Damian Thompson

Memo to the Scottish Catholic bishops: stop sucking up to the SNP

Memo to the Scottish Catholic bishops: stop sucking up to the SNP
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The Most Rev Philip Tartaglia, Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, is at it again:

There is a feeling around that we are in a special moment when we can shape a new Scotland. Our new First Minister, who is happily with us here this afternoon, has proposed a more consensual form of government, less partisan, less party-political, and less adversarial. I think everyone would welcome that … We are all equal in Scotland … all free to express our views and follow our consciences.

The Archbishop was speaking earlier this month at an ecumenical service attended by Nicola Sturgeon. By all accounts she was pink with pleasure at his lavish tribute. But I doubt that she was surprised. When Alex Salmond stepped down, Tartaglia – who employs a hardline SNP activist as his press officer – wrote to him as follows:

On behalf of the Bishops Conference of Scotland, I want to acknowledge your long and outstanding career in politics, and your distinguished service as First Minister of Scotland. With good reason, you have been described as one of the most able and influential political leaders that Scotland and the United Kingdom has ever produced ... you have always been a wonderful champion and ambassador for Scotland at home and abroad. We hope that your political successors will be inspired by your example and continue to protect and promote these same values.

At the time, lots of people thought: someone throw a bucket of water over those two. The love-in between Tartaglia and Salmond was a national embarrassment – except, of course, to Salmond, who had spent many years flattering Scottish prelates who nurtured a streak of Anglophobia underneath their well-filled soutanes. With his departure there was some hope, albeit a slim one, that the bishops would make a pretence of political impartiality.

Obviously not. In the words of the pro-union Scottish Catholic historian Prof Tom Gallagher, Tartaglia now leads the episcopal wing of the SNP. 'This dreamy talk about living through "a special moment" could have come from Pat Kane [ageing rock star and nationalist megabore],' he says.

'But in a way I'm not surprised the clerical decision-makers have warmed to the SNP, because it is very much a cult in its own right which flees from any serious examination of options and lays down positions which are expected to be treated with respect, however flimsy they might be.'

Tartaglia's comments are outrageous on two levels. First, it's disgusting to see any Catholic bishop addressing a political leader with ingratiating rhetoric more reminiscent of Franco's Spain than Britain in the 21st century.

Second, the idea that Sturgeon represents a 'less partisan' style of politics is plainly ridiculous. She is the most Left-wing leader of any major British political party – a formidable operator, certainly, but an uncompromising Bevanite socialist. Moreover, her 'less adversarial' party has encouraged millions of Scots to regard their fellow Britons with contempt – and tribal contempt at that.

Sturgeon has campaigned vigorously against Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life. She claims that any reduction Britain's 24-week abortion limit would drive women into the arms of back-street abortionists. She's entitled to that view. But she's not simultaneously entitled to fawning tributes delivered at a religious service by the Archbishop of Glasgow. I dread to think what Tartaglia's predecessor Cardinal Tom Winning, who detested Tony Blair's stance on abortion, would make of this episode.

The SNP, having noticed that Labour has screwed up its relationship with Catholics, wants one thing and one thing only from the Scottish hierarchy: moral support that will put pressure on Catholics to vote for it. For that, it needs a useful idiot in a mitre. And, boy, has it found one.