Bishop of Chester takes part in debate on devolution and the Scottish referendum

“To regard the English-Scottish relationship as simply the primary and maximal example of broader devolved relationships in the UK would be to invite a repetition of recent errors of judgment.”

On 29th October 2014, the Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Peter Forster, took part in a House of Lords debate on devolution following the Scottish referendum, led by Baroness Stowell of Beeston. The Bishop reflected on his own experiences of studying and living in Scotland, and the relationship between England and Scotland. He urged caution in how politicians and the public approach matters of devolution and nationhood, noting that the post-referendum landscape was a good opportunity to renew the Union, whilst respecting cultural differences and political realities.

14.03 Bishop of ChesterThe Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, bishops need to tread warily when discussing matters Scottish. Although I am thoroughly English by birth and background, I can, I think, claim rather closer connections with Scotland than some whom I observe wearing the kilt at the Chester Caledonian Association dinners which I regularly attend.

Let me explain. I have a Scottish wife—my one and only wife, I hasten to add—and two Scottish degrees, all three from Edinburgh. I trained for ordination in Scotland as somebody sponsored by the Scottish Episcopal Church, and I have owned a house in Scotland for 25 years and will happily retire there in a few years’ time. I am Anglican co-chair of the current Church of England-Church of Scotland ecumenical conversations. So tread I shall, if nevertheless warily. If I have learnt one thing in my discussions with the Church of Scotland, it is that were the Kirk ever to contemplate having bishops, which remains, I think, doubtful, they would need to be very different from English bishops to be acceptable.

My learning curve about Scotland began soon after I had enrolled at Edinburgh University in 1974. I was in the student common room watching a football match between England and Russia. Russia scored first, and the whole room exploded with joy and everyone cheered. Had it been in an equivalent English university and Scotland had been playing Russia, the English students, I think, would have been enthusiastically supporting Scotland. But in Scotland things were clearly different. I suddenly awoke to the fact that I was in a foreign land.

What I was beginning to learn 40 years ago was that Scotland is self-consciously a different nation from England. In all my subsequent contact with Scotland, not least during the recent referendum campaign, which I observed closely, I have been on a progressive learning curve about the separate dignity of Scotland as a nation. I think that the English often find that hard really to take in. Even some aspects of the recent campaign rather undergirded that to me.

Let us never forget that, for most of human history, Scotland has been a fully independent country, with its own culture, and Hadrian’s Wall stands as testament to that. The question on the ballot paper, “Should Scotland be an independent country?”, ought to have been, “Should Scotland revert to being an independent country?”, which is how it has been for most of the time. I say all this as a supporter of the union.

Baroness Quin (Lab): I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for giving way. May I point out that Hadrian’s Wall never has been the border between England and Scotland? It is not near the border today and, in fact, runs through the middle of the city of Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: I do know where Hadrian’s Wall runs, but the fact that the Romans did not get to the rest of this island is significant, even though I fully accept that the border, which has moved over time, is not coterminous. But the very fact that the Romans did not conquer Scotland reinforces the underlying point I am seeking to make.

I chose not vote in the recent referendum, although I was entitled to do so, because I felt it was a question which the Scots should decide. If I had voted, I would have voted no. However, I found the recent no campaign disturbing to the point of embarrassment. It was conducted largely on negative, almost threatening terms—“worse apart” rather than “better together”. When this did not seem to be working, after the second televised debate in particular, the strategy changed towards promises and inducements, with the Prime Minister suddenly to the fore. How much better it would have been had he headed up the principled case for the union from the start and made that case on a positive basis, as indeed did former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

I would draw two conclusions from what I have said so far in relation to today’s debate. First, the English in particular need to be very careful not to be seen to take the union with Scotland for granted—a lot of this is about perceptions—or to take the union as a foregone historical conclusion, which it clearly is not. The English and the Scots may share a great deal but fundamentally they are different cultures and nations which, for the past 300 or so years, have formed a richly creative political union. That union now needs to be nurtured on a new basis, especially given the dismantling of the British Empire. The English tendency to view Scotland in a slightly paternalist, patronising way needs to be consigned firmly to the past as the new devolution arrangements are negotiated. I hope that is the key in which all that is now going to be discussed is conducted.

Finally, I would be cautious before drawing any lessons from the recent referendum for wider questions of devolution in the UK. What will now happen in Scotland reflects the particular historical dynamic of English-Scottish relations. Perhaps elements will be replicated in relation to Wales and Northern Ireland, and even some regions of England, but not necessarily so. The resounding outcome of the referendum in the north-east on a regional assembly a few years ago illustrates the specific nature of the Scottish question. To regard the English-Scottish relationship as simply the primary and maximal example of broader devolved relationships in the UK would be to invite a repetition of recent errors of judgment.