MSP says "faith isn't a private thing"
Highland MSP Dave Thompson says that faith is not to be hidden away; and that politicians should articulate what they believe in spiritual matters.
Ed preface: The following is an edited extract of an article based on an interview with Highland MSP Dave Thompson who serves as the SNP member for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch in the Scottish Parliament. Dave's constituency is about 4500 square miles, and it stretches from the Black Isle in the East of the Highlands just north of Inverness right over to Skye, taking in Dingwall and Plockton, across to Lochaber, Glencoe, up to Aviemore and round the edge of Inverness.
Dave Thompson SNP MSP
Growing up in Lossiemouth with a trade unionist father in the hometown of former Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, and cutting his teeth in "active trade unionism" in the fish sheds as a teenager, Dave Thompson's early life experiences could have sent him straight into active Labour party membership.
However, Dave chose a different path, a life spent in support of the SNP in pursuit of Scottish independence, and he is now in his second term as an SNP MSP, this session as the constituency MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch.
"My father was a trade unionist in Lossie… and of course away back in the 30s it was a bit like now in many ways that there was recession and there were problems, and one of the things he'd tell me was that bosses would just turn round and say to you 'if you won't do the job for this money there's plenty folk outside who'll do the job for even less than I'm paying you'".
Dave's father would frequently try to gather all of his fellow bakers in the town to go over to Elgin for trade union meetings, and although around 30 people would be interested, only two or three people would turn up, "because most just didn't want to put their heads above the parapet. It was actually quite difficult to be a trade unionist in Morayshire in those days, because it was a very Conservative area, whereas being a trade unionist in Red Clydeside would have been really easy because everyone was a trade unionist, they were all Labour. So he was one of the few Labour voters in Moray."
Recognising when something doesn't seem right and speaking up about it proved to be highly significant and formative in Dave's political career years later, when he was seeking election to the Scottish Parliament in 2007.
"I was actually the very last MSP to be elected in Scotland in 2007, and that gave us our majority of 1 over Labour: they had 46 and we got 47."
However, Dave's election did not run entirely to plan. Recognising that he would not take the constituency seat on this occasion, Dave focused on the calculations which would allocate the list seats:
"We won four constituency seats, so I knew that we should be getting at least one list seat, if not two."
Much to Dave's surprise, the Returning Officer called together the prospective candidates and announced an allocation which awarded no seats to the SNP.
"He made to go to the podium to announce the result. Once the Returning Officer announces the result, that is the legally binding result, and if you want to change it you have to go through a court process that can take some time. Myself and my agent, we looked at each other and thought there's something wrong here".
Just as he had done in the fish sheds in Lossie, Dave voted with his feet, and stood in front of the Returning Officer and challenged the result. What transpired to have been an error in which not all columns in a computer spreadsheet had been selected, thus skewing the calculation, would have had far wider implications:
"If the original result had stood, Labour would have had 47, we would have had 45. Labour would have had the biggest party, Jack McConnell would have been the new First Minister. Of course we would have challenged, and we would have won the challenge because the calculations were wrong, but it would have stopped our momentum, the whole thing would have faltered, and I don't think we could have done what we did, coming in and running the government as a minority government. So I was really glad we'd challenged that, as it gave us our majority and allowed us to form the first SNP Government."
Dave is a Christian and is very open about his preference to work for six days and keep Sunday free as far as possible for church and family commitments. Dave went to Sunday School until his early teens, but recognises that:
"I went my own way for many many years and it wasn't until I was in my early forties God got a grip of me and pulled me back in and I started getting back to church".
When he returned to church, Dave initially worshipped at the local Baptist Church, but when it closed down, he joined his local Church of Scotland, the denomination he was christened into as a child.
Reflecting Biblical references which give him inspiration, Dave is immediately drawn to Daniel as
"inspiring in terms of what you need to be and what you need to do, sticking to your principles and so on", but he also speaks highly of his copy of the Poverty Bible, which highlights all of the passages relating to poverty and social justice, which emphasises "that there is so much in the Scriptures to do with justice and social justice". He speaks passionately about the positive role his faith plays on his role as an MSP:
"I think that Christians have to be in the world but not necessarily part of the world and a lot of what happens round and about us is to do with social justice, and I'm convinced myself that reading the Scriptures… the views of Jesus Christ are political in so many ways, in terms of dealing with injustice and unfairness and everything else."
Dave is a founder member of a new grouping called Christians for Independence which is in the process of affiliating to the Yes Scotland campaign. The group organises a service at the SNP conferences, because the conferences run over a Sunday and at the last two conferences they have organised fringe events, one about persecution of Christians and one about 'should Christians have faith in independence'. Dave's vision for the group is that they continue to develop "with a view to being actively involved in the Yes Campaign, so we can get the message across to Christian people and answer the kind of questions that Christian folk may want to ask."
Christians' involvement in politics is something that Dave recognises is a difficult topic for some:
"I know that there are some people who read the opposite into it, the Lord's Kingdom is the only kingdom that you need to engage with",
but he is very firmly of the opinion based on his reading of the Bible:
"that Christians need to be active in the public square… I think if you read the Gospels and so on … I think it is quite important that Christians do get involved, and also that we don't hide ourselves away, that we are open about the fact that we are Christians. I'm not saying that we should be preaching at people all the time, but letting them know that we are Christians, and you can do that in very simple, very subtle ways, just by mentioning the fact in conversation. For instance if I'm talking to school children and they ask me what a MSP's life is like, I'll tell them that I'm in Edinburgh Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays and I'm normally in the constituency Fridays to Mondays and that's when I get out and about in the constituency. But I always make the point of telling them that on a Sunday I try not to work if I can help it, I try and do all the work in six days, but that I go to church on a Sunday morning, my family come up to the house, our three daughters and their children - it's a family day for us."
In terms of how his faith affects his political decisions in a day to day sense, Dave notes that the SNP is very good at giving MSPs the freedom to vote according to their conscience on some issues, including assisted suicide and the forthcoming issue about legalising same-sex marriage.
"In the vast majority of other cases, in Parliament my views align pretty well with the party's views on things like anti-nuclear etc. I can honestly say that I've not had any real problem with any of the issues. If I did, then I would make a stand on it, but you know, I don't always agree 100%, but I've never felt that I disagree to such an extent that I would need to abstain or vote against any of the issues in Parliament; but I would if I felt that there was something quite fundamental. … I did take a different stand on party policy on NATO membership as I felt it would make it more difficult to get rid of nuclear weapons from an independent Scotland, so opposed the leadership at our annual conference. We just lost the vote but now that the party has democratically decided its position I will accept that."
Dave is very aware that his Christianity, and his openness about his faith, does set him apart from other politicians who choose to keep this aspect of their life more private:
"I just feel that faith isn't a private thing that you keep hidden to yourself as a lot of politicians would maintain- I think they've got it wrong in that respect. I think you need to let people know that you're a person of faith." The portrayal of Christians in the media also does not help: "Christianity is invisible in our society and that's why I think so many people have a caricature view of what Christians are, and they base that on what they see in the tabloids… so people get a distorted view of what Christians are, or they'll see Christians depicted on TV, and they'll be strange characters normally. They're not very often depicted as being good decent people doing decent work in their local communities, so people have a really distorted view of what Christianity is all about. One way to correct that is if Christians made it known to people around them that they are Christians. I'm not saying all Christians are perfect, far from it, none of us are, but lots of Christians do a lot of good work in their communities and if people see that, I think that would go a long way towards rehabilitating Christianity in the public mind, because we don't get a good press."
One of Dave's old school friends whom he still sees sums up the problem nicely: "one of his sayings is 'people don't read the Bible, they read Christians', and I think that's very true".
Footnote: The full text of the article based on the interview with Mr. Thompson can be found on the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office website.
Dave Thompson MSP has been active in supporting the traditional views of marriage and the UK Tour to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.
Further articles cover 'Towards a theology of politics' ; 'Christians and Politics' ; 'Should Christians be involved in Politics?'