Allan Massie: Indy debate should follow Kirk lead

Nationalists and unionists would do well to heed respect shown by both sides to prepare ground for reconciliation, writes Allan Massie
Commissioners leave the church as the heavens opened in Edinburgh yesterday. Picture: Phil WilkinsonCommissioners leave the church as the heavens opened in Edinburgh yesterday. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Commissioners leave the church as the heavens opened in Edinburgh yesterday. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

The proceedings of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland don’t get as much attention now as they used to, though I am pleased that this newspaper still reports them fairly fully. No doubt this is partly because the membership of the Kirk has fallen; Scotland is less Presbyterian than it was, less Christian, too, as our letters pages show. Moreover, the General Assembly is no longer what it might once claim to be: the nearest thing to a parliament that we had. Yet it is still important, and its debates also serve as an indication of how attitudes to social and personal morality are changing. Monday’s debate on the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers, and their acceptability to parishes, offered a very good example of this.

I am not , however, concerned to discuss the rights and wrongs of the question. This is after all a matter for the Kirk of which I am not, and never have been, a member, though I used to attend its services quite regularly. Rather, I would like to draw attention to the manner in which the debate was conducted. Feelings were strong, the convictions of many firm, but there was, it seemed, an awareness that all who spoke were members of the same family and that, whatever the outcome, the Kirk must hold together, and those on different sides of the argument must be reconciled.

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The words of former moderator the Very Reverend Albert Bogle, who tabled the compromise motion that was eventually accepted, were particularly striking. Declaring that he held “a very traditionalist view” and that he spoke “for people in this room for whom it’s even painful to talk of these things”, he warned them that “we might be wrong”. When did you last hear a politician make such an admission?

The serious tone of the debate, coupled with the awareness that the Kirk would have to live harmoniously with whatever decision was reached, should serve as a lesson for all engaged in the referendum debates, now being conducted in what often seems an increasingly fractious manner. The referendum puts the most important question in Scotland’s modern political history. It’s natural that many are passionate, and their arguments fierce. But we should remember that, whichever side wins, we shall all be living together in the same country afterwards.

Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister’s deputy, seemed to recognise this in a speech last week, when she said that both sides in the debate want what is best for Scotland and differ only in their view as to what this is. She went further, too, and said that, after the referendum she expected that the leaders of the unionist parties would take part in discussions about the terms of independence and how these should be implemented. This was, I suppose, an olive branch; it was certainly an admission, even a generous admission, that shaping an independent Scotland wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, be a matter for the SNP alone.

What was missing from her speech was an offer from the SNP to collaborate with the unionist parties in like manner in discussing how their at present very vague ideas about further devolution should be developed if the Better Together side wins the referendum. I suppose it would be too much to expect her to concede that this is a possibility. Politicians must always pretend that victory is within their grasp; otherwise their supporters may become disheartened.

The country, or, if you prefer, the nation, is divided. This is undeniable. It is divided over the question of independence, just as the General Assembly was divided over the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers. But we shall all benefit if the debate over the next 15 or so months is conducted with as much decorum and respect for opposing views as was evident in the Kirk’s deliberations. The referendum debate is one which, very evidently, both sides can’t win, but there is a sense in which it is one that both sides can lose. Of course there will be a majority decision: Yes or No? But whichever sides gets that majority vote will also have lost if the debate is so rancourous that the defeated are left with a sense of bitterness and resentment, and we are left with a deeply divided nation.

There is sentiment and reason on both sides of the argument. We should all recognise this, and for this reason Sturgeon’s acceptance that unionists as well as nationalists want what they believe to be best for Scotland is as necessary as it was welcome.

Both sides should also recognise the truth of what the what the Very Rev Bogle told the General Assembly: “We may be wrong.” Politicians and activists can’t be expected to make this admission publicly, but they should keep it in mind, and frame their words accordingly. They should recognise that those in the other camp, whichever that is, are neither deluded not wicked. If we forget this, post-referendum Scotland will not be a happy country – whether we are independent or still part of the United Kingdom.

We are, in the old phrase, “a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns”, members of the same family, a family that has disagreements but must still live together. This is why it is desirable, even essential, that those on both sides of the debate eschew violent language and personal abuse, and treat the opinions, even the prejudices, of their opponents with respect.

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As it happens I’m going to be discussing the matter on Thursday at a meeting in Dalmuir, West Dumbartonshire, with my old friend and our finest novelist, William McIlvanney. Willie and I don’t think alike on the question, though I believe we shall find a good deal of common ground. Be that as it may, I’m pretty sure that, however keen the argument should be, it will be conducted with respect for the other’s position. This may, for several reasons, be easier for us than for many. Nevertheless, it’s what is vitally needed: respect for the opposing view, coupled with the acknowledgement that both nationalists and unionists are sincere in wishing the best for Scotland.