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"

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times