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The Independence Question

The Independence Question

Thursday September 19 2013


In the second part of our two-part series looking ahead to the Referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, we offer a historical perspective, a Church of Scotland view and the thoughts of someone who has grown up with two Parliaments governing her life.



The current focus on the Referendum in 2014 has tended to marginalise the other big question on the Union, namely why has it survived for over three centuries and why its demise remains far from certain.

As the modern history of Europe confirms, mere geographical proximity does not of itself ensure a long-term union between two historic nations.

Some points are perhaps obvious in explaining longevity.

The victory of the Protestant Reformation in both countries was self-evidently a key ideological support. There may have been crucial differences of governance, custom and usage between Presbyterian Scotland and Anglican England but these were of less account in the eighteenth century when both nations had to remember what united rather than divided them as they were confronted in a new hundred years war with the menace   of Catholic France often in alliance with Catholic Spain.

Nor should the clauses of the Treaty of Union in 1707 be ignored. Allowing the Scots to maintain their Presbyterian church, formally established in 1690, was, with hindsight, a masterstroke.

The decision to guarantee the position of the Kirk was based more on expediency than on statesmanlike vision. It is likely that without such a declaration from Westminster the unionist cause might well have foundered.

The recognition in law of the Church of Scotland was of profound importance in the maintenance of the Union. Not only did it provide a focus of Scottish identity within the new relationship but the role and influence of the Kirk were crucial to the survival of a distinctive system of education, poor law and, for many generations, a moral ethos in the localities of Scotland.

It is arguable that the first five decades of the twentieth century saw the zenith of unionism. The Conservative and Unionist party won no fewer than four of the seven general elections between the wars. During the general economic crisis of these years Scottish voters clung to the protection of Britain rather than risk any nationalist adventure. The foundation of the SNP in 1934 showed that not all Scots were in the unionist camp but its successive failures at the polls demonstrated conclusively that the vast majority were to be found there in massive numbers.

The outbreak of the Second World War further buttressed British identity.

The foundation of the Welfare State, promising cradle to grave security and   the commitment to full employment in the post-war world, had enormous appeal for Scots who had suffered the full impact of market failure in the 1930s.

As living standards finally started to improve in the 1950s and the years of austerity faded into the past, unionism in Scotland seemed impregnable.

But this political consensus did not mean that ‘Scottishness’ had in any sense evaporated. The mass interest in the Scottish Covenant of 1949, advocating a Parliament in Edinburgh within the Union and attracting nearly two million signatures, suggested that Scotland’s sense of itself remained robust.

By the late 1950s all was not well with the Scottish economy. The balance between ‘Scottishness’ and ‘Britishness’ now started slowly to shift.

The rise of the SNP, the new and pragmatic interest in devolution by Westminster and a fresh vitality in Scottish culture were all signs of the times. A key decade was the 1980s with the imposition of unpopular social and economic policies by the Thatcher governments for which Scotland had not voted.

Over half a century on from the high noon of unionism in the 1950s the fundamental question now is whether   the time-honoured connection between Scotland and England will survive for   much longer in the new millennium.

On that crucial issue, the historian, whose trade is to analyse and understand the past and explain how from it we arrived at the present, can offer only speculation. But the two opposing questions for scholars of the future have now come into sharp focus: why did the Scots vote for independence in 2014 or, conversely, did the result of the Referendum once again demonstrate the historic flexibility of the Union to respond to changing times, demands and pressures?

Tom Devine is Senior Research Professor in History at the University of Edinburgh



I grew up with two Parliaments. It is hard to measure what difference this made, as I have no knowledge of the alternative.

As I student I was grateful that my tuition fees were paid for, unlike those of my English flatmates. As a feminist, I’m glad that Holyrood has a greater proportion of female representatives than Westminster.

As a child I shook the hand of Donald Dewar and it makes me smile to walk past his statue on Glasgow’s Buchanan Street – the Scottish Parliament has always seemed more real and accessible to me than those distant buildings on the banks of the Thames.

However, it is first and foremost as a Christian that I must view the choice before me in the Scottish Referendum. If we agree that our identity as Christians trumps all other claims on our loyalty, this means that the Referendum debate needs to go deeper than whether we feel British or Scottish. National identity is caught, not taught, and is so deeply personal that arguments based on feeling one way or another divide rather than unite. To make decisions based on feelings is to discern from an individual perspective, rather than to start from a baseline of those values which we hold in common in Christ. Our calling as Christians is to serve the poor, the marginalised, the forgotten. How do we in Scotland, or we in Britain, treat our homeless, our asylum seekers, our sex workers, our teenage mothers, our addicts, our prisoners? That   is the measure of how much work there is to be done for social justice in our land. Therefore, as Christians our question must be – under which system of government can we best work towards justice?

 Our calling to live in ways that reflect the Trinitarian nature of our Lord could be seen as the reason for remaining within the United Kingdom, with independence the way of isolated individualism.

We are happy to laud Mo Farah as a heroic symbol of modern Britain, yet other immigrants are castigated for social issues they did not cause. Just how integrated is Britain, when those on benefits are scapegoats, and when young people are often better off not working because the minimum wage is so low?

However, if we accept that staying as part of Britain is the outworking of our Christian call to live in community, how does this fit with Conservative policy towards the European Union?

 It is with these questions, and a hundred others, that we are called to grapple as we seek to discern the way forward.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. I really hope the Church of Scotland embraces it.

Kim Wood is a recent graduate working on a new project bringing creative arts into the criminal justice system. She is a former Moderator of the National Youth Assembly.



As Scotland prepares for the independence Referendum on Thursday September 18 2014, the Church has a role to play helping to advance public debate. The General Assembly has already agreed that the Church of Scotland should be neutral on the question of independence. This does not mean that the Church should not contribute to the debate – particularly about values in Scottish society.

So far, much of the debate in the media has been worryingly shallow or superficial. The overuse of the trite abbreviation “indy” seems to trivialise the debate. The question of Scotland’s constitutional future potentially has implications for centuries to come;   a serious response is demanded.

The Scottish Government will publish its White Paper on independence later this year; this document will deserve detailed scrutiny as it will outline a vision of what the early years of independent Scotland could potentially look like. In considering values which shape society irrespective of the Referendum result, the Church is called to witness to an overarching and distinct message: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

The independence debate must not be confined to the national level. The future of Scotland concerns every citizen; it is important that parishes and individual church members get involved in the debate. A particular concern is that many people do not feel that they have sufficient information to make an informed decision.

For the Church of Scotland at a national level, the Church and Society Council is the lead organisation in responding to the independence debate. Irrespective of next year’s Referendum, there are social and economic issues which will continue to affect Scotland’s people. Above all, what values should the Church advocate? Such values can and will shape Scottish society and affect every citizen.

The Church is already working towards the Referendum. A report, entitled The Implications for the Church of Scotland of Independence for Scotland, was approved by the 2013 General Assembly. The full report is available online at the Church of Scotland’s website here

The General Assembly also affirmed that the Queen (and her heirs and successors) should be the head of state of an independent Scotland.

The Church (of all denominations) is called to live and serve in this world, yet   we look towards God. “The Lord is exalted over all the nations, his glory above the heavens” (Psalm 113:4). This is a reminder that God is greater than any national constitutional settlement, which potentially gives the Church a sense of objectivity in any worldly constitutional debate. The Church can play a part in helping to keep the debate calm, civilised and proportionate.

When contrasted with independence debates in some other countries over the past century, the Scottish debate has been calm and free from violence. Long may this continue. Whatever the future, the importance of retaining harmonious social ties throughout these islands is of critical importance. Whether  or not Scotland chooses independence, this Referendum must become an international example of good practice in deciding a nation’s future. The Church cannot stand aloof from this.

The Rev Matthew Ross is minister of the Parish Churches of Cockpen and Carrington linked with Lasswade and Rosewell. in the Presbytery of Lothian. He was Convener of the joint working group of the Church and Society Council, Committee on Ecumenical Relations and Legal Questions Committee which reported on the “The Implications for the Church of Scotland of Independence for Scotland” to the 2013 General Assembly.


The full text of all articles can be found in the October issue of Life and Work. Subscribe here

Part one: Christian cases for and against independence