David Twiston Davies
Cardinal O'Brien's encouragement of the Scottish independence movement, expressed in his interview with Professor Haldane last week, brought back memories of the unease felt by some Catholics in Scotland when he received his Red Hat three years ago. To an outsider, he seemed entirely deserving of admiration with his cheery smile, obvious talents and impressive drive. Yet there were doubts about his exuberant nature, and mumbles about him not being always counted among the most loyal of Pope John Paul's men. One priest told me: "Scotland has only had three cardinals since the Reformation. Why does it need another?"
At first these concerns seemed to be overdone. Then the cardinal's justified exasperation with the 1701 Act of Settlement, which bars Catholics from sitting on the throne, appeared unnecessarily sharp, considering that change is clearly going to come anyway. His remarks did not seem to be aimed at aiding that smooth change for which many Catholics throughout the United Kingdom hope; we all have a stake in this issue.
The cardinal next claimed that he would not become too involved in the debate about independence, but the significance of his support at a time when his friend Sir Tom Farmer, the founder of Kwik-Fit, had given £100,000 to the Scottish National Party was not lost. There was also reason to pause over his question: "Who is going to attack Britain if we don't have a nuclear force?" This seemed distinctly naïve at a time of nuclear collywobbIes, when we are still digesting the fact that Iran is poised to become the world's 10th nuclear power.
There are, of course, precedents for churchmen in the modem age emerging as leaders of their peoples. Cardinal Mindszenty in Hungary, Cardinal Sin in the Philippines and, of course, Cardinal Wojtyla in Poland, come to mind. But their Sees were drawn by history into the political process, in circumstances very different from those enjoyed by an Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh in our British democratic system. Scots can hardly consider themselves oppressed in the way of Eastern Europeans or Filipinos.
The Scottish National Party may well win power in the next elections to the Edinburgh Parliament. But if does so, this will reflect exasperation with the present Labour administration rather than a clear public demand to cut the links of centuries.
In allowing himself to be associated with the nationalist cause in this way, the cardinal fails to appreciate that the only certainty about any programme of constitutional reform is that it will never have quite the result its promoters expect. Should an independent Scotland be achieved, many will ask — as they survey the subsequent fiscal, social and other problems — whether the result has justified the effort, or whether it has diverted attention from more serious problems. In this situation, the Church may not fmd it easy to shake off recriminations over its support for independence. Cardinal O'Brien no doubt believes thc Church can only gain in an independent Scotland within the European Union; but by plunging deep into the heart of Catholic-Protestant relations he risks stirring up animosities that are already more marked in Scotland than south of the border. He is already clashing regularly with the Scottish Executive on moral issues, and it must be doubted whether his attempt to strike an alliance with Muslims against the secularisers will come to much.
A few months ago the cardinal appealed for Canadians of Scots origin to "come home" and settle in Scotland. He should look to the dominion again and note the Church's experience in Quebec, where its influence shrivelled away before the advance of nationalism, from which it is only now beginning to recover. As the nationalist movement picked up support some 50 years ago, the journalist Claude Ryan warned Quebecois that they could find nationalism a harder taskmaster than the Church had ever been. It is a message that those who seek an independent Scottish state should ponder. reflecting particularly on the problems Catholics are experiencing in relation to "progressive" policies espoused by many governments in today's world. It would be a tragedy if the cardinal found anti-religious attitudes had hardened in an independent Scotland.
David Twiston Davies works for The Daily Telegraph