“Imagining Scotland’s Future”
Debate at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (20 May 2014) between Rev Doug Gay (Glasgow University) and Douglas Alexander (UK Shadow Foreign Secretary) regarding Scottish independence.
|Rev Doug Gay, Lecturer in Practical Theology, Glasgow University|
Text of Doug Gay's address to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (20 May 2014) in support of a Yes vote in the coming referendum on Scottish independence.
PDF download HERE.
Moderator, I am daunted by the task I have here today, but I am grateful to you and others for the opportunity they have given us to reflect on what is a momentous decision for Scotland, for its people and for the whole of the UK.
Can I add my own warm welcome to Douglas Alexander – having you here put me in mind of another new Labour politician who once said – this is no time for soundbites – but I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders… apparently the twitter hashtag for this debate is #twadugs
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 - a diverse 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 – Edinburgh, I’m afraid is no closer to heaven than Belfast, Dublin, Cardiff or Manchester.
So when Douglas speaks, as he often does, against ‘narrow nationalism’ I say AMEN – 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 – a broad, not a narrow 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 and 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 – there are clear red lines – our nationalisms whether British or Scottish – and remember Ed Miliband spoke just yesterday with a big ONE NATION – hardworking Britain banner behind him – our nationalisms need to be discipled. They cannot be based on belligerence or superiority or ethnic exclusivism. 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 [independence].
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. It is because most of us are mature enough to realise that, that the negativity and fear-mongering of the NO campaign at its worst, has I think been so counter-productive.
When Better Together warn about future unknowns - think of the Labour Party in government, Ed Balls and Gordon Brown promising no more boom and bust – then the 2008 financial crisis hit. Or remember the Conservatives in 1992 crashing out of the ERM. What degrades political discourse is – when in order to win an argument or an advantage – we apply tests to our opponents claims which we know our own could never meet.
We never get to control the future, only some of our own responses to it. A lot of political choices like a lot of spiritual ones, depend on faith.
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.
My dad was English – my wife is English – two of my kids were born in England - 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 anglo-centric and London-centric media – I want to see Iain Crichton Smith’s ‘three voiced country’ value and celebrate its local cultures – and enjoy their global dialogue with many cultures – 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.
I am not a fundamentalist nationalist. Nations are free to enter unions and they are free to leave them. 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 – Douglas’s New Labour party had 13 years in power to do all of these and did none of them; under its present electoral system, the union state cannot make the political and economic journey towards a significantly more equal society. And here’s the promise of independence – not only will it 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 - 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.
The hand of history is upon our shoulders. We have, yes, a historic opportunity this year to set out on a new journey of reform.
As Christians we are called to a sober realism and a demanding vocation – for me, taken together, they point to a YES.
Rev Doug Gay.
Read Doug Gay's book championing Scottish independence:
More info HERE