Will Scotland turn down the chance to become a democracy?
In Iran, important decisions are left in the hands of unelected clerics. The UK is at best a semi-theocracy with 26 unelected bishops (the Lords Spiritual) seated in the House of Lords, the highest legislature of the land, undisturbed by such silly notions as elections.
Their dismissal by a Yes vote is the Holy Grail of secularism and a vote for democracy in Scotland.
None of the bishops sitting on this particularly ornate front bench include members of churches we are familiar with in Scotland. No Catholic Church bishops whose members are also denied access to the throne; no Church of Scotland ministers which is Presbyterian and has no bishops and certainly no Imams, Rabbis or Muftis. Not even churches in Wales and Northern Ireland can join this pious old boys’ club as their churches are not ‘established’. Woven into the fabric of this theocracy is a ‘Minister for Faith’, the Rt Hon Eric Pickles, appointed by the Tory and LibDem coalition, and a Monarch (the Queen) who is the Supreme Governor and Defender of the Faith.
That faith is the established Church of England.
Not only is democracy now within Scotland’s grasp, so is a secular constitution that would protect all faiths and none, without fear or favour. Freedom of religion: and freedom from it.
As Scottish Secular Society constitutionalist and research director of the Constitutional Commission, Elliot Bulmer said: “The electoral system for the House of Commons is unrepresentative, the composition of the House of Lords is indefensible, the powers of the Crown are excessive, secretive and unaccountable, rights are fragile, and privileges rife.”
Dr Bulmer adds: “There is a direct connection between allowing rulers to make up the rules as they go along and the failure of the UK state to serve the common good. The banking crisis, the expenses scandal, phone hacking, illegal surveillance, persistent unemployment and wage cuts, rising inequality, corporate lobbying, and the destruction of public infrastructure and services – all point to a state that has fallen into the hands of an unchecked oligarchy, bound by its own self-interest.”
Who wants to live in a theocracy? Tom Aikenhead certainly didn’t. In 1697 the Church of Scotland wanted to hang the 20-year-old Edinburgh student for blasphemy. Tom said the Bible was stuffed with madness, nonsense, and contradictions. He said Christ had learned his magic in Egypt which enabled him to perform pranks and call them miracles. He also said he preferred Mohammed.
After his arrest, Tom petitioned the Privy Council to take account of his deplorable circumstances and tender years, but the Kirk’s General Assembly called for his “vigorous execution” and so young Tom’s fate was sealed and he was hung in Leith. A few years ago Ireland managed to reinstate its blasphemy laws and in many Muslim countries they are still executing blasphemers.
Religion will always be a highly divisive and toxic ingredient in Scotland which is why a secular democracy affords us all – religious or not – opportunities in a new dawn of Scottish Enlightenment that could inspire the world. The emergence of this wealthy young nation is the common ground on which the Scottish Secular Society is working in harmony with the faithful and groups like Christians for Independence. That could continue if we adopt the secularism of our forefathers, the Owenites, the followers of Robert Owen, and find more common ground with people of faith challenging poverty, inequality and injustice in our new nation. As equals.
Friday, September 19th should be a day when we put the buntings out, beep our car horns, wave flags in the streets, crack open the bottles of champagne and Irn Bru and celebrate like only Scots can.
Let us pray it won’t just be another day or we will never be able to sing Scotland the Brave again.
Garry Otton is founder of the Scottish Secular Society and author of ‘Religious Fascism: The Repeal of Section 28’.