18 April 2014

Scottish Independence, Social Justice and the Church

saltireA few weeks ago I posted some thoughts on the implications for Scottish independence of an SNP administration that seems to be committed to the modern conceit of ‘secularism’. For Scottish Christians who believe that the spiritual life of the nation is just as important as its cultural or economic life, the prospect of severing ties with neighbouring countries which are far less ‘post-Christian’ than Scotland must be a real issue. This issue remains important in the independence debate.  However, it’s by no means the only important issue.

Many Scots see the great advantage of independence as being the possibility of a more just society (although conceptions of this will differ). With more unveiling of the corruption and excess at the Westminster Parliament, of the excesses of the banking system, and of the increasing division between rich and poor in UK society (mostly driven by the south of England), the prospect is appealing. There is a definite opportunity to craft something different in Scotland. Will Hutton is correct when he suspects ‘some of the energy behind Scottish nationalism is the desire to build a country where toxic wealth inequalities are less indulged than in England.’ But what kind of changes can be made? Is it back to the unsustainable tax, borrow and spend of the bankrupting Labour administration of the late 90s and 00s? That period was dominated by Blair’s New Labour being infamously ‘intensely relaxed’ about rich plutocrats. Banking is almost as important to Scotland as it is to London. It won’t be easy for an independent Scotland to seek another way, to seek a sustainable economic model that delivers a more just society.

It’s ironic that those who want greater social justice in Scotland see North Sea oil as the safety net for economic development. Fossil fuels are perhaps the most obvious totem of an economic system (and a society) that is simply unsustainable. Since the 80s (and perhaps before), Britons have come to expect the increasing wealth and increasing growth of  a libertarian, globalised capitalism. Why do the electorate vote the way they do? Clinton’s 1992 campaign got it right: ‘The economy, stupid.’ It’s symptomatic of this way of thinking that the Independence debate has been dominated by questions of ‘will I be better off?’ It’s not a great start. Independence must be driven fundamentally by beliefs about national identity and a desire to shape one’s own destiny as a nation. If you believe in that, you have to be ready for the pain as well as the gain (for there will be both – spiritually and economically).

If independence allows the possibility of a more just society to develop, Christians should take this seriously and consider how the Church’s calling to speak up for the poor, the oppressed, and for sustainable and just economic policies relates to this. The independence debate is about so much more than the ‘spiritual’ aspects of life. I want to avoid the ‘spiritual/worldly’ dichotomy that is doing so much damage in the church, but so many Christians think like this – a dualism between ‘spiritual’ things that matter, and ‘worldly’ things that don’t. For the Reformed Christian, everything matters; everything is spiritual. Therefore, the Church needs to be at the forefront of Scottish national life. It is so important for Christians to be engaged with understandings of nationhood, history and economics. If the Church simply argues about the Establishment principle, or the ‘secular dangers’ of independence, she is not being true to her calling to work in partnership with the State and to speak God’s truth into every area of life in God’s world. Independence offers great possibilities for the Church as well as challenges. So does remaining in the Union. Whether in or out, the Scottish Church needs galvanising to act like a truly Reformed Church, speaking truth to power as well as the populace. I’m beginning to think that Scottish Independence may offer a pathway to two things: an honest assessment of the failings of the church in Scotland in this area, and an new impetus to engage in the discourse of national life.