Ian Swanson: Peacemakers may need divine inspiration

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THE Church of Scotland’s General Assembly will debate the pros and cons of independence next week – but there will be no vote at the end of the two-hour special session.

The Kirk decided it was only right that the issue of the nation’s future should feature on the agenda – after all, before devolution, the General Assembly was sometimes referred to as the nearest thing Scotland had to a parliament.

So, meeting on The Mound, ministers and elders from all across the country will listen to the Yes case from Glasgow theology lecturer Doug Gay and the No case from Labour’s Douglas Alexander, himself a member of the Kirk, before the discussion is thrown open.

But why no vote? The Church of Scotland has taken a clear stand on a wide range of controversial issues over the years – opposing nuclear weapons, urging a rethink on the poll tax, backing the minimum wage, criticising PFI and supporting devolution.

But the Kirk says it is deliberately remaining neutral on the referendum and seeking to offer the space for people to discuss the issues and make their own decision. That in itself is a recognition of how potentially divisive an issue independence has become.

And incoming Moderator the Rev John Chalmers has gone further and announced he will lead a service of reconciliation in St Giles Cathedral three days after the referendum.

He says: “It seems fitting, at a time when people are taking sides and 
passions are running high, that we should prepare for the day after this is all over.”

All this comes just three weeks after Jim Sillars delivered Margo MacDonald’s plea from beyond the grave, at her memorial service, for people to engage in debate without malice and avoid turning opponents into enemies. He described it as “the Margo MacDonald way” and said it would make the divisions much easier to heal.

Both sides have been looking ahead to the post-referendum period in the past few days.

Alex Salmond was describing his plans to assemble a powerful “Team Scotland” to negotiate the independence deal in the event of a Yes vote. It would include experts from around the world and people from outside politics, but he also wanted politicians from the pro-Union side to come on board.

And Douglas Alexander, perhaps getting in the mood for that Assembly appearance, has said there is an obligation to ensure that Scotland, whatever the outcome, “comes together and does not divide more deeply in the aftermath of this historic choice”.

But if the Kirk’s plans for a service and the politicians’ appeals for working together after September 18 were a response to Margo’s posthumous plea, have they got it right?

Suggesting the need for a service of reconciliation, though clearly well meant, may indeed be overstating the level of conflict.

And although Mr Alexander echoed the tone of Margo’s appeal – “a respectful discourse of political difference, not a politics that descends into personal destruction” – his challenge was to the Yes campaigners to accept a No verdict and make devolution work. Asked if he would join Mr Salmond’s Team Scotland in the event of a Yes vote, he was non-committal.

When it comes to securing a sensible and co-operative way forward, it seems there is still some way to go.