Polygamy and the f-word

Mormon Tom Quinn reports on the story of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Sai

Ever since the April 3 raid in which Texas authorities removed 464 children from a remote polygamist ranch, much of the world has watched with a bizarre mix of curiosity and horror as investigators shine an unwelcome light on the secretive Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS).

The case has captured the media's attention for the last month, and is likely to remain in the headlines until Texas courts find a way to untangle the children's convoluted family tree, which includes more than 168 women and 69 men, many of whom might be blood relatives as well as husband and wife.

To top it all off, a Texas court of appeals just ruled in favour of 41 of the polygamist mothers, asserting that the state did not have sufficient cause to take their children into custody.

Texas officials now face the daunting task of sorting through hundreds of FLDS offspring to determine which belong to the aforementioned 41, not to mention fending off the argument that the ruling also applies to the remaining mothers and children.

As novel as the whole mess might seem to the average person, there is one group that would just as soon pretend it never happened: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), more commonly known as the Mormons.

Although members of both the LDS and the FLDS churches chafe when mentioned in the same sentence as the other, the mistake is not uncommon. To the general populace, the two religions are separated not by a chasm of differing beliefs and practices, but only by the letter 'F'.

As a card-carrying Mormon, I've already had to answer all sorts of queries regarding the number of mothers I have or the age at which my younger sister had her first child, questions that refer not to the tenets of my faith but those of the FLDS Church. I used to get a kick out of playing along and watching as my friends' eyes went wide when I answered 14 and 12, respectively, but after nearly two months it's become a bit bothersome.

The truth is that the millions of average, run-of-the-mill Mormons have as much in common with the members of the now-infamous polygamous sect as Anglicans do with Catholics; they share a common origin but went their separate ways ages ago.

Both the LDS and the FLDS churches trace their origins to the 1830's and claim Joseph Smith as their founder. They share a common history up until the Mormon Church officially banned polygamy in 1890 - partly to ensure Utah could become a full member of the United States. Some members, however, continued to practice polygamy in secret, setting the stage for the ex-communication of several of its leaders in 1914.

Since that first schism, various polygamist groups and individuals, all claiming to be the true followers of Joseph Smith, have set up camp in remote areas all over the western United States and Canada, popping up just often enough to irk the Mormon population. The FLDS Church as a distinct organization emerged in the early 1990's, and under the leadership of Warren Jeffs, has between 2,000-3,000 members.

Although polygamy is illegal in the United States, the FLDS Church successfully avoided legal entanglements and unwelcome attention until recently, when Jeffs was convicted in Utah of forcing a 14-year-old girl to have sex with her 19-year-old cousin. Jeffs is now jailed in Arizona, awaiting trial on similar charges in that state.

Those cases, combined with the current FLDS mess in Texas, have some ordinary Mormons feeling like they're watching a younger brother make a drunken spectacle of himself at some very important dinner party.

My advice to fellow Mormons, however, is to sit back and enjoy the ride. As far as religious scandals go, the world has certainly seen a lot worse. Besides, as George Bernard Shaw once said, “if you can’t get rid of the family skeleton, you might as well make it dance.”

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Sturgeon's mission: how Brexit changes the SNP's argument for independence

With Labour in disarray and Westminster focused on leaving the European Union, the next Scottish referendum - whenever it happens - is the SNP’s to lose.

If the political events of a single day can set the tone for what follows, the UK is on its last legs. Calling for another independence referendum at Bute House in Edinburgh on the morning of Monday 13 March, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, appeared typically poised and (apparently) in control of events, while from Downing Street that afternoon there was the distinct sound of flapping.

Brexit highlights the contradictions on both sides of the constitutional divide. There is an obvious flaw in the SNP leader’s argument that the UK extracting itself from an economically beneficial union – the EU – would prove “catastrophic” while Scotland leaving the UK will be fine. Equally, Theresa May cannot credibly talk up the benefits of UK “independence” while casting the Scottish equivalent as a calamity.

Yet the optics in Edinburgh and London don’t give the full picture. By any empirical measurement, the economic case for Scottish independence is weaker than it was in 2014. However, the trouble for unionists – as for Democrats in the US and Remainers in the UK – is that the political conversation is no longer taking place in the realm of balance sheets or, indeed, of objective reality.

Sturgeon probably knew that this was coming from the moment she put a second independence referendum back “on the table” the morning after a majority of UK voters (but not Scotland) chose to leave the European Union. Yet between then and Monday morning, she had to appear reasonable, as if she had exhausted every possible compromise. The British government’s inflexible response to the First Minister’s quixotic plans for a “differentiated” Scottish settlement strengthened her hand.

No one in the SNP expected Theresa May to deliver the requested compromise. And while many believe that Sturgeon got a little carried away on 24 June 2016 in her expectation that pro-European sentiment would boost support for independence significantly, Brexit has been a political gift. Not only did the differential outcome in Scotland reinforce long-standing arguments about the “democratic deficit”, it also enabled the SNP to recast Scottish nationalism as internationalist and cosmopolitan, in contrast to the “Little Englander” variety.

Nevertheless, the First Minister ended up taking the plunge slightly earlier than anticipated, probably because newspapers had suggested that Article 50 could be triggered on 14 March. Sturgeon will now get a second media “hit” at her party’s spring conference in Aberdeen this weekend. Forcing her hand was not Alex Salmond, as some spurious reports implied, but the realisation that circumstances would never be this good again. Yes, there is the backdrop of Brexit, but equally important are the existence of a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament (which is unlikely to be sustained beyond the 2021 Holyrood elections) and the continuing dysfunction of the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn might go down in history as an unwitting facilitator of both Brexit and Scottish independence.

This time last year, Nicola Sturgeon was telling interviewers that she would pursue another referendum only if opinion polls showed a sustained lead for independence. Though two recent surveys suggest a modest tilt towards Yes, this has not transpired – at least not in public polling. It seems likely, however, that private polling tells a different story, which is another reason why the SNP leader felt able to move as she did.

Crucial to the next vote is the group that we might call “Yes-Leavers”. With a degree of intellectual consistency, its members want to regain “sovereignty” from both London and Brussels. In an attempt to keep hold of that constituency, the First Minister has attempted in recent months to detach a second referendum from Brexit, arguing that independence “transcends” this and almost every other political consideration. SNP advisers also floated the idea that an independent Scotland might settle for membership of the European Economic Area, like Iceland or Norway (the party’s favourite constitutional case study), rather than full-blooded membership of the EU.

The SNP is confident that, come the crunch, the majority of Yes-Leavers will end up backing independence. The tenuous claims, made during the last Scottish referendum campaign, that an independent Scotland would “automatically” become or remain an EU member are dead in the water. Instead, the Scottish government tacitly accepts – indeed, welcomes – the possibility that it will be outside the EU, at least for the time being.

On 13 March the First Minister said the Yes side would “be frank about the challenges we face”, yet another indication that the independence proposition will be less Pollyannaish than it was in 2014. Its advocates have little choice. Not only have North Sea oil revenues dwindled, but the sizeable gap between what Scotland raises in taxation and what it spends on public services – somewhere between £9bn and £15bn a year – is given an annual airing with the publication of the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) figures.

Just as the SNP reversed its opposition to membership of Nato in 2012, the party is now closing down potential lines of opposition attack. The benefit of having fought a referendum just a few years ago is that nationalist strategists know where their weaknesses lie. Central to this process is a “growth commission”, led by the former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson.

Wilson has said that oil revenues will no longer be “baked” into the economic case for independence. His remarks were not intentional but proved useful, neutralising the oil issue early on, but the twin challenges of currency and the deficit remain. Last time, the SNP adopted the least bad option of a “currency union” with the rest of the UK, but since then opinion within the SNP has shifted in favour of a separate Scottish currency. Whether that becomes policy, however, is not yet clear.

There has also been a change of tone regarding the deficit, if not a wholehearted acceptance that the early years of independence would necessitate both steep tax rises and deep cuts to public spending. “It’s going to be tough for the first few years,” one Salmond-era adviser admits, but how frank the SNP is about that in public will be a test of the new realism.

Like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, the SNP has been better at calling for an alternative economic model than articulating what it would be. That won’t matter much in the heat of another referendum battle. The meta-narrative remains strong, and as the EU referendum and US presidential election demonstrated, a beguiling story of apparently easy solutions to difficult problems – even in the absence of any details – can prove a winning formula.

The central role of Andrew Wilson in the SNP’s pivot away from land-of-milk-and-honey predictions is also interesting. He and Sturgeon were colleagues in the first Scottish Parliament between 1999 and 2003, but they were far from close, and Wilson is typical of the Salmondista nationalists who once thought the idea of her leading the party was a bad joke but now view her with increasing admiration, not least for her willingness to gamble her career on a second referendum. The First Minister’s kitchen cabinet is small, but over the past few months, as a source puts it, “there’s been some reaching out” to Salmond-era advisers. A divided movement is not in any nationalist’s interest.

So where does that leave those who want to preserve the United Kingdom? Not in a good place, as the initial response demonstrated. The carrot-and-stick approach of the 2014 referendum is subject to the law of diminishing returns; offering yet “more powers” is difficult, now that the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and Project Fear II would likely suffer the same fate as last year’s Remain campaign. Organisationally, each of the three unionist parties – the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – will fight its own anti-independence campaign, thus appearing disunited (the Yes campaign will probably be much more disciplined than in 2012-14).

More to the point, with Northern Ireland once again in tumult, what precisely is it that binds Ulster, Wales and Scotland to England, beyond a balance sheet? In recent weeks, everyone from the Prime Minister to the Scottish Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie, has attempted to articulate the Holy Grail of a “positive” case for the Union. None has got beyond the usual platitudes about past (the tense is revealing) British greatness and fuzzy rhetoric about “solidarity”. There is also English public opinion to factor in. A few years ago, the English, on balance, wanted Scotland to stay, but who can say if that sentiment will survive Brexit and a second independence referendum?

As Europhiles know all too well, defending a union that can appear harsh and remote is no easy task. It doesn’t matter that independence is a conclusion in search of an argument – oil in the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the Iraq War in the 2000s and now Brexit – or that economic reality favours the status quo. Success in 2019 (or perhaps even later) will come down to who tells the better story. Brexit gives the Yes side a more compelling good v evil tale than it had in 2014. If the No campaign relies on the same old boring story of economic woe (what else is there?), a second indepen­dence referendum is the SNP’s to lose.

David Torrance has written biographies of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain