Religion and Trotskyism mix well in Scotland
The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon has made quite a splash this week. But if people knew what SNP supporters were playing at with the minds of Scottish kids they might have pause for thought
Forty-five years ago I was attending a faith school in an ordinary part of Glasgow, much like Penilee. That area’s Catholic primary school, St George’s has made headlines because of the recent invitation extended to veteran far-left agitator Tommy Sheridan to lecture on politics to some of the pupils.
The invitation came from Karen Lorimer, an SNP-supporting teacher. Later, she talked proudly about the decision of some of her pupils to hold their own march in Glasgow against austerity.
It is troubling that any schools have become pawns in the game of politics. But for a faith school to offer an open door to a politician with Tommy Sheridan’s baggage is astonishing.
This political firebrand makes no secret of his adherence to Marxist dogma, emphasising materialism, deriding Christian spirituality, and believing that human progress occurs through class warfare.
A core purpose of faith schools is to offer a Christian vision of society based on trust and practical cooperation in order to reduce major societal problems. There is no utopian panacea and class war has never been endorsed.
Yet when under 12s parade in the streets with posters, presumably made in their school, calling for an end to austerity, it is clear that, 5 weeks before an election, they have been caught up in a power game.
Britain has a debt of well over £1 trillion. This must be lowered in order for public services, that enable it to stand out as a civilized society, to survive -- something which the major parties agree on.
The Northern Irish troubles were erupting during my final years at school. Many pupils, just like me, had ancestors and relatives ‘across the water’. Yet I can recall no teacher ever even hinting at support for the anti-British IRA or milder forms of Irish nationalism.
I suspect that if faith schools had been an incubator for pro-terrorist sympathies, the media would soon have picked it up.
Nearly thirty years ago, as a young historian at an English university, I wrote the first full-length account of sectarianism in the west of Scotland, Glasgow the Uneasy Peace.
I challenged popular belief on one central issue. I argued that the overt moral dimension in the faith school curriculum, far more than a simple reiteration of Catholic beliefs, helped to promote social cohesion and channelled the energies of many pupils towards individual achievement.
The formula didn’t work in all instances and some faith schools adhered to it more effectively than others. Yet these schools are overwhelmingly the choice of parents settling in Scotland who want the best education that is within reach of their children.
In times past, these state-funded Catholic schools often met with resistance. The Orange Order didn’t welcome them. They were seen as undermining the heritage of the Scottish Reformation.
Yet for several decades, this Protestant institution has had little to say about them. Why? Quite possibly, even staunch Protestants have concluded that they are a lifeboat enabling children to make a safe landing in adulthood after avoiding the reefs of a shallow, hyper-sexualised society hooked on distracting gadgets and often dangerous substances.
Tommy Sheridan is hardly an everyday militant. The break-up of his party, his arrest, a sensational set of trials, and conviction for perjury in 2010, shed a very depressing light on Scottish politics. That such a tarnished Marxist hero has anything of value to say to children in a faith school suggests that their management is going astray.
Glasgow city council has made it clear that this is a non-story. It wants nothing to be done. The stance of the church authorities, who retain a big say in the direction of these schools, could well be identical.
The temptation is real for Glasgow’s archbishop, Philip Tartaglia, to say that he sees no problem here. He has not hidden the fact that he is drawn to the SNP. When Alex Salmond stood down as First Minister, he issued an extraordinary statement that must have left many of the 44 percent of Scottish Catholics who voted against separation, troubled:
‘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...’
Tommy Sheridan, who once saw Scottish Nationalism as a false trail that would help sabotage the British revolution, now believes that the SNP can pave the way for a Scottish revolution. He has further divided the far-left by urging a vote for Nicola Sturgeon’s party on May 7. So, in terms of political allegiances, there is currently little to separate the archbishop from the agitator.
Archbishop Tartaglia’s health is uncertain and it is perhaps understandable if he hopes this issue will go away of its own volition. But if inaction is his response, then he may simply be throwing Catholic schools under a bus and denying future generations an education that enables them to avoid the pitfalls of a materialist and aggressively secular society.
Talking to young relatives prior to the referendum, I had already heard about teachers in another faith school being unable to keep their pro-independence sympathies to themselves in the classroom.
If church leaders look away over the creeping politicisation of faith schools, then I fear it will put them in mortal peril.
Dissension will grow among Catholics in Scotland who, like many other segments of society, are now badly split over the political future, and support for these schools may drain away. New Scots may well conclude they are no different from other schools and admissions will fall.
And, in an era of unavoidable belt-tightening, many Scots may conclude that a single state school in each locality (with provision for religious education) has to be the way ahead.
I am still ready to give measured backing for faith schools but only if they firmly desist from filling the heads of impressionable pupils with political messages that will do them no good in later life.
Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University. His next book is Scotland at the Crossroads: A Nation Divides
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