UK Constitution

Salvation of the Union

Land of Hope and Glory! Rule Britannia! God Save the Queen! Scotland has spoken, and, despite the tawdry interventions of certain glitzy Scots living comfortably in the Home Counties, Manhattan and the Bahamas, they have done so by a very comfortable margin of some 400,000. It seems that two million people in Scotland heeded the Queens advice to think very carefully about their future, and decided that Britons are simply better together. While the politicians are conceding, commiserating, celebrating and congratulating, the Archbishop of Canterbury has put out the following statement:

Over the past few weeks the campaign has touched on such raw issues of identity and been so closely fought that it has generated profound questioning and unsettlement far beyond Scotland.

The decision by the Scottish people to remain within the United Kingdom, while deeply disappointing to many, will be welcomed by all those who believe that this country can continue to be an example of how different nations can work together for the common good within one state.

This is a moment for reconciliation and healing not rejoicing or recrimination. Some of the wounds opened up in recent months are likely to take time to heal on both sides of the border. The historically close relationships that have existed between the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church of Scotland and the Church of England and our long involvement in mediation have a contribution to make as our societies not only reflect on the lessons of the referendum campaign but engage in delivering the radical restructuring of the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom for which commitments have been made. 

The Archbishop is right that this has been a referendum about identity, and that it has unsettled the settlement. He is also right that we must move toward healing and reconciliation. But it is unrealistic to insist that there must be no rejoicing or recrimination. We who support the historic Union of crowns, parliaments and nations are indeed rejoicing; and in our fraught and vibrant liberal democracy it is impossible to avoid recrimination, for David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are tinkering with the British Constitution as though it were the Dangerous Dogs Act, seemingly oblivious to its complex history and the tortuous battles of faith through which it was forged. To unpick one golden thread risks the unravelling of the entire fabric, but that is seemingly of little consequence for the ‘here-today, gone-tomorrow’ politicians.

It is also impossible to avoid recrimination when David Cameron appears to be about to answer the West Lothian Question. If out of the ashes of attempted Scottish secession emerges ‘Devo-Max’ for both England and Scotland – that is, two classes of MPs at Westminster, with “English votes for English laws” – the consequences for Labour will be seismic, and the reverberations of nationalism will continue for many months and years to come.

The role of the big churches in this referendum has been interesting. While the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland has remained “resolutely silent” throughout the long campaign, it is no secret that the hierarchy has long supported independence: indeed, disgraced Cardinal Keith O’Brien called for the break-up of the United Kingdom on numerous occasions, much to the chagrin of Labour-supporting, Unionist-inclined, Scottish Roman Catholics. The Church of Scotland has also been perched firmly on the referendum fence along the “middle way“, despite having previously said that “Self‐determination for any nation is a good political principle that the Church would support”.

The great historic Free Church movements in Scotland were all concerned with the protest against patronage and prelacy, and on behalf of the right of the Christian congregation to appoint its minister of choice to preach the gospel of salvation. This privilege was a founding principle of the Church of Scotland, though it has occasionally and long been abrogated. Ruling hierarchies tend to dislike fervent expressions of popular power: it is infinitely preferable to owe one’s position to the arbitrary appointment of a patron rather than to the goodwill of a fractious congregation. After all, if congregations are allowed to call their own ministers, how does one guard against the scratching of itching ears and doctrinal lukewarmness? Such questions and contentions are nothing new: politicians all over the United Kingdom need to learn the lessons of this referendum and ask why our national politics has become so elite and anodyne, and why Scotland’s 84% turnout (over 90% in some areas) was the highest participation in any election in our nation’s democratic history.

Our Christian leaders are now encouraging the opposing factions to put aside their rancour and bitterness, but that will require humility, prayer and patience. And that will require an ecumenical mission of mediation of the sort envisaged by the Archbishop of Canterbury. We must set aside our differences over church government and doctrinal peripheries to heal a hurt and divided nation, and that is work of the Holy Spirit. It will require dutiful and responsible men and women of character and conviction, and they must be free to speak clearly and truthfully without fear of threat or intimidation. We will only now make progress toward re-union if the causes of our division and dis-union are addressed in a spirit of respect, humility and mutual toleration. We might even try a little national repentance..