Nats and Tories court the papists

Katie Grant asks if the government will pay for antagonising Catholics in Scotland

The headline "Scottish Catholics no longer fear the SNP" is amusing for those who remember a time when SNP stood for "Soon No Pope". It is a depressing one for Donald Dewar. If the Scottish Labour leaders cannot count on the Catholics, who can they count on? In a close-run election, the defection of Scotland's 750,000 Catholics to the SNP could deprive Scottish Labour of an overall majority in the new parliament.

On the one big, uniting issue of the day for Catholics - abortion - Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, is in a rare no-lose situation. He can please everybody. With bizarre illogicality, Tony Blair's devolution package includes the right of the Holyrood parliament to vote on euthanasia and the death penalty, but not abortion. Scots can vote to kill the old or the wicked, but killing the unborn is something new Labour wishes to control from London. Cardinal Winning, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, cannot forgive Blair for this. Salmond, on the other hand, may not wish to change the abortion law but he does want the Scots to be able to do so if they wish. Therefore, Winning talks warmly of Scottish nationalism and can support independence as a possible means to an end while Salmond, without antagonising either the pro- or anti-abortion lobby, can support independence as an end in itself. This alliance made in heaven should have the bell tolling in the Labour cathedral on Millbank, even though the cardinal's office denies any master plan and the SNP denies any trade-off.

But will Scottish Catholics vote en masse? "There is no such thing as 'the Catholic vote'," says a senior Scottish Tory. "It makes more sense to ask 'Who will get the Orange vote?' " However, the Tories' actions belie their words. We are now to be "Scottish before we are British". This does not sound very Orange to me. Further, Michael Forsyth, the late and occasionally lamented secretary of state, himself a Protestant, last week called the Act of Settlement (preventing the heir to the throne marrying a Catholic) into question. This was not for the good of his soul. Forsyth hopes the Scottish Tories will make some grubby political capital out of what he calls the British constitution's "grubby little secret".

He will have his work cut out. Although institutional bigotry is certainly fading - all the political parties have Catholic candidates - Forsyth will find that a suspicion of Catholics lives on among the die-hard, blue-rinse, old Tory women. These are the women who ask candidates, at selection, where they went to primary school. Like Maria in The Sound of Music who, to save time, took to apologising for being late whenever she saw the Mother Superior, Catholic candidates are well advised when confronted with any Tory woman over 60 just to state their religion and be done with it.

All the same, Tory strategists, scraping the barrel for crosses on the ballot paper, have decided to go for the popish vote. To make sure they do it effectively, some months ago they appointed a "Tory Tim", Gerry O'Brien, as their PR supremo.

So, it seems, there is all to pray for. Admittedly, Scottish Catholics do not need to band together and vote for their own protection. Such sectarian violence as exists in Scotland is primarily connected to football; the Catholic schoolboy murdered in 1995 was killed because he was a Celtic supporter, not because he was a Catholic. Further, the priest intoning from the pulpit no longer has all that much influence, especially after the recent spate of scandals.

Nevertheless, even if it is more accurate to refer to the votes of Catholics rather than "the Catholic vote", it is true that traditional, old-fashioned Catholics, the sort who fill the pews and used to vote Labour as a matter of course, are looking for a new home and that where they go could determine the future of Scotland.

Scottish Catholics do not find the new Labour candidates much to their liking. Scottish Catholic women never really took to the feminine revolution and find Blair's babes grotesque. They still harbour hopelessly old-fashioned ideas about sex and men - just like old Labourites. They find none of the political parties particularly attractive. But new Labour, the party which, as they see it, wants to push women out to work and silences MPs opposed to abortion on demand, seems impossibly at odds with Catholic ideals.

Rather earlier than the Tories, the wily Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP, saw the shifting in the pews and busied himself courting the Catholics. He writes a column in Flourish, the paper of the Archdiocese of Glasgow. In this month's issue, dedicated to Cardinal Winning's 50 years in the priesthood, Salmond has also taken out a half-page colour advertisement reading "From Scotland's Party to Scotland's Cardinal". He refers to Scotland five times in seven short lines. The Tories mention Scotland once in their congratulatory message, the Labour Party not at all. Salmond draws back from praying to "Scotland's God" - for the moment.

Some Tories talk of this new cosiness between "Scotland's Party" and "Scotland's Cardinal" as just a manifestation of one of Winning's periodic tiffs with the Labour Party. He can talk all he likes, they say, but at the end of the day, Winning cannot deliver his flock. "He couldn't scrabble together a picket for Boots when they decided to offer contraception on demand," said one Catholic Tory. "He is a paper tiger." Yet the Scottish Tory hierarchy appears to be taking no chances and is now in hot pursuit.

Real tiger or paper tiger, it matters little to Salmond. Over the past few months he has got the Prince of Wales on side. Now he also has a prince of the church. David McLetchie, the Scottish Tory leader, has neither. But God works in mysterious ways.

If I was Salmond, I would not get up off my knees just yet.

Katie Grant writes a fortnightly column for the Glasgow "Herald"