There is probably no other country in the democratic West where the state oversees economic activity and regulates private life as thoroughly as in Scotland. So it has come as little surprise to learn of the latest plans of the government led by Alex Salmond. By next year, he hopes that every child will have a guardian with the legal authority to ensure that they are raised in a manner prescribed by the state.
Alarm has been expressed that a government with no obvious answers for Scotland’s problems of de-industrialisation is compensating for its impotence by micro-managing the family in such a glaring way. At least the ruling Scottish National Party acknowledges that the conventional family is in crisis. But unless a top-heavy bureaucracy that is responsive to its own internal needs alters course, then vulnerable children growing up in dysfunctional families are unlikely to get a better deal.
It would be refreshing if Scotland’s self-styled ’change party’ conceded that the big state model for organizing humanity is unlikely to work. Against a background of economic decline and state policies which downgraded the conventional family as a force for social cohesion, Scotland now has some of the worst social indicators in the Western world. It scores badly for consumption of illegal drugs, under-age drinking, and teenage pregnancies. Looser partnerships legitimised by the ascendant political left, consumer and market forces, and also by the state in the way it organizes the tax and welfare systems, have contributed to social breakdown in parts of this heavily urbanized country.
On a recent visit to the USA, the publicity-savvy Alex Salmond argued that Scotland was emulating the 18th century founding fathers in promoting genuine debate about the architecture and values of a new post-British Scotland. But all the evidence points to Scotland remaining a left-leaning single ideology state. There is no debate about how to provide a meaningful role for the huge number of inactive young men, many with reasonable educational results.
Scotland’s senior bureaucrats, and many of its academics and social experts, are committed to a planned society based on scientific and expert reasoning. They are increasingly impatient with moral reasoning based on religion or anything else that is un-scientific. It is a form of positivism, the French doctrine meant to create balance and order after the French Revolution. But in practice, it allows a lot of room for disorder in those large parts of Scottish society where its improving values have been rudely rebuffed or only half-heartedly applied.
The unsuccessful improvers have reacted to policy failures by insisting that it is religion which is standing in the way of Scotland modernizing. A number of high-profile legal cases brought by the state have sought to restrict the rights of Catholic nurses not to supervise abortions or Catholic adoption societies to direct children in its care solely to heterosexual couples. With a same-sex marriage law now imminent, teachers with a religious outlook could be in hot water if they refuse to teach their pupils that marriage is what the expanding equality laws say it is.
Arguably, the churches in Scotland have been failing to offer a coherent vision for a just and well-tempered society based on recognisable Christian values. The Church of Scotland, the established church since the 16th century Reformation, has been weakened by splits and declining membership. Currently, the Catholic Church is reeling from the disclosure of clerical sex abuse cases. On 4 August, Hugh Gilbert, the Bishop of Aberdeen, apologised for sexual abuse by Catholic monks at Fort Augustus Abbey School in the Scottish Highlands before its closure in 1996. The Catholic authorities have been slow to show transparency whereas the BBC in Scotland, which investigated the affair, has dramatised it in its news coverage.
The Christian faiths currently lack the vigour to provide a moral design for a rudderless country. But so does the secular establishment whose policies and ideas dominate the public sphere. Some decentralised Christian groups are doing fine work locally in offering a practical vision for coping with some of the acute challenges of Scottish society. An effective moral secular order in a Scotland shorn of religious belief is currently not in sight.
Renewal is perhaps likeliest to come from traditions of self-help and localism, which still count in parts of Scotland. As long as political nationalists want independence but fear genuinely independent-minded people, Scotland is likely to remain an under-achieving country in which many of its 5 million inhabitants have no meaningful future.
Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis by Tom Gallagher is published by Argyll (£15.99 hardback).