JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 16.9.11
THIS WEEKEND, Liz Lochhead’s fine 1987 play Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off opens in Edinburgh, in a new co-production by the Royal Lyceum and Dundee Rep. It’s a hugely popular piece of work, a glittering, cabaret-like piece of dramatic poetry that tells the 450-year-old story of one of the most romantic figures in history, and of her strange, mirror-image relationship with her English cousin and contemporary, Queen Elizabeth I.
Beyond this well-known story, though, Lochhead’s play also has plenty to say about the dark political and religious underside of Mary’s reign; about the fierce Protestant revolution that was sweeping the land when this devoutly Catholic queen came to the throne, and about how Mary was destroyed by it. And in the play’s final scene, the action rushes forward through the centuries towards a modern school playground, where the Catholic Marie is harried and taunted by a gang of schoolchildren from the “other side”.
All of which comes as a salutary reminder of the sheer depth, and long history, of the sectarian divisions that still scar Scottish society; and which have most recently come to the surface in the bitter row over tentative Scottish government proposals to make it legal for churches, if they choose, to conduct marriage ceremonies involving same-sex couples. In this case as in many others, the bitterness of the dispute seems out of all proportion to the cause; there is no question of the Scottish Government forcing any church to conduct gay marriages if it does not want to.
Yet something in the heated language of the debate suggests deep feelings of embattlement among the leaders of Catholicism in Scotland; a feeling reinforced by recent high-profile episodes of football-related sectarian violence in Scotland, and given an extra twist by the strange failure of the courts to pin a conviction for assault – as opposed to breach of the peace – on the Hearts fan who, in full view of the television cameras, clearly launched a physical attack on Celtic manager Neil Lennon. It’s only a couple of weeks since an eminent Scottish Catholic lawyer, Paul McBride QC, sought to revive the old argument that Catholics could not trust an independent Scotland to safeguard their rights; and it all begins to remind me of a strange incident around the time of the launch of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, when a major Irish newspaper solemnly and quite erroneously informed the people of Ireland that the Scottish Parliament had decided that it would be “a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people.”
Now to most people living in Scotland today, it may seem pretty obvious that that kind of paranoia about a Scottish Protestant establishment, or a Scottish anti-Catholic consensus, is well past its sell-by date. That anti-Catholic sectarianism still exists is not in doubt. But increasingly, at least in all its explicit forms, it seems like the creed of a dying Protestant underclass, rather than of the Scottish establishment; and in terms of actual religious practice and belief, Scotland is now almost as secular a country as England.
If the views of Catholic traditionalists like Cardinal Keith O’Brien seem embattled, in other words, they are sidelined not by a single, dominant non-Catholic consensus, but by a complex combination of social forces, ranging from the new militant atheism of the post-Dawkins age, through the disaffection of ex-Catholics upset by the recent child abuse scandals, to the growing confidence of those who strongly support gay rights on their own moral and spiritual grounds.
And in trying to unpick the complex range of reasons why the Catholic Church fees that its voice is going unheard, we perhaps come a little closer to understanding why the problem of sectarianism in Scotland is so intractable, and so difficult to negotiate away. On one side stands the Catholic church, still – despite its difficulties – one of the world’s most powerful and coherent organisations, and one that in Scotland presides not only over its own parishes, but over a well-respected system of state-funded denominational schools.
And on the other side, stands – well, who? A non-Catholic majority that includes everyone from serious anti-Catholic bigots, to dedicated materialists who never give a thought to the things of the spirit. In the matter of Scottish sectarianism, in other words, the Catholic church lacks a negotiating partner. It can talk to humanists, human rights campaigners, gay rights activists; but they speak only for themselves. It can talk to the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; but his flock is dwindling so fast it may vanish altogether within the next generation. It can talk – perhaps more usefully – to Rangers Football Club, as the main surviving focus of tribal Protestantism in this country; but Rangers cannot speak for the whole of non-Catholic Scotland. And it can talk to the Scottish Government; but they do not represent non-Catholic interests, any more than they represent Catholic or Muslim ones.
All of which suggests that if Alex Salmond and his government truly want to tackle sectarianism, they need to go back to the drawing board first sketched out by Jack McConnell almost a decade ago, and set up a national forum in which all the major players around the sectarian issue are represented, where the ring is held strongly and consistently over at least a decade, and where any issues arising from the wounds of Scotland’s divided past can be brought to the table, carefully researched, and debated with a view to healing and reconciliation.
Among those wounds, of course, is the one inflicted on Scotland’s beautiful Catholic queen 424 years ago, not here in Scotland, but at Fotheringhay in England, when her head was struck off at the behest of an English queen increasingly terrified by the thought of Catholic conspiracy. And in time, children began to sing that harsh, echoing little rhyme, flicking the heads off dandelions as they did so; trying, down the centuries, to exorcise and diminish an act of violence that divided a nation then, that was repeated and revenged in countless new abuses down the ages, and that stll requires a major and well-thought-out effort of healing today, if those divisions are finally to fade into history.