The cleric who outspun the spin-doctors

Cardinal Gordon Gray, as Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, once knocked down a photographer with his car in his panic to get away from the press. That could never have happened to his successor, Tom Winning, who died on 17 June. Winning was on first-name terms with the media and would convene a news conference at the drop of a biretta. Unelected though he was, he became Scotland's most effective leader of the opposition, enmeshing religion and politics in a way that had not been done for generations.

He also moved Scottish Catholics out of their mental ghetto, allowing them, as the High Court judge Lord Gill put it, to take "their rightful place in Scottish society". Fellow bishops were uncomfortable with the high profile and preferred to keep their heads below the parapet, partly out of traditional timidity and partly because of their well-grounded fear of fuelling the ever-present fires of sectarianism.

Winning was left-wing on community issues, rigidly right-wing on moral matters. The apparent paradox would not surprise anyone who had grown up, as he did, in the old Labour heartlands of Scotland. Concern for social justice, combined with unease at the excesses of the permissive society, and extending to distaste for homosexuality, is old- fashioned, working-class morality. Winning was a prisoner of his upbringing in that conservative climate.

Although a seed of the Irish diaspora, his roots were firmly in the poor and repressed working-class west of Scotland. In another culture, this "dog-collar Ayatollah", as he was called, might have embraced liberation theology. As it was, he denounced Margaret Thatcher's "hypocrisy" and John Major's "double standards"; scorned new Labour's "totalitarianism"; opposed the poll tax, privatisation in the NHS and the withdrawal of student grants; and, just before his death, denounced attacks on asylum-seekers, which made him "ashamed to say I live and work in Glasgow".

But he also preached against abortion, contraception, homosexuality and women priests. He vehemently supported clerical celibacy and separate religious schools. He had an uncompromising attitude to mixed marriages. Above all, he will be remembered for the misnamed "cash for babies" scheme - offering advice and assistance to pregnant women and girls, including a 12-year-old - and for his campaign against the abolition of Section 28, which prohibited the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools.

On the latter issue, he made even his allies shudder when he described gayness as "perversion". He spread what had been a Scottish Parliament furore to Westminster, with an article that challenged Anglican bishops: "Why are you silent? I cannot believe that Christians south of the border are any less concerned than those living north of Gretna." As a result, while Section 28 has been repealed in Scotland (albeit in a fudged way), it is still unfinished business in England and Wales.

The remarkable thing is that, for 300 years, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was the nearest thing Scotland had to a parliament. Its pronouncements, particularly on issues such as nuclear disarmament, were widely heeded. But its authority went into decline from the 1970s and, when Scotland finally had a real parliament, suddenly the spiritual voice of the nation was Catholic. When the Scottish papers wanted a comment on moral matters, it was to Winning, outspoken and concise, that they turned. Politically, he could outspin the spin-doctors. On abortion, he demanded just before the 1997 election, "Where are your principles, Mr Blair?", and warned that Labour could no longer count on its traditional Catholic vote in Scotland. He had Labour ministers running scared, to such an extent that the leader of the Scottish Episcopal Church had to remind them that non-Catholics had the vote as well.

As a church leader in a post-Christian society, Winning often resembled an Old Testament prophet trying to stem the tide of modern paganism. In his time, the number of Scottish Catholics slumped from more than a million to around 700,000, and many of the old tensions remain. Ironically, the unveiling by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern of a memorial to Irish famine victims - cancelled in February for fear of sectarian violence - eventually took place under the pall cast by the cardinal's death.

It seems unlikely that there will be another Winning. Which is a pity, because every nation needs a conscience, no matter how prickly.