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  1. Politics
7 February 2000

Scotland’s turbulent priest

New Statesman Scotland - Cardinal Winning thunders and warns. But do his pontifications mak

By Tom Brown

His Eminence Cardinal Tom Winning, Archbishop of Glasgow, has acquired another title – the Real Opposition in Scotland. His thunderous intervention in the Section 28 furore is only the latest in a string of open challenges to Labour by Scotland’s turbulent priest.

He has already been a thorn in Tony Blair’s flesh with his personalised strictures on abortion, his scepticism about new Labour and his support for Scottish nationalism.

The million-pound backing of the Stagecoach bus tycoon, Brian Souter, has now sparked into life the “Save the Clause” campaign, but it was Winning’s bluntly worded pronouncements – using terms such as “perversion” – that raised the temperature.

By giving voice to a Scottish “moral majority”, the existence of which had been forgotten, he forced the Scottish Executive to backtrack and make concessions.

The repeal of Section 28 had been quietly passing through the Westminster parliament until Winning shamed the Anglican bishops with his “Why are you silent?” challenge in the Daily Telegraph: “I cannot believe that Christians south of the border are any less concerned than those living north of Gretna.”

The leader of the Scottish Episcopalian Church, the ultra-liberal Bishop Holloway, has accused the Labour hierarchy in Scotland of running scared of the cardinal.

Bishop Holloway said that senior members of the Scottish Executive were “understandably nervous” about criticising His Eminence when he made his “frequent intrusions into Scottish politics”.

“The electoral arithmetic must be worrying for Labour MSPs, particularly those from the west,” said Holloway. “It might fortify them to remember that in Scotland non-Catholics have the vote as well.”

Like the newspaper editors who are careful to balance their coverage of Rangers and Celtic football clubs, Scottish politicians tread warily on questions of religion. Labour, especially in west and central Scotland, where the traditional Catholic vote has underpinned its massive majorities, has special reason to worry.

Labour rephrases Stalin’s contemptuous question about the Pope more fearfully: how many divisions has the cardinal got – and can he mobilise them on the political front?

More generally, does the religious vote still count in Scotland? The answer is that it does, but not in the way it used to.

For the first time in decades, religion is regularly making headlines again in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament has to decamp to Glasgow to allow the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland back into its own building on the Mound. The Free Church is rending itself apart in a ferocious schism, with battering rams used to force entry into locked churches.

The cardinal’s press spokesman, Monsignor Tom Connelly, pithily described the Health Minister, Susan Deacon, as “a nutcase” for her policies on sex education.

Winning is well aware that there can be the devil to pay when you mix religion and politics, especially in sectarian Scotland. He has shrewdly exploited that – unlike his more discreet predecessors in the hierarchy, who were products of the Scottish Catholic ghetto mentality that still prevailed in the late 20th century.

When he became Scotland’s third cardinal since the Reformation, it was assumed that Winning’s sympathies would be with Labour. It was said that his new red robes matched his politics.

He is, after all, the son of a Lanarkshire steelworker, he was savage in his attacks on Thatcherite “hypocrisy” and the poll tax, and he damned the “double standards” of John Major’s Back to Basics.

However, when new Labour came to power, he appeared to warn the government that it could not take Scottish Catholic support for granted. He spoke up for Scottish nationalism and anathematised Labour for its pro-abortion stance.

With his unclerical knack of putting the boot in where it hurts most, he focused his criticisms on Blair: “He says he doesn’t agree with abortion, but he doesn’t condemn it or have a policy on it.”

The cardinal insists that his “interventions” are not party-political: “My role is not to tell people for whom they should vote. Instead, I have the duty to counsel people as to how they should use their vote.”

Whether he, or any other churchman, can swing votes in Scotland is a matter for conjecture. Like the confessional, the confidentiality of the polling booth is sacred.

The last attempt was far from successful. On the eve of the general election, a pastoral letter went out from the Scottish Catholic bishops saying that the first priority for Christians voting was to uphold the right to life.

However, a Scotsman poll revealed that the candidates’ attitudes on abortion would have no effect on two-thirds of voters. And, in fact, Pro-Life Alliance candidates gained only 1.5 per cent of the vote in the seats they contested.

Scottish Catholics have left the ghetto of the slum tenements and blue-collar jobs, have moved up to the middle class, and have become professionals and home-owners. The only remaining evidence of Irish Catholic identity or background is their season ticket for “Paradise”, the home ground of Celtic FC.

Despite claims by James MacMillan and others that bigotry and discrimination are still rife, Catholics are integrated into Scottish society. They have come a long way from the largely poor, labouring immigrant community of the 19th century.

Westminster has more Scottish Catholic MPs than ever, but they are uneasy about Cardinal Winning’s political activism. One said: “We were elected as new Labour, not as Catholics.”

They know that trading on their religious affiliation would be counterproductive, just as they are not prepared to be bound by it. In that respect, they reflect the new status of the Scottish Catholic community.

Significantly, a Stirling University symposium on the place of Catholics in Scotland was given the title “Out of the Ghetto”. While Scottish Catholics are shown in election studies to have a continuing left-wing bias and commitment to Labour, many are now found in other parties.

The SNP has gained from a strong feeling among Catholics of being “Scottish”, with only a residual background Irish identity. The assumption that Catholics would oppose constitutional change out of fear for their position in an independent Protestant Scotland is now seen to be a myth.

There was some ground for that suspicion (one formerly high-ranking official had to be disciplined for anti-Catholicism), but the present SNP leadership would vehemently deny the charge – and with justice.

The leadership has been careful to court the Catholic vote in key marginals such as Glasgow Govan, and has led demands for the repeal of the Act of Settlement, which debars Catholics from the throne.

So Cardinal Winning is no longer the leader of a cohesive family, with an overwhelming political allegiance. Nor can he claim to sway Catholic voters. So why does he act as if he does, and why do the politicians pay such panic-stricken attention?

It has been said that his headline- grabbing exploits have done him no harm with fellow cardinals. Five years ago, he was an outside bet in the papal stakes – the bookmakers William Hill took a couple of thousand pounds on Winning at 100-1 – but at 74, his time is probably gone.

Probably more to the point, he has seen Scotland’s Catholic population drop below a million for the first time to nearer three quarters of a million, mass attendance in “free fall” (according to a Bishops’ Conference report) and a manpower crisis in the priesthood.

Other denominations, not least the so-called “national” Church, are similarly marginalised. Scotland is now a secular, probably pagan, post-religious society.

Christian leaders such as Cardinal Winning have to come down from their pulpits and shout louder to make themselves heard.

His colleagues in the Curia may hear him in Rome – but how many Scots are listening?