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by Margaret Taylor
01 October 2023
Majority of MSPs want more freedom to vote with their conscience

Majority of MSPs want more freedom to vote with their conscience

More than half the members of the Scottish Parliament belong to a religion or faith group with just under a quarter (23 per cent) saying that religion plays a very important role in their life.

Exclusive polling carried out by Total Research on behalf of this magazine, found that 55 per cent of MSPs responding belong to or follow a specific religion or faith. Christianity was the dominant religious group cited by MSPs, with the same number (eight) saying they were Catholic as said they were Protestant. A further eight respondents said they were Christian without specifying which denomination. Islam, Hinduism, and Episcopalian were also given as a response. 

In total 53 MSPs took part in the poll – which was carried out over two weeks in mid-September – representing two fifths of the full cohort of Holyrood politicians and giving a snapshot view of the religious make-up of the parliament.

While a greater proportion of politicians (77 per cent) said they were brought up in a religious setting than now practise a faith, a similar proportion (78 per cent) said they felt religion has a place in the public square and a slightly lower percentage (65 per cent) said politicians should be given more freedom to vote with their consciences.

Despite that, just 35 per cent of respondents said they felt directed by the teachings of their religion and only a fifth (21 per cent) said their religion influences how they make decisions in parliament, for example when voting on bills or contributing to debates. 

Though a majority of respondents (55 per cent) said they felt comfortable airing their religious views in public and just 18 per cent  said they felt belonging to a religious group was a barrier to progression in politics, MSPs were divided on the role that religion could or should play in politics.

For one, while religious beliefs are acceptable on a personal level for MSPs, they do not believe there should be any official role for religious groups when it comes to making decisions about the way the country is run.

“I don’t mind politicians who use their religious views to guide their views of the world, or indeed their voting intentions, but I feel like [the] Church has no place in the state,” they said.

“One’s personal religious views are in my view private [and] should not be forced upon others. Too much bigotry and intolerance is masked by ‘religious beliefs’ as if those rights trump all others. Religion ought to stay in the home or one’s place of worship. It should keep out of politics, and politics out of it.”

Others took a stronger stance, with one respondent saying that “religious institutions still have too much influence in Scotland’s civic and political life”.

“Far too many politicians fear the repercussions of small but noisy religious-led pressure groups,” they stated. “Politicians must of course be allowed to hold their personal religious beliefs, and they are likely to be influenced by these beliefs. However, they have to be able to separate their personal beliefs and behaviours from the impact for others of any political decisions. For example, it’s fine for you to oppose abortion and decide never to have one, or wish your partner to have one, but you should not enforce your views on the wider public.”

Some of those taking part in the survey said that religion comes up on a semi-regular basis when talking with constituents, while a minority of MSPs said the people they represent feel their religious views are not reflected in the work of the parliament. Just over half (51 per cent) said religion comes up a few times a year and just under a fifth (19 per cent) said it is raised every few months. A third (34 per cent) said constituents are concerned that religious views are not being represented in policy making.

However, one respondent said MSPs should avoid taking account of religious arguments both for the benefit of constituents and parliamentarians.

“I am strongly against religion and faith having any place in politics,” they said. “While we should always work to ensure that people can practise their faith appropriately, I want to continue to move towards a secular society. If you do hold religious views, I believe you should be able to look beyond these for the benefit of your constituents. The bigotry associated with Scottish football is dangerous and we are seeing that creep slowly into politics.”

An overwhelming majority of respondents – 96 per cent – said they felt sectarianism is still a problem Scotland needs to tackle, with several noting that it is having an impact on politics too.

“Scotland still has spectacular issues with sectarianism, which has seeped into our politics,” one said. “By its very nature, unionism and nationalism attracts the divisions of long-held Protestant/Catholic divisions in society, akin to but thankfully not as destructive as Northern Irish politics. It is there but no one wants to talk about it.” 

Another said that the ability of some football fans to “chant sectarian abuse that would be unacceptable if addressed to an ethnic minority or LGBT person continues to be a major embarrassment to Scotland”. They admonished the MSPs who, they said, “for opportunistic reasons” voted to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football (Scotland) Act, a law that was introduced by the SNP Government in 2012 in a bid to tackle sectarianism. It was ultimately overturned in 2018 after then Labour MSP James Kelly lodged a repeal bill saying the legislation had “completely failed”, was “illiberal”and “unfairly targeted football fans”.

Another respondent to the Holyrood survey spoke of “creeping intolerance” in Scottish politics and alluded to the negative reaction to SNP leadership contender Kate Forbes when she spoke about her religious beliefs during the campaign earlier this year. Though questions were asked about whether ultimate winner Humza Yousaf, who is a Muslim, had arranged to miss a key vote on the 2014 Marriage and Civil Partnership Act, Forbes – who was not an MSP at the time – was broadly criticised for saying she would have voted against it on religious grounds.

“Recent events where a young woman living her faith was wrongly branded unfit for office by those who had previously relied on her skills and talents were upsetting,” the respondent said.

“As someone who does not attend church the hypocrisy of her treatment versus that of a male who partially practises his, but makes a show of it as his identity, gave me huge cause for concern and felt reflective of a creeping intolerance that has entered our politics.

Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf spoke about their religious beliefs during the SNP leadsrship contest

"There must be space for those of all faiths and none to exercise their conscience on political matters. Scottish society is diverse; tolerance and acceptance must work all ways. It is ironic that some of those in elected office who loudly profess to rail against bigotry and discrimination behave in just that way to colleagues of differing views, religions or philosophies.”

Several MSPs spoke about how religious beliefs shape people’s world views and that as such they should be heard and respected in public discourse.

“My religion influences my beliefs in social justice and fairness, and it is these I try my best to live by in practice,” said one. “Politics must be respectful of faith even if it is not observed by politicians,” said another.

Another noted that while they do not believe in “a superior being” they are of the view that “all faiths offer some guidance in how to live as a good human being and thus they all must have a place in our lives”.

Another said that as “everyone has a faith in something, that faith should be allowed to be expressed in a free way” while another noted that “being tolerant of other people's views, whether religious or otherwise, would make Scotland a better place”. 

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