Scotland has just one Catholic v-c. Is this because the country is dominated by Protestant bigots? Tom Devine calls for more research into Scotland's shame
When Scotland's foremost young composer, James MacMillan, gave a lecture at the Edinburgh International Festival recently he did not mince his words. Scotland, he said, was a land of "sleep-walking bigotry" where "visceral anti-Catholicism" disfigures national life, from the professions to the media, from politics to academe.
The latest threat, he warned, was to Catholic schools - which risk destruction in the wake of devolution and the setting-up of the Scottish Parliament. Every year Scotland's leading teaching union, the Educational Institute of Scotland, hears speeches at its annual conference calling for an end to separate Catholic schools and the withdrawal of their state funding. "The slavering of the mouth," MacMillan said, "at the prospect of the new parliament being involved in this vandalism has become a frightening spectacle for many of us."
Pandora's box, it turned out, had been opened in spectacular fashion. For weeks Scotland's broadsheets were crammed with letters. MacMillan had touched a nerve. The Herald, the newspaper of choice among the west of Scotland business and professional classes, was in the eye of the storm - forced to print extra pages to display readers letters. The Herald, claimed MacMillan, had a number of feature writers who "regularly and vociferously attack Catholic belief and practice I in ways that would never see the light of day in a London quality newspaper".
Like MacMillan, I come from a west of Scotland Catholic background with roots in the Irish immigrations of the 19th century. I agree that for too long sectarianism has simply been swept under the carpet or treated as a subject that polite people do not discuss.
Among my own family in a Lanarkshire town in the 1950s it was accepted that discriminatory employment practices against Catholics were endemic in the local steel industry, the police, banking and even some high-street shops. And until the 1960s in some of the Clyde shipyards, the power of the foremen with Orange and Masonic loyalties to hire and fire often made it difficult for Catholics to start apprenticeships.
Scotland's greatest football team of the period, Glasgow Rangers, would not hire players if they were Catholic - or even married to a Catholic. As late as 1981, the distinguished journalist Arnold Kemp, interviewed for the post of editor of the Glasgow Herald, was quizzed on his religious beliefs. It was understood he would not have been appointed if he had admitted to being a Catholic.
But all that was a long time ago. Where I part company with MacMillan is in his assumption that such bigotry continues even today, and, crucially, that it still influences the labour market in terms of employment and promotion, obstructing life opportunities for Scottish Catholics.
This is not to say that anti-Catholic attitudes do not exist in some areas of Scotland, particularly in west central Scottish society. But while anti-Catholic employers may still harbour their prejudices, they keep a low profile. No evidence is available of the systematic discrimination that prevailed in so many sectors of the west of Scotland's economy until only a few decades ago.
A silent revolution has occurred. Scottish Catholics no longer appear to be a disadvantaged group. The Scottish election surveys of 1992 and 1997 show no significant difference between the social class of Catholics and others, a remarkable transformation compared with 50 years ago. In one of the few academic studies of the contemporary situation, Iain Paterson at Aberdeen University has shown that in 1998 there was little difference in social class between 23-year-old Catholics and non-Catholics in west Scotland.
Catholics now have a marked impact on Scottish politics, not simply in the local councils of the towns around Glasgow (in that city the past nine Lord Provosts have been Catholic) but also at national level. In the 1997 general election, 31 per cent of candidates elected to Scottish seats were Catholic, although Catholics made up about only 13 per cent of the Scottish electorate. Catholics are prominent in the upper echelons of business, the media, the quangos, the law and academia (although it is noticeable that there is only one Catholic vice-chancellor of a Scottish university - Bernard King at Abertay).
And Scottish Catholics have achieved a new rapprochement with nationalism and devolution. Surveys in the 1960s and 1970s showed them to be deeply suspicious of the idea of Scottish independence and even of less radical constitutional change. There was a perception that a self-governing Scotland would increase Protestant hegemony. That insecurity seems to have declined.
Indeed, the most recent evidence suggests that Scots from a Catholic background are marginally more likely to favour independence than Protestants and that Catholics identify as strongly with "Scottishness" as non-Catholics. This transformation in their political attitudes would not have been possible if they routinely experienced religious discrimination in the workplaces and professional offices of Scotland.
I believe that we are seeing a historic integration of the descendants of the Irish-Catholic immigrants of earlier times into the mainstream of Scottish society.
But how has this come to pass? A number of influences have contributed. Deindustrialisation in the 1980s destroyed the ethos of discrimination in shipbuilding, engineering and steel manufacture. The new foreign-owned firms that moved into "Silicon Glen" were totally dismissive of old Scottish prejudices, while the mushrooming growth of the public sector created new job avenues for university-educated Catholics.
The welfare state and the growth of education were indeed the saviours of the Catholic population. The former raised living standards for everyone, irrespective of their ethnic or religious background. The latter extended the ladder of opportunity for Catholics from manual labour into the professions. By the mid-1970s, Catholic schools were closing the gap on their non-denominational counterparts; by the 1990s they were outperforming them by sending proportionately more working-class pupils to university.
The social context of discrimination has also changed radically. In the 1950s only a tiny minority of Catholics married outside their community. Today the ratio is running at more than 50 per cent. Such levels of inter-marriage are both a cause and a consequence of sectarianism's decline.
To conclude that animosity against Catholics in Scotland is extinct would be wrong. It still endures in the confrontations between Rangers and Celtic (despite the fact that "Protestant" Rangers now fields more Catholic players than does "Catholic" Celtic); in the annual parades of the Orange Order; in the tiny fringe groups of supporters in Scotland for the IRA and the Ulster Defence Association; and the sniping from some quarters about Catholic schools. Nevertheless, over the past 30 years there has been an enormous improvement.
In the 1980s, even the worst economic crisis since the 1930s failed to intensify religious tensions; the historic visit of the Pope to Scotland in 1981 was regarded as an ecumenical triumph, attracting negligible protest; and the Ulster conflict has never boiled over into Scotland despite the close historical links with that part of Ireland. All this suggests that Scotland is in the process of rapidly leaving its old communal hatreds behind.
For Scottish Catholicism after 2000 the threats come not from residual bigotry but from the relentless decline in church attendance, the crisis in vocations and the influence of a materialistic, secular culture.
But perhaps more academic research on the situation of Catholics in Scotland would help determine who is right in this heated debate.
Tom Devine is director of the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, Aberdeen University. His most recent book, The Scottish Nation, 1700-2000 (Penguin) is published September 30, Pounds 25.00.