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I don't think healing will be necessary after the big vote

The Queen's intervention in the independence debate, in her carefully worded letter to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, seemed at face value to be inoffensive:

a big, genteel dollop of motherhood and apple pie.

She recognised the role of the Kirk in holding the people of Scotland together, and prayed that whatever the referendum outcome, people of faith and goodwill would work together for the social good of Scotland. You could hardly get less controversial than that.

But wait a minute: if you read it carefully it does not seem quite so bland. The Kirk has a role in holding the people of Scotland together? Really? The Church of Scotland, sometimes to its credit, occasionally to its disgrace, has been a strongly divisive force in Scotland. It has hardly managed to hold itself, let alone Scotland, together, having suffered splits and secessions for most of its distinguished history.

The most spectacular split was of course the Disruption of 1843, when it broke in two. A totally new church was formed, and the new church and the old one then engaged in an unseemly period of competitive church building, when the money could have been much better spent on social amelioration.

And sadly, there have been periods when the national Kirk was anything but a force of healing and reconciliation. Within the memory of some older Scots alive today, it led bigoted and racist anti-Catholic and anti-Irish campaigns that besmirched Scotland between the two world wars. To be fair, the Kirk has been keen to place that terrible period very much in the past, and it has completely changed its ways.

But it has usually been eager to engage, often truculently and defiantly, in politics. Indeed the most outspoken critics of the process that led to the Union of 1707 were fiery Church of Scotland clerics. They were eventually quietened by the London Parliament which produced supposed guarantees for the historic rights of the Kirk, and these were duly were included in the Union treaty. Yet a key provision of the Union settlement, regarding the Kirk, was to be breached as early as 1712. That was shameful.

The history of Scotland is full of splendid documents every bit as great as England's Magna Carta. The moving Declaration of Arbroath is the most famed. Written by a cleric, in effect it told the King that he was a monarch on sufferance: as long as he was loyal to his subjects and their aspirations they would be loyal to him. Much the same theme permeates the National Covenant of 1638, a more legalistic but in places utterly magnificent document.

This is not abstruse historical irrelevance. It is rather part of the great and proud narrative of our nation, part of its sense of itself and its understanding of its ongoing journey.

The current referendum debate is robust and for the most part mature. There may be the odd zealot polluting cyberspace but the politicians have generally been decent and responsible. Of course, there have been some aberrations. I think the lowest point came in January when Alistair Darling, leader of the No campaign, said that Scots should be shivering with fear at the prospect of independence.

But because the debate has been for the most part healthy and ameliorative, we hardly require reconciliation. The campaigns are replenishing a sense of civic engagement. Indeed as Dennis Canavan noted the other day, they are helping to revive that magnificent institution, the public meeting.

Funnily enough, I was involved in an earlier attempt to resuscitate the public meeting, when the Very Rev Andrew McLellan and I took part in a series of six " roadshows" across Scotland in the summer of 2002. The meetings were very well attended. They were about - wait for it - the future of the Church of Scotland. One or two people remarked then that it was time for a general revival of the public meeting. Well, that revival has come at last, as a result of the current campaigns, and that is all to the good.

Meanwhile the contemporary Church of Scotland remains over cautious, even timid, and hardly true to its traditions. Today it will have a debate on the independence issue, but there will not be a vote. A bit like taking your clothes off, getting into the bath, but not running any water.

I know that the current Moderator, John Chalmers, has promised a reconciliation service after the vote in September. But why exactly do we need reconciliation? Is this not just a tad patronising? We are a mature nation. We are not - yet - a nation-state, but we know how to behave and conduct ourselves when it comes to politics and debate. I'd hope that both the moderator and the monarch can understand that.

Of course, not everyone agrees. An academic from - possibly significantly - the University of Ulster, has warned that things could get "very nasty" as the referendum approaches. Is there, in this kind of talk, an element of the lighthouse inviting the storm, to use the old, ominous phrase?

Most debates have an element of potential division; if division were to be altogether avoided, debates would become sterile and ultimately meaningless. Politics is necessarily a divisive business. It could hardly be anything else. What is horrendously divisive is a civil war, or something close to it, something like what the people of Ukraine are going through at the moment. Surely nobody is suggesting or hinting that anything similar could occur in Scotland?

And no decent person could deny that divisions should be healed, sooner or later; sooner if they have become rancid and bitter. But I think that come this October, whatever the vote the previous month, Scotland will be, if not at ease with itself, certainly just as calm and orderly as it was last October.

I'm on the Yes side but some of the folk I respect and like most are on the No side. I disagree with them vehemently, but if their side wins, I shall accept it, and hope that I may go on liking and respecting them. In some ways I'm probably not a typical Scot, but in writing what I've just written, I'm absolutely sure I am typical. We can have and we do have heated and passionate arguments, but our real divisions are nothing to do with our intense political debates.

These real divisions do exist, and no-one should deny this. There's a lot wrong with Scotland; that could no doubt be said of every nation in the whole world. We have a serious problem with inequality. And there is of course far too much drink and drug fuelled violence in our country. That's nasty and corrosive, particularly when it affects vulnerable children. But it's been going on a long time and it's nothing whatsoever to do with our referendum debate.

So I'd say to both the Moderator and the Queen: Sure, let's have reconciliation and healing. Where and when they are needed.

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