Ewan Crawford: Marriage differences are beyond name calling
THE same-sex marriage bill offers politicians and activists a chance to display a growing political maturity in Scotland, writes Ewan Crawford
IN HIS first conference speech as Conservative leader David Cameron made a deliberate reference to gay relationships as part of what commentators referred to as his attempt to decontaminate the Tory brand.
Publicly pledging yourself to another, said Mr Cameron, was an important and brave step “whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man”.
At the time this statement itself seemed an important and brave political step for a Conservative leader to make to an audience not famed for its socially liberal sensibilities.
To be fair to the Prime Minister his commitment to this issue seems rather more enduring than his other big theme of that speech: the green agenda, which lasted barely longer than the famous Norwegian husky ride he took in the early months of his leadership.
The Westminster government is now committed to introducing legislation before 2015 to allow same sex couples equal rights to get married in England.
Here in Scotland the SNP government is expected to make its views known today after a consultation exercise which has attracted almost 80,000 responses.
Writing in The Scotsman yesterday the head of the Scottish Catholic Church, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, called for a referendum – the latest move in the church’s strong campaign against gay marriage.
Campaigners for the change reacted equally forcefully, denouncing the referendum proposal as a wrecking tactic which would be “un-Scottish” and unfair.
For senior figures in the Scottish Government, whose instincts are geared firmly towards seeking consensus, this is, to put it mildly, tricky territory.
Mutual incomprehension is not the best basis for seeking that consensus but that is what seems to characterise the two most vocal sides in this debate.
Politicians, from all parties, will be reminded of the difficult start the Scottish Parliament endured in 1999. This could mainly be attributed to the cost of the Holyrood building but also to a divisive and bitter debate over the repeal of what was known as Section 2A (or more popularly section 28) which, among other things, prevented local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality.
Working in the Parliament in 2003 I remember a real sense of nervousness when the issue of civil partnerships arose, which probably prompted the then Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition to pass the issue down to Westminster to resolve.
Much has of course changed since the 2A days. One thing to be hoped for is that wherever people stand on this issue the debate can be held in more reasonable terms.
At Westminster the Conservative minister Greg Barker, has said: “We must now make sure this debate doesn’t polarise opinion again and it’s conducted in a civil and calm way, and we don’t project the worst views of our opponents onto everyone who disagrees with us.”
As we begin to consider this issue in earnest in Scotland this seems like useful advice.
Leaving aside political calculations the issue boils down to a fairly simple one of equality and rights. I find it hard to imagine a situation in which I was told my marriage was somehow unacceptable and illegitimate. I struggle therefore to understand why I should have the right to prevent someone else getting married just because they may have a different sexual orientation from me.
However, it surely also can’t be right to force the Catholic church or any other religious group to carry out marriage ceremonies if they have moral objections.
The Scottish Government’s initial view in the consultation document that it “does not consider it would be appropriate to require religious bodies and celebrants who hold this belief to solemnise same sex marriage” therefore seems a reasonable view. The Catholic Church and others are entitled to seek clarity on this issue.
I suspect that this position – of allowing same-sex marriage but of respecting the wishes of some Christians and other groups not to be compelled to carry out the ceremonies – is one that has a good chance of being accepted by most people.
That does not mean I am pretending that the views of those who feel most strongly about this issue can be reconciled. But nobody needs to be denigrated. Although I clearly have different views from Cardinal O’Brien I still remember the genuine thrill of watching him leading Scottish pilgrims on an impromptu walkabout in St Peter’s Square, Saltire in hand, after his elevation to cardinal.
That seemed an important moment for Scotland and his right to air his views should be respected.
We should, however, also remember that Scotland is not a pioneer in this debate. Similar discussions are taking place elsewhere in Europe and a number of other countries, including the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway have already legislated to allow same-sex marriage.
In terms of social cohesion those countries are often seen as role-models, suggesting that factors other than the legal status of gay marriage are more important in helping to create stable and secure backgrounds for family life to flourish.
Inevitably, at present, in Scotland most issues tend to be seen through the prism of the constitutional debate and whether or not particular issues are good or bad for the SNP.
This, however, is one of the occasions when a range of views will be held within parties and will cut across positions on whether Scotland should be independent.
Ultimately our politicians, of whatever party, have to do what they think is right.
Whatever happens in the independence referendum in 2014, how this debate is conducted and how we treat those who oppose us, will tell us a lot about our country today.
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