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Is Saint Andrew’s Day worth celebrating?

Argument of the Week

NO: Gordon Ross

There is nothing wrong in a day to celebrate a nation and its achievements, indeed such occasions help to form a national identity and a cultural uniqueness.

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However, they should have a relevance that clearly connects with the society they claim to represent.

Many Scots might be surprised to learn that Saint Andrew is the patron saint of Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Greece, Amalfi, the Philippines, Luqa in Malta, and Esgueira in Portugal. And he was the patron saint of Prussia. It is hard to explain exactly why Saint Andrew was also chosen for Scotland.

Saint Andrew the Apostle, according to tradition, was a fisherman born by the Sea of Galilee and crucified in Greece on an X-shaped cross – represented on our national flag. Parts of his body are thought to have been sold to the Romans and his head was considered one of the treasures of the Vatican City. In the 1960s his remains were returned to Greece and placed in the Church of Saint Andrew in Patras. Each year Catholics pay their respects on the anniversary of his death, November 30.

Saint Andrew has no particular relevance to Scotland. In a country that is made up of people from a range of faiths, as well as a fast-growing number who openly do not have any religious beliefs – 27% in the last census – there is no justification for a Christian saint’s day to be celebrated as a national day.

Although the Scottish Parliament introduced the Saint Andrew’s Day Bank Holiday, which designated the day as an official bank holiday, banks are not required to close and employers are not required to give employees the day off. So how are we supposed to celebrate Saint Andrew’s Day? Praying to a ­Christian saint? I can’t see that.

We have collected a variety of dates to celebrate our culture – Burns Day, Homecoming Day and Tartan Day – that are widely promoted abroad to the benefit of Scottish industries. But a holiday or celebration needs to be genuine if it’s to have any real significance for people – the rituals of singing and dancing at Hogmanay, or even guising and apple-dooking at Halloween, do more to reinforce a genuine cultural unity. Saint Andrew’s Day as it stands doesn’t celebrate or represent anything that reinforces the true identity of a modern Scotland.

As a nation we have a culture worth celebrating. We pride ourselves on our history, our intellectual and scientific achievements, our passion and our diversity. In my local barber’s shop I witnessed a heated discussion about the STV programme The Greatest Scot. In all, 35 “great” Scots were proposed – from Robert the Bruce to Chris Hoy – and more have been suggested in pub, barber and online discussions since. Of course, Scots won’t stop celebrating on November 30, but why not use the day each year to celebrate one of our own greats? That’s more fitting for a 21st-century Scotland.

Gordon Ross is treasurer of the Humanist Society Scotland

YES: Azeem Ibrahim

There will always be someone to argue against something as unambiguously positive and celebratory as Saint Andrew’s Day. They’ll say it’s all a load of patriotic nonsense; they’ll say that Saint Andrew never set foot in Scotland, they’ll question why we have to share a saint with the Ukraine, Russia, Greece and so on. Maybe they’ll whinge that it’s too Christian, too partial, or not multicultural enough, and ask why it has to be that particular saint in the first place. But it all misses the point. Let’s face it, nobody thinks Saint Patrick’s Day is really about Saint Patrick; everybody knows it’s all about Ireland. And so it should be with Saint Andrew’s Day. It’s not really about celebrating Saint Andrew, it’s about celebrating Scotland.

And we have so much to celebrate. We have an incredibly inspiring heritage. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again – as a country we have continually punched above our weight. In philosophy, we have given the world David Hume, James Mill and Thomas Carlyle. No less a thinker than Voltaire once said: “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.” In science, Scottish minds can take credit for the invention of the phone, television, penicillin and anaesthetic. In culture, we have produced Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, quite apart from the internationally renowned Edinburgh Festival. All this from a country of only five million people. But we also have an inspiring present. I am particularly proud of the way we have developed an inclusive form of nationalism. Scottish nationalism is not a nationalism which seeks to divide and exclude. Rather, it is one of the most inclusive nationalisms in the world.

Last week, I was at the Illinois Saint Andrew Society – the oldest charity of its type in Illinois – where I had the honour of being awarded its Distinguished Citizen’s Award. The creed of that society says it all. “We welcome everyone,” it runs, who is Scottish “by birth, heritage or simply by inclination.” It is a positive form of nationalism, which brings out the best in people. As a Scottish Muslim who is proud of both parts of my identity, I feel this especially strongly. If we leave Saint Andrew’s Day to those who want to associate Scottish nationalism only with our Christian past, we are sunk. Celebrating our fine Scottish heritage is especially important these days, when there’s a danger of ceding Scottish nationalism to the political Scottish nationalists, and thereby subtly de-legitimising those of us outside the SNP who are still proud of our Scottish heritage and want to see Scotland grow ever-more strong, prosperous and successful.

Last week at the Illinois Saint Andrew Society, nobody there questioned why that fine Scottish society should be named after a saint – they got on with celebrating their shared heritage. That is what Saint Andrew’s Day is all about. That is what I will be doing tomorrow, and I hope you will too.

Azeem Ibrahim is a research scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a World Fellow at Yale

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