A Latin American Pope and Europe’s Separatists

Even the Pope seems sceptical about Scottish independence. If he ever met Alex Salmond, Pope Francis, drawing on Argentina's history, would probably just see him for the populist that he is

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The Pope isn't clapping
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Tom Gallagher
On 18 June 2014 12:07

On Friday, Pope Francis displayed misgivings about Scottish independence in an interview with a Barcelona newspaper. When asked about the growing clamour in favour of Catalonia hiving off from Spain, he offered a contrast between the emancipation of nations in his native Latin America and contemporary secessionist movements in Europe.

Speaking to La Vanguardia, he declared:

‘All division worries me. There is independence by emancipation and independence by secession. The independences by emancipation, for example, are American, that they were emancipated from the European States. The independences of nations by secession is a dismemberment, sometimes it’s very obvious.

"Let’s think of the former Yugoslavia. Obviously, there are nations with cultures so different that couldn’t even be stuck together with glue. The Yugoslavian case is very clear, but I ask myself if it is so clear in other cases. Scotland, Padania [northern Italy], Catalunya’.

No doubt among the large and often devoutly Catholic exiled Croats whom he would have encountered as a priest in Argentina, he met plenty who insisted that Yugoslavia was an artificial entity only held together by coercion.

But Scots who are scattered in even more countries of the world usually are disinclined to complain about any tyrannical aspects of British rule. In the face of its own heavy-handed rule at home, the Scottish National Party (SNP) struggles increasingly to persuade many citizens elsewhere in the world that it is a modern and mature movement expressing the desire of Scots to escape from the confines of a stultifying British state.

Britain, for all that its citizens complain about its undeniable shortcomings, in fact  still looks rather good to many other visitors to its shores. The progress enjoyed by most other countries simply fails to exceed Britain’s own gradual decline in particular areas.

The SNP knows how hard it is to point to progress in Scotland that places it apart from the rest of Britain. It has delivered sharp rebukes in recent times to Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt and America’s Hillary Clinton for speaking frankly about their desire for Britain to stay united.

But it has been tight-lipped in response to Pope Francis’s  lower-key intervention.  His twitter account has not been invaded by the SNP’s electronic militia, the cybernats, commanding the Pope to stay silent and allow Scotland to decide its own fate.

However, no such reticence was shown towards J.K. Rowling last week. She is a world-renowned author thanks to the sales of her Harry Potter novels and their film adaptations. When she issued her own manifesto on 11 June, declaring her commitment to Scotland where she has lived for over twenty years and her opposition to independence, she was quickly assailed by many ardent nationalists who used language of a particular crudity towards her.

This monstering of Harry Potter’s creator was no doubt noticed far and wide. But the SNP shows no desire to discourage the cybernats: a journalist brought into the civil service to be a top media adviser for  Alex Salmond even used an erroneous claim circulated by one of the most uninhibited bloggers to try and discredit a mother who campaigned on behalf of disabled children because of her links to the political opposition.

The SNP is impatient with the separation of powers provided for by Britain’s unwritten constitution. It also  privileges the Protestant faith in various ways. But this has not prevented Britain from being seen as an anchor of stability by the Vatican for over two hundred years.

The Cold War with Rome ended in the 1790s when William Pitt the Younger offered refuge to many priests fleeing the revolutionary terror in France.

Nowadays Britain is admired more for its soft power and implicit influence rather than for real military and economic clout. Pope Francis hails from a country which is locked in dispute with Britain over the Falkland islands. But there is great respect even in nationalistic Argentina for Britain’s overall role in the modern world.

The partition of Britain would not be greeted with the same degree of sadness across Latin America as the fall of France in 1940 was in what was then a Francophile continent . But I believe it would still be mourned.

Only among secessionist movements  and in countries seeking to curtail the West’s international role would there likely be much glee about the emergence of a noisily post-British Scotland. Once the Vatican becomes aware that the SNP is packed full of far more secularists than Harriet Harman’s Labour Party,  its own reticence is bound to deepen.

Many of the SNP’s keenest middle-class supporters relish the prospect of stripping Scotland’s Christian churches of their remaining public influence as happened in Germany under Bismarck after its unification in 1871.

Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian writer, is after the Pope probably the Latin American who enjoys the most global renown. In 2012, he expressed bewilderment and regret that Scottish Nationalists might engineer the break-up of the United Kingdom.

He was soon denounced as  a rootless cosmopolitan in the letters pages of the Herald newspaper in Glasgow.

Why shouldn’t Scotland follow in the footsteps of Slovenia and the Baltic states which acquired or recovered independence after 1989? But their circumstances, trapped in local dictatorships which were often reinforced by Soviet imperialism, were a world away from Scotland’s current position in the UK. 

It is doubtful if many people in Estonia or Slovenia would recognise Scotland as a kindred spirit, emerging from a dark cave of captivity.

If granted the papal audience which Pope Benedict XVI denied him, Alex Salmond would no doubt remind him of the Treaty of Arbroath, the letter submitted to Pope John XXII in 1320 and reputedly written by a Scottish monk, intended to confirm the nation’s status as an independent sovereign state.

If feeling really bold, this patron of state secularism might even draw attention to his devotion to the martyred Catholic queen Mary Queen of Scots executed on the orders of her English cousin, Elizabeth I in 1587.

But in all likelihood Francis would recognise more than a little of the populists who have held up progress in his own country ever since his youth if he ever encountered Alex Salmond.

Professor Tom Gallagher’s book Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis was published in 2013

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