Events in Scotland have revealed a fixation with issues of faith and morality in public politics, but this needs to change

When Alex Salmond resigned from the SNP in the face of allegations of sexual misconduct in 2013 (from which he was subsequently cleared), Nicola Sturgeon slipped into his shoes without so much as a contest. Things won’t be half so easy this time round, and the outcome could well impact not only on the future of Scotland, but on the whole political landscape of the United Kingdom.

Few would dispute the tenacity and commitment of Nicola Sturgeon to her job and – in a time when politicians are perceived as motivated predominantly by self-interest – Sturgeon was an unusually driven and principled individual. Whilst recent events such as the Gender Bill debacle were personally and politically embarrassing, her sudden resignation has taken most in Scotland by surprise and left potential candidates woefully unprepared. Such is the consequence, given Nicola Sturgeon’s utter dominance of Scottish politics over the past few decades.

The Deputy SNP leader John Swinney was the obvious choice, but this morning he ruled himself out of the race, citing that his decision is “right for my family, the Scottish National Party and our country”. Swinney served as leader of the party between 2000 and 2004 and didn’t find it a particularly inspiring experience. Admittedly the SNP was then in opposition, but Swinney’s reason points directly to the negative impact that such a task might have on his family life. Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation comment that she had become too polarising a figure and had been worn down by the “brutality” of political life is also both an indictment of public attitudes to politics, and of the political sphere itself.

For many, it was the failure of her Gender Recognition Reform Bill that did the damage, and for Christian campaigners in particular it’s been hugely tempting to conclude that wandering into the moral maze of sexual politics was her undoing. The Bill would have reduced the waiting period for adults to change their legal gender from two years to three months as well as removing the requirement for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria. In effect, determining gender in Scotland would be primarily a matter of self-identification. This may have seemed like a straightforward proposition for a politician, but for some reason Sturgeon seemed entirely unaware of the potential consequences. Firstly, legislation in Scotland necessarily impacts on the laws of the rest of the UK – Mark Drakeford uncompromisingly pushed Wales in Line, but in jittery Tory-led England there were deep reservations about how such a liberal move might be perceived by a public that currently no-one can quantify. There were also more nuanced and subconscious concerns about English primacy and historical antagonisms to Scotland that played into the debacle.

But it was the practicalities of transferring political ideas to real life that exposed the weaknesses in the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill. There may have seemed a simple logic to granting an individual the right to determine their own gender with a minimum of fuss, but the case of Isla Bryson threw all that into disarray. Bryson, who had been convicted of raping two women whilst identifying as Adam Graham, was initially sent to the all-female jail at Cornton Vale in Stirling for assessment. When the story broke there was division and furore over whether Graham’s renunciation of his male identity should be accepted at face value. In the public outcry that followed the inmate was moved out of the female prison estate to the male wing of Edinburgh’s Saughton jail – a decision which only served to inflame the more liberalist sections of society.

Caught between the need to demonstrate equality, inclusion and individual rights, the media storm and the unknown zeitgeist of public opinion, the Scottish Prison Service paused the movement of all transgender prisoners whilst it carried out and urgent review. All that remained was for reporter Tom Gordon of the Herald to pounce on Sturgeon with the simple question “Is Isla Bryson a man or a woman?” for the farce to reach its climax. The bumbling response of Sturgeon was probably one of the most excruciating moments in recent political history.

Sadly, the present preoccupation with driving politics into the sphere of personal sexual morality is only going to make such occurrence more common, as the boundaries between public and private life get increasingly blurred. One can’t but feel that British politics is on the same road as the Catholic Church that crashed its way through the Second Vatican Council. In the wake of sweeping and radical changes in social behaviour and public morality, the Council’s initiator, Pope John Paul XXIII had bold dreams of ‘throwing open the doors’ of the Church to the world, and vice versa. It’s time to “open the windows and let in the fresh air,” he said at the opening session as he hoped that the deliberations would kick-start a process of “updating” (aggiornamento) for the contemporary age.

His death during the Council led his successor Pope Paul VI to grumpily and rapidly shut the doors again, leaving a toxic mixture of unconsidered pronouncements and dashed hopes that the Catholic Church has been trying to untangle ever since.

At the time I was only a young altar server, but I remember vividly our parish priest in rural north Hampshire sternly and stiffly reading out the pronouncement on contraception at Sunday Mass. From my viewpoint on the altar, it was easy to see the shocked and contorted expressions of the congregation. I remember also the dismay and anger afterwards of my father muttering that his Church had “entered the bedroom”. Catholics will understand acutely that Sacramental Marriage is a solemn and direct contract between the couple and God, to which the priest and Church is only a witness. The presumption was that, once a couple had married, their morality was a matter between them and God. Thus, the Second Vatican Council may not have opened the windows to the world but – as my father said – it certainly opened the door to the bedroom.

More than half a century on, the majority of Catholics have no problem with engaging with moral issues in the public sphere. Even though our primary concern ought to be the salvation of our own Soul, it’s perfectly understandable that we extend that into a broader concern for the moral fabric of the transitory world we’re passing through. Unfortunately though, we Catholics seem to have arrived at a point where our responses to matters of human sexual ethics have come to define who and what we are both spiritually and philosophically, when in fact secular society’s engagement with sexual morality forms but a small component of the far greater struggle of daily life.

It too is becoming much the same for our politicians, who are being increasingly sucked into an obsession with LGBT and related issues of sexual identity, when there are far greater social and economic problems that need their urgent attention. It is often said that the moral fabric of society is the basis of all else, but I’d argue that a secure, prosperous and safe society is also the foundation of moral certitude and consistency. Our moral and personal issues emerge predominantly from economic and social uncertainties, which will only worsen the more our legislators become overly preoccupied with relatively insignificant matters of ethics and public morality.

Politicians often complain that it’s no longer possible to anticipate the public mood on any topic, whereas in generations past you could pretty much call the voter reaction on any hot button issue. In the absence of such demographic certainties, it’s inevitable that any opinion can acquire currency. As the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton once said: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

As Scotland hunts around for a successor to Nicola Sturgeon, the obvious front runner would appear to be Kate Forbes. However, the media is already trying its best to make Forbes’ religious beliefs the deciding – and excluding – factor in her nomination. “Her views on abortion and same-sex marriage could be problematic for the SNP,” the Guardian announced in a sub-headline this morning – the assumption being that the public (or perhaps just our legislators?) wouldn’t tolerate someone who is being labelled as “imperilling” liberal, democratic progress.

Of course, whether liberal democratic ‘progress’ is what the majority of the public wants is anyone’s guess. Scottish legislators were convinced that the public would vote in favour of an independent Scotland, and they got it wrong – just a David Cameron was utterly convinced that the public would vote to remain in the European Union.

As politics elsewhere in Europe has demonstrated, attempting to call the public mood these days is highly dangerous, as is the assumption that modern society is on some kind of irreversible journey towards liberalism. For my money, society still has its own moral conscience, and it’s neither aligned to liberalism, nor to atheism.

The great danger with becoming fixated with very narrow aspects of the public agenda is that politicians then ignore the more urgent social problems, and – as history has shown repeatedly – that’s what lets in the despots.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian.