Langside Hill Church in Glasgow, now a bar. Via Wikimedia Commons

The new Scotland

Scottish culture is narrowing and secularising under the influence of a strident liberal elite

Artillery Row

Just over a year ago Kate Forbes was narrowly beaten in the SNP leadership election, in large part because many colleagues and commentators turned upon her following coverage of her (long established) religious conservative convictions on issues of gender and sex. With Humza Yousaf having been forced to resign following the collapse of his agreement with the Scottish Greens, Forbes seemed poised as the frontrunner in the upcoming leadership contest. But news soon broke, amidst negative reactions to her possible return in the media and party, that she would not be standing. What had happened? 

Forbes is a quintessential Scottish figure, and exactly the sort of person who would once have been a natural leader for a Scottish Nationalist movement. Born in a small Highland town, a fluent Gaelic speaker, she was brought up in the Free Church. Her father was a medical missionary, and half of her childhood was spent in India. Studying at both Cambridge and Edinburgh, Forbes swiftly advanced in the SNP, fighting on issues from the Gaelic language, the environment and the gender pay gap. 

The harshness of secularisation in Scotland, as with Ireland, seems to be in full proportion to the strength of stern faith that once gripped the country

But Forbes is no longer a typical nationalist, or even a typical Scot. Scotland, once one of the most religiously conservative nations of the United Kingdom, where the Sabbath was strictly enforced and God’s judgement was never far away, has quietly undergone a process of secularisation nearly as swift and aggressive as that of Ireland. Sexual abuse scandals have rocked the Catholic Church in Scotland as well, but there’s no such externality to point to when it comes to the utter collapse of Presbyterianism, despite the Church of Scotland embracing liberal modernity with desperate eagerness, including on the issue of gay marriage. Less than 3 per cent of babies are now baptised in the Kirk, and, post-pandemic, only 60,000 Scots can be found in its churches on a Sunday. Humanist ceremonies recently overtook Church of Scotland weddings for the first time. 

This revolution has gone largely unnoticed in England, where Scottish affairs are ignored and religious decline has been (somewhat) gentler. But it is obvious to anyone who cares to turn up to Glasgow on a Friday night, where you can find crowds spilling into and out of dozens of grand old churches now converted to bars and nightclubs. One of the finest neoclassical buildings in the city, Elgin Place Congregational Church, was turned into a nightclub, which went through various iterations — Temple, Shack and finally, with grim appropriateness, Trash — before catching fire and having to be torn down. 

The harshness of secularisation in Scotland, as with Ireland, seems to be in full proportion to the strength of stern faith that once gripped the country. Fiery sermons are still delivered, but now from the humanistic pulpit that is the newspaper column. Kenny Farquharson, a columnist for the Scottish edition of The Times delivered one such fire and brimstone number. The sermon began, as they tend to do, with a denunciation: “Kate Forbes is unfit to be first minister of a 21st-century Scotland. A 1920s Scotland, maybe. A 1950s Scotland, perhaps. But not Scotland in 2024.”

What was the nature of her “unfitness”? Was it a question of competence? Not so: “Forbes has ideas and energy”. She has “much to offer”. The problem was not one of competence, or even policy. It was about representation. Identity. It was a question of the state, if you will, of Kate Forbes’s soul. Previous leaders had been inspiring, not because of how they governed, but because of who they were.

“Sturgeon’s message to working-class girls was simple: This could be you” (it certainly can’t have been anything about being better off under the SNP). Yousaf, meanwhile, as the first Muslim leader of a Western country was “an extraordinary badge of honour for Scotland”. 

Next, never far away, was the (reverse) hellfire: “What message would a Kate Forbes first ministership send? That single mothers are sinners? That sex outside marriage is wrong? That ghouls should be allowed to stand in the street outside abortion clinics muttering incantations? That most of us in secular Scotland are going to hell?”

The point is hammered home at length: “Forbes represents an authentic strain of rural Scottish presbyterianism. But she cannot successfully reconcile the moral strictures of the Free Church with the values of contemporary urban Scotland in all its diversity and dynamism.”

It’s all rather impressive, just as long as you don’t think about it too hard. Why, for example, is Yousaf, a committed Muslim, seen as a good representative of liberal modernity, whilst Forbes, who belongs to the non-conformist Protestant tradition so integral to British liberalism, is considered a reactionary symbol? Humza Yousaf’s religious community is no more accepting of homosexuality than Forbes’, and though Yousaf claims to support gay marriage (an issue neither politician is likely to make policy on in future), he was mysteriously and conveniently absent when it came time to vote on it. 

As with Ireland, an influential section of Scotland’s elite, especially those who back independence, are desperate to win a place on the international stage, to become “modern”, and to shed what they see as an embarrassing and parochial past swathed in religious superstition and prejudice. Muslims like Humza Yousaf present no issue because their own conservative traditions and beliefs are not a part of that now shameful history. 

As I explored last year, the very centrality of conservative, even fundamentalist religious groups, in forming an earlier iteration of liberalism (and secularism) is part of contemporary liberalism’s uneasy conscience. Just as ruined abbeys and mad monks haunt the pages of protestant Gothic novels, so too does the shadow of an older religious order trouble the imaginations of those who want to move confidently into a Godless modern age, but find the past refuses to politely vanish.  

Christianity, for all its bitter retreat from the centre of Scottish culture, is still the voice in the wilderness,

The idea of perpetual progress is a seductive, and self-fulfilling myth. It isn’t the 1950s, Kenny bleats — Scotland has changed. Yet Forbes consistently polled ahead of every other SNP leadership candidate with the Scottish public, and could have gone into the next leadership election with a real prospect of winning. On the one hand, we are told, Scottish opinion and culture has irrevocably and inevitably changed by the magic of the calendar, but on the other hand it is (fear creeps in now) urgent and imperative that we not allow her to win. She couldn’t win, and thus must not be allowed to. 

It’s Brexit and Trump all over again. When history refuses to move in the proper direction, quasi-religious hysteria kicks in amongst the class that boasts of its cool-headed rationality and moral seriousness. 

The fear, after so long running in the clear, that someone might finally take the ball away from them, has morphed from a narrowly political anxiety into the collective dread of a class now defined by its moralistic orthodoxy. J.K. Rowling, a member of the Church of Scotland, is one of the Scottish heretics in chief, guilty of the triple crime of being English, gender critical and unionist. 

Another, and perhaps Scotland’s greatest living artist, is composer James MacMillan, a socially conservative Catholic and a unionist. He recently said, of the new Scottish cultural establishment: “Art should not bend the knee to governments or ruling castes. Since when did the artistic desire to shock the establishment become the desire to bend over for them?”

MacMillan attacks this contemporary class from the perspective of the old religious left: “The ‘progressive’ liberalism of the new Left, its destructive atheistic iconoclasm, was miles away from the vision of the early Scottish socialists such as John Wheatley, Manny Shinwell and James Maxton.”

Christianity, for all its bitter retreat from the centre of Scottish culture, is still the voice in the wilderness, still capable of producing and attracting great minds, talents and prophetic voices. As much as complacent progressives cheer the decline of church attendance (which mirrors an overall and catastrophic decline in political parties, trade unions, friendships, marriages and births), it is astonishing how much they still fear its latent moral authority. 

The concerted campaign to block Forbes is good news for Unionists, who now no longer face the danger of a likeable and compelling young nationalist leader, and instead have the welcome prospect of the ineffectual 60 year old party stalwart John Swinney, whose time in government has been marred by accusations of incompetence and mishandling of the pandemic. It is bad news, however, for a Scottish culture that is rapidly narrowing the scope of what can be said, thought or believed.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover