The small but telling issue of parking in Edinburgh suggests that ruling Scottish Nationalists are keen to marginalise Christians, not least because of the moral authority they still exercise.
The Christian churches played an outsized role in the campaign for Scotland to have its own devolved parliament. From 1999 to 2004, the Scottish Parliament even sat in the General Assembly halls of the Church of Scotland near the top of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, while a permanent home was built at enormous expense.
For nearly 500 years, the Presbyterian church has been the established one in Scotland. But neither it nor the other Christian churches have wielded influence in the new politically devolved order. The beneficiaries have been avowedly secular forces committed to social and economic equality. Achieving this holy grail is the responsibility of a large public bureaucracy working closely with a third sector of campaigning groups and bodies, which provide a range of public services. They increasingly answer to the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP).
Perhaps because it is so absorbed in snatching complete independence from London, Nicola Sturgeon’s party has governed in a half-hearted manner. Inequalities have, in fact, widened not narrowed in key sectors like health and education.
Nationalism has so far not provided an ethical foundation for responding to some of the acute challenges in Scottish society – drug dependency and other addictions, youngsters without qualifications struggling to find a place in the labour market, and children growing up in dysfunctional families and without role models enabling them to avoid harm.
Arguably, the SNP’s policies on local government finance have favoured better-off Scots over poorer ones. Severe cuts to municipal budgets by the centralising SNP are poised to have a devastating effect on frontline services.
Edinburgh city council is just one of many that are struggling with a huge budget deficit. For the past three years, it has been run by two parties that are deadly enemies nearly everywhere else, Labour and the SNP. Much earlier in its history the SNP was wedded to the concept of ‘small is beautiful and believed in utilising the traditions of localism, self-help, and community action. But today it is wedded to the concept of the big state for organising humanity, perhaps even more so than Labour has been historically.
A top-down managerial approach of paying lip-service to equality has enabled an uneasy municipal coalition to endure. It is assumed that improvements will arise through showing commitment to a planned society based on ‘scientific’ and ‘expert’ reasoning. Most of Scotland’s senior bureaucrats, academics and social experts are impatient with moral reasoning based on religion or anything else that can be viewed as ‘un-scientific’.
Politicians relying upon their advice and know-how for shaping policy share their ‘positivist’ world-view if they belong to the dominant left-nationalist-green consensus in Scotland. As they have struggled with municipal responsibilities, they have sought sometimes aggressively to promote a secular and liberal world view.
Long-drawn-out discussions over new parking charges in Edinburgh have highlighted this controlling urge. In January 2015, it was announced that parking charges would be extended to Sundays as a means of generating more revenue. The most vocal exponent of this policy was the deputy head of the transport committee, Adam McVey. A young graduate in international law who had worked for Amnesty International and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, he rejected pleas from numerous churches to think again.
For a British city, the centre of Edinburgh has a very large concentration of churches, not just Presbyterian, but also Baptist, Episcopalian and Catholic ones. Many parishioners make car journeys from elsewhere in the city or further afield for Sunday morning worship. Running the gauntlet of traffic wardens and paying parking fees that would soon mount into hundreds of pounds is likely to prove a disincentive for all but the most dedicated church-goers.
Councillor McVey stated in 2015 that Edinburgh was a ‘secular city’ and that ‘the concerns of just one faith could not be allowed to influence city policy’.
He went on to say that if the longstanding convention of free Sunday parking was adhered to then Muslims would be entitled to demand the same rights on Fridays. Over this issue and also public Christmas festivities there is little sign that non-Christian faiths have any strong views, but secularists elsewhere have raised a straw man perhaps in order to restrict the use of public spaces to long established faith groups.
Concerned Christians launched a city-wide mobilisation and on 15 March it was announced that instead of being all-day Sunday parking, charges would only begin at 1 pm.
Cameron Rose, the leader of the Conservative group on the Edinburgh council, afterwards remarked that ‘some were surprised that the consultation about parking on Sundays elicited such a large volume of responses from people who attend church and are to be affected by the controls. Many have a caricature of religious organisations which is far removed from the vibrant, often full, city centre churches we have in Edinburgh. And whilst overall religious affiliation has steadily declined in Scotland, there is still a very sizeable body of active adherents who are taxpaying citizens and who contribute a mighty lot to the glue, compassion and spiritual belief which enriches our society’.
Psepheological evidence indicates that most active Christians voted to stay part of Britain in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Roman Catholics were the exception. Many adherents who had an Irish orientation and who were mainly located around Clydeside voted for separation. But the beautiful 201-year-old Catholic cathedral in Edinburgh is affected by the proposed charges as its main Sunday service does not finish until after the charges begin.
A Christian ethical foundation may have retreated in once devout Scottish communities, but a new moral order shorn of the need for religious belief is still hardly in sight. In 2015, David Robertson, the present Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, suggested that Christians were still effective in offering a moral vision for coping with some of the acute challenges in Scottish society:
‘When we are speaking of the churches in Edinburgh, we are not speaking primarily of the church buildings. We are talking about the communities of worshipping, believing Christians. We are talking about work amongst the homeless by groups such as the Edinburgh-based Bethany Christian Trust, the hundreds of youth workers, the numerous community groups, counselling, welcoming and serving. If these were all to be withdrawn then Edinburgh would find itself to be a much poorer city, in every way’.
Alex Salmond, the former leader of the SNP, stated on 15 March that the party was comfortable with diversity and that there were no major divisions in Scottish society. How Edinburgh parking has been handled by his party suggests otherwise. And it is far from the only issue where the SNP is keen to promote an exclusive and sometimes arbitrary approach that is at variance with its claim to be a civic political force.
Tom Gallagher is a political scientist. His latest book is Scotland Now, A Warning to the World, (Edinburgh 2016).