Tall Tales: Religion and Scottish Independence

Tall tales are common currency when it comes to religion’s supposed role in Scotland’s politics.  On the one hand, there are occasional murmurings of a continued underlying ‘Protestant’ basis for Unionism in Scotland, as if Better Together marched, willingly or otherwise, to the beat of the Lambeg drum. Yet at the same time we are also told that Catholics could have much to fear from what might be a more stridently Protestant and ‘anti-Catholic’ independent Scotland.

Two responses spring to mind. First, if Scotland’s Protestants oppose constitutional change because of their deep-rooted Unionism, and Scotland’s Catholics say ‘no’ because they are afraid of the Protestants, then how on earth did we achieve devolution, let alone come to debate independence?

Secondly, these tall tales assume, a Scotland riven between these two Christian camps. Even if that were true in the distant past (and even there it seems like gross simplification) it certainly ignores the very profound religious change that has taken place over the last several generations.

In every Scottish Social Attitudes survey conducted since 1999 the most common religious description given by respondents has been that they are of no religion. At the same time, the proportion of respondents aligning with the Church of Scotland has declined from 35% in 1999 to just 20% in 2012, although those aligning with Catholicism and other forms of Christianity (both 12% in 2012) have remained broadly stable. Over the same period the proportion claiming to be of ‘no religion’ has climbed steadily from 40% to 54%. Just as Lindsay Paterson has noted that the rise of the independence movement has coincided with the rise of university education, so too it has coincided with a decline in the social significance of religion. And attitudes towards independence are in fact explained rather better by experiences of secularisation rather than through hackneyed religious truisms.

In 1999 majorities of each of Scotland’s three key religious constituencies preferred a system of devolved government: just 21% of Church of Scotland identifiers backed independence, 34% of Catholics, and 31% of those of no religion. While this may have indicated a Protestant antipathy towards independence (though not, notably, devolution) it hardly suggested a Catholic fear of shifting powers to Scotland. Indeed Catholics were actually the religious sub-group most likely to support an independent Scotland in 1999.

 This remains true in 2012: 30% of Catholics support independence, as compared to 26% amongst those of no religion, and 17% amongst Church of Scotland identifiers. And Catholics are comparatively relaxed about the prospects of Scottish independence: just 16% were ‘very worried’, significantly less than amongst Church of Scotland identifiers (26%).

However, examining the 2012 data on constitutional preference more carefully tells a different story: when we take age and gender into account the apparent religious gap in attitudes towards independence disappears. The gap is simply a consequence of the different experiences of secularisation. Since the 1960s the mainstream Protestant Churches have failed to retain (let alone recruit) young people. Over two or three generations, then, the profile of Scotland’s Presbyterians has been markedly, and progressively, ageing. As a result while 40% of those aged over 65 say they are Church of Scotland, only 10% of those in their 30s, and just 5% of those aged 18-29 do so. These age differences are even more marked amongst women than they are amongst men. In contrast the age profile of Catholicism, which has resisted secularisation more successfully, lies much closer to that of the general population while, as we might expect, those of no religion have a disproportionately young profile.

It is these differences, rather than religious affiliation itself, that explains the apparent ‘religious’ differences on support for independence. In other words, those modest differences we can find between Catholics and Church of Scotland identifiers  in their attitudes towards independence are not due to Protestantism or Catholicism, nor to history, heritage, or religious politics. It springs largely from the simple fact that Presbyterians are, on average, older, and older people of all religious persuasions are more likely to be opposed to independence. Tall tales always merit closer inspection. They do not always bear close scrutiny.

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About the author

Michael Rosie is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, and Director of the Institute of Governance. He is an Associate Editor of Scottish Affairs and was Guest Editor of the Special Issue. His research interests span (ir)religious identities, ‘sectarianism’, and national belonging.