … So why is it a better choice to vote YES? It is, I believe, so we can secure an exciting opportunity to develop an ongoing ‘journey of reform’ for Scotland.

As a reformed Christian, my political theology holds together two things – a sober realism about human fallibility and a demanding vocation to love my neighbour. Without the realism I become naïve. Without the vocation I become decadent. I am realistic about independence – it is not a utopia – it is a future full of risks and challenges and uncertainties. But so too is a future within the union…

(…) So I am realistic, but I am also hopeful about independence because the demanding vocation of loving our neighbour calls us to the work of social and economic and political transformation. I want to see a more equal Scotland – a more compassionate and hospitable Scotland, a Scotland which rejects the use of or the threat to use weapons of mass destruction.

… I love England and I love London – I have spent a decade of my life in gloriously multi-cultural Hackney – but I want to see a Scotland which asserts itself appropriately against a painfully Anglocentric and London-centric media … I want to see a new Celtic Connections Scottish identity which can move out from the shadows of the old Union to sing and speak and choose for itself as Ireland does. I want to see us claim the BBC’s biblically-inspired motto: “nation shall speak peace unto nation”.

… If a Tory-UKIP coalition leads the UK out of the EU in two or three years’ time – that would be within the UK’s rights as a sovereign state – tragically for Scotland we might be dragged out against our will at the initiative of a coalition of parties who few of us had voted for – even if a majority of Scotland’s people voted to stay in. Staying as part of the Union also has its risks and unknowns.

I want to vote YES and leave the parliamentary union because I do not believe the UK as it stands is capable of making the journey of reform it so badly needs to make. It cannot make the cultural journey of properly recognising and respecting, Scottish, Welsh and Irish cultures; it cannot make the political journey of creating a fair voting system, ending the West Lothian Question and ridding us of the absurdity of the 780-member unelected House of Lords – and Bishops … Not only will [independence] give us a new opportunity to secure those goals in Scotland – it could also make them more possible and more likely in the rest of the UK, particularly England, which badly needs its own parliament to help save it from confusing itself and its interests with those of the UK as a whole.

… As Christians we are called to a sober realism and a demanding vocation – for me, taken together, they point to a YES.”

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