Skip to Content

Coffee House

The Scottish Church showed little statesmanship or common sense during the referendum

22 September 2014

11:25 AM

22 September 2014

11:25 AM

A few hours after the final result of the Scottish referendum was announced, I visited the cemetery at Cille Bharra on the Outer Hebridean island of Barra. It’s the burial place of Sir Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972). I wondered what this versatile character, World War I British spymaster, novelist, and Catholic convert whom the students at Glasgow university elected as their rector in 1931, would have made of the result.

He believed that the Catholic faith had greatly influenced the nations’s long-term personality and felt that its soul had shrivelled with the retreat of that faith to remote outposts such as Barra, where he had his home in the 1930s.

An influx of Irish immigrants restored a Catholic presence in Scotland after 1800. The overnight results show that the descendants of this community must have voted disproportionately for independence. Its remaining strongholds, North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire, Dundee and, above all, Glasgow are among the few areas of Scotland that voted Yes.

Many in the community were persuaded that Britain had become an alien and unjust entity. A Tory government, the architect of the ‘bedroom tax’ and populariser of food banks became shorthand for haughty and unfeeling England. The increasingly risible ‘rebel’ culture associated with Celtic football club was pressed into service. A great many male fans of all ages appeared relaxed about the club being used as an anti-imperialist phalanx ready to play its role in uprooting British influence from Scotland. Due to their ‘No’ sympathies, Celtic legends like Billy McNeill and Bertie Auld, who enabled a Scottish club to win its first European trophy in Lisbon in 1967, were excoriated as traitors on social media by fans who had hitherto treated them as living gods.

In an atmosphere of mounting hysteria, accusations that MI5 was playing a role in the referendum campaign and that a supposedly large oil field in the Firth of Clyde was being kept secret so that nuclear submarines could carry out their patrols unimpeded were widely believed. Forty-two per cent of respondents in a YouGov poll which gave Yes a surprise lead said they believed in a British state conspiracy to keep Scots ignorant about the true extent of wealth in their waters.

Why do I think Mackenzie, a larger than-life Catholic personality whose unpretentious gravestone is still sought out by coach parties visiting Barra, would have been very reticent about these new converts swelling the ranks of political nationalism in Scotland?

I believe he would have seen it as an impulsive gesture based on prejudice rather than genuine conviction, induced by political agitators who themselves were far from being authentic nationalists.


Mackenzie was not an inveterate foe of the British state. After the wrenching impact of the 1914-1918 conflict in which he had the highly sensitive post of director of espionage in the Aegean zone, he reassessed the role of Britain and felt that Scotland was better taking charge of its own destiny.

But his role in the early Scottish Nationalist movement suggests that he was far from being an Anglophobe like some of his contemporaries. He did not feel that Scottish renewal must come at the expense of longstanding ties of British fellowship. He did not refuse a knighthood or demand that the men of Barra refuse to fight for Britain in World War II, a disproportionate number dying in the service of the merchant navy.

I think he would have been angered by the crude Anglophobia, chronicled by the media in the last month and which it is hard to dismiss as anything other than a staple part of the Yes repertoire in specific parts of the country.

It is quite possible that he would have viewed the hard Left’s mobbing of the open-air events of its opponents, and the systematic destruction of No placards, as nothing less than a return to the intimidation which enabled Mussolini to ride to power in the 1920s. Not a few Italian Leftists crossed over to his authoritarian cause and indeed egged the Italian strongman on to even greater excesses.

Above all, as a Catholic Mackenzie would have been perplexed, and probably troubled, by the very unheroic attitude of the Scottish Church leadership throughout this referendum campaign. Some might have been expected that the Church would have steered clear of politics and even urged its flock to carefully examine each of the choices before casting a vote, especially after the stewardship of Cardinal Keith O’Brien. The former Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh acted more as a cheerleader for the SNP than as a dedicated pastor keen to strengthen his church in an increasingly irreligious age.

New archbishops appointed in the last few years issued anodyne statements about exercising civic responsibility while apparently turning a blind eye to a number of priests who used their pulpits to issue overt political messages.

St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh even heard an overtly political talk delivered by a senior Catholic academic who had been invited to dwell on the 200-year history of the Church since its construction in 1814. The Scottish Catholic media has become a stomping ground for high-profile media and academic converts to nationalism. It is on such figures that a church hierarchy, increasingly disorientated by the loss of influence over a shrinking number of Scots-born Catholics, relies in its deliberations with the SNP administration. Silence in the face of ugly campaigning methods, or else acquiescence in order to preserve one of the church’s few outposts of influence, its extensive system of state funded schools, seems to have been the order of the day.

Perhaps I am woefully misinformed, but I heard last week from a pupil at the largest Catholic secondary school in Scotland, Holyrood in Glasgow, that many teachers were completely open with pupils about their pro-independence views.

Ultimately, the increasingly cult-like nationalist campaign was rejected in nearly all the SNP’s strongholds in the east of Scotland on 18 September. In making their choice, many people from Moray to Stirling realised that they valued the British partnership for practical and sentimental reasons far more than they had ever imagined.

Instead it was Catholics in the west of Scotland who helped to get the Yes vote well above the 40 per cent mark where, for most of the campaign, it was normally thought to be languishing. How ironic that this community was protected by the British link from sectarian opponents, and that its economic and educational prospects were enhanced by the emphasis on social justice that marked Britain for much of the post-war era.

On Thursday I am firmly convinced that most Catholics flocked to support a cause which viewed Britain in the most negative and demeaning terms. It was a poor way to repay a country which helped them to journey from the margins to the mainstream of society. Their Church in particular showed little statesmanship or even common sense. And secular leaders, primarily driven by their own egos, embraced the chaotic vision of Alex Salmond which if realised would probably have seen many in the community face deepening poverty and the return of emigration.

Last Thursday was a great night for sensible and outward-looking Scotland and a bad one for its parochial and embittered doppelganger. A church elite with any sense of how to protect the wellbeing of their own community ought to put aside the political posturing and revive the spirituality which attracted Compton Mackenzie and so many other converts in times past.

Prof Tom Gallagher’s book Europe’s Path to Crisis will be published in paperback by Manchester University Press in October.


Show comments
Close