Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:52 pm on 18th May 1999.

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Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party 2:52 pm, 18th May 1999

I am sympathetic to the motion, but I start with a slight correction of Mr Fergusson's remarks. If someone decides to make an affirmation, it does not necessarily mean that they are not religious. There are a number of reasons why someone might wish to make an affirmation. A very religious person might choose the affirmation because they did not like the nature of the oath that they were asked to take. Perhaps Mr Fergusson will reflect on that point. I do not think that we should make assumptions about people's religious beliefs on the basis of whether they affirmed or swore an oath-and I speak as someone who swore the oath last week.

I have three points to make. The first is that I speak as an individual. This is a matter of conscience and should be the subject of a free vote for all parties and members. There are some aspects of the motion that I hope the mover will want to confirm. When Mr Fergusson talks about non-denominational, I think he means interfaith; in other words, relating not only to Christian denominations, but to the various other faiths in Scotland. It is important that this Parliament affirms that the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jewish communities are important in the wider Scottish community and that, if we have some form of religious or other observance in our proceedings, it should encompass all the faiths of Scotland. I am sure that Mr Fergusson would not want to suggest that we are talking only about Christian denominations.

My second point relates to an experience that I had earlier this year when I wrote to members of all of the faiths in Scotland to make a suggestion. The Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh took the opportunity of "Thought for the Day" to suggest that he was not in favour of religious observance. I found that quite interesting. It was a bit like the episode of "Yes, Prime Minister" when Jim Hacker was faced with appointing two Church of England bishops, neither of whom believed in God. I am not suggesting for a second that the Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh falls into that category, but I found it interesting that a cleric should take such a position. More interesting was that he took the opportunity of "Thought for the Day", as it is an opportunity allocated to representatives of all of the faiths by the BBC on the basis that it is important to have some sort of observance even among the various news topics of "Good Morning Scotland" and that there is a place for a minute or two's reflection. It was, therefore, interesting that the Bishop of Edinburgh chose that spot on BBC radio to deny that the concept of religious observance might have any validity in the proceedings of the Parliament.

My third point is that those of us who have experience of the Westminster Parliament would not want to reproduce the nature of prayers in that institution, where they have been described as a meaningless ritual. That is not altogether true, because prayers in the Westminster Parliament can be meaningful as a means for people to reserve their seats for the day. However, I am not certain that that is the best reason for people to take part in what should be a solemn observance of worship.

What I had in mind when I wrote to the various denominations and faiths was that there should be a time allocated within parliamentary proceedings, whether daily or weekly, when the religions and faiths in Scotland could be asked to provide a two- or three-minute thought for the day or for the week. That observation might go beyond the day-to-day events that we are debating, and might rise above some of the inter-party battles that we might get into, even in the new politics of this new Parliament. I thought that that would be a good thing, because it would show the strength of unity in diversity. It would be a good thing if the faiths of Scotland were to agree on such a formula.

The last point that I want to make in support of Alex Fergusson's motion is that, when he sums up, he could indicate that this is not a matter for the Parliamentary Bureau alone, but that the Parliament should be taking advice from representatives of the faiths of Scotland. If they could come to us with an agreed formula-something like the daily or weekly observation, spread round the faiths of Scotland-that would be something that this Parliament would do well to consider. Our affirmation of the key role of all of the religions of Scotland in contributing something above and beyond the smoke and battle of politics could be very important indeed to our proceedings.