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Euan McColm: Political consequences of gay marriage

Alex Salmond. Picture: Getty

Alex Salmond. Picture: Getty

  • by Euan McColm
 

THE right of gay people to marry is one of those issues that plays better in parliaments than in pubs.

A majority of voters may support equal marriage, but it never features, in any significant way, in polls of people’s priorities. We worry about jobs, education and the NHS long before we get to gay weddings.

The fact it’s not an issue that particularly engages voters is no reason for politicians to ignore it, however; as a matter of equal rights it deserves attention.

And attention it received at Westminster, last week, when Prime Minister David Cameron had to rely on Labour opponents to see through his equal marriage bill in the face of some stiff opposition from his own Conservative benches.

Of the 161 MPs who opposed a change in the law, 133 were Tories, representatives of the swivel-eyed loon faction of the party currently causing “friends of the Prime Minister” such discomfort. It was a tough day for Cameron, but even his fiercest critics would surely have to concede that he showed a willingness to take a politically difficult decision to lead on an issue he felt to be right.

Cameron did the hard part of leadership: he challenged those who follow him. Alex Salmond, on the other hand, has revealed himself to be cautious about the issue. On gay marriage, it appears a Tory prime minister is more progressive and bold than our Nationalist First Minister, despite his story of Scots as peculiarly open-minded and compassionate.

The SNP’s six MPs did not vote on Tuesday on the basis of a “principle” that they do not participate in matters that affect only England and Wales. But three schedules of the bill, referencing marriages overseas, marriages involving members of the armed forces, gender recognition, and recognition north of the Border of marriages performed in elsewhere, did apply to Scotland. Whatever the Scottish Nationalists’ Westminster group’s reasoning behind the decision to abstain, it certainly made life easier, politically. One of their six, Angus MacNeil, may have found support for the right of gay couples to marry difficult to sell to his constituents in the Western Isles, where the word of Church carries such great weight.

Other SNP MPs may have faced problems with constituents or local parties had they voted in favour of the bill.

What is certain is that, while claiming principle, the SNP’s Westminster team avoided any tricky splits over the issue. And they avoided going off that script that says Scots have a more finely tuned sense of fairness. At Holyrood, the move towards legislation has slowed. Scotland was supposed to be leading the 
way on gay marriage, but MSPs have still to see a bill, even after Westminster has legislated.

Scottish Government sources are ­adamant this weekend that a bill will be introduced to the debating chamber ­before Holyrood shuts up shop, at the end of June, for summer recess.

But that will just be stage one of the process. Matters will be forgotten for the duration of the summer until MSPs return and it can proceed to stage two, where it’ll be examined at committee. Only when that process is complete will the Scottish equal marriage bill move to stage three, when MSPs will vote on it.

There’s no timetable for any of that. Sources close to Salmond say they hope that things can be wrapped up by the early part of next year.

I wonder. There may be – with a poll showing 64 per cent of Scots supporting the right of gay couples to marry – a majority of support for a change in the law. But opposition to it comes from a vocal and powerful minority.

The Scottish Government’s consultation on gay marriage received more than 50,000 responses, with 67 per cent of those opposed. It’s not difficult to see why that might make Salmond slow down a bit. Nothing can be allowed to harm the campaign for Yes votes in next September’s independence referendum.

Those who oppose gay marriage do so with considerable passion. It would be reckless of the First Minister not to ­consider the potential impact on the ­referendum result of a decision on gay marriage taken before Scots are asked the constitutional question.

Certainly, the SNP did much in its first four years in power to Holyrood to woo Catholic voters away from Labour. I see no reason for the First Minister to have changed his mind over the importance of attracting the support of Scottish Catholics – or anyone else, for that matter.

Legalising gay marriage will not win the referendum for the SNP. There’s no constituency of Scots who’d vote Yes only if same sex weddings are allowed.

It might, however, help lose it. With the Yes campaign on less than 30 per cent in the polls, Salmond can ill afford to upset any significant minorities in Scotland.

Not only, but also, a vote on gay marriage will expose the SNP MSPs to the sort of scrutiny that the party’s MPs so neatly avoided on Tuesday.

And the picture won’t be one of smiling unity. A number of Nationalist members are fiercely opposed to gay marriage. The debate, when it comes, may reveal the existence of swivel-eyed loons in the SNP (and Labour – it has them, too).

If the First Minister believed this issue had value for him, politically, he’d have been front and centre, selling it. Instead, his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, has been the lead minister on gay marriage.

Unlike David Cameron, Salmond hasn’t gone out to fight for it. I don’t doubt Salmond’s belief that this legislation is the right thing to do, but it does seem that it has come at the most inconvenient time for him.

Alex Salmond may “hope” to see things brought to a conclusion early next year, but, if there’s the slightest concern of an impact on the referendum result, things may change.

Those who support equal marriage will see the law change, in time. But they may have to wait until after the referendum for it to happen.

Twitter: @euanmccolm

 

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