FACED with a backbench revolt, David Cameron has responded to deep unease within his own party on the subject of gay marriage by trying to defuse it as a political issue.
After initially declaring support for the idea – he told a party conference that he backed it “not despite being a Conservative, but because I’m a Conservative” – he has subsequently climbed down three times.
First, Cameron ruled that a same-sex couple would not be allowed to marry in a religious ceremony in England, even if they belonged to a denomination that was comfortable with the idea. Then he agreed that members of the government would not have to back equal marriage when it was debated in the House of Commons (usually, ministers are required under collective responsibility to support government legislation); instead they would be allowed a free vote, the same as backbenchers. Then finally he kicked the whole issue into the long grass by leaving it out of the Queen’s Speech last month, meaning it will not be considered by parliament for at least a year.
Here in Scotland, it remains to be seen if First Minister Alex Salmond will similarly try to appease traditionalist opinion within his own party and sections of the electorate, or will press ahead with a reform that is being seen across the western world as a litmus test of whether a government is progressive and liberal, or conservative and illiberal.
Our news story today, revealing there is now a majority of MSPs at Holyrood in favour of equal marriage, is a landmark moment in this debate. It means that Salmond can be reassured that, if he presses ahead with the Scottish Government’s stated intention of bringing forward this historic reform, it will be passed by the Scottish Parliament. It could also be said, however, that it reduces scope for the First Minister to backtrack, if he is so inclined. Any deviation from his gay-marriage plans will not have the fig leaf of being necessary because of parliamentary arithmetic; it will instead be revealed as a political expediency to avoid losing support in the country at large.
Salmond knows the stakes are high. On the one hand, uncompromising support for equal marriage would silence those critics who characterise his government as socially conservative and illiberal. It would also be a sign of an administration willing to take a strong moral stand on equality issues.
However, there are those who warn that the First Minister might pay a political price for such a move. One school of thought about the SNP’s failure to score a breakthrough triumph in Glasgow at last month’s council elections is that a contributory cause was pulpit denunciations of the SNP government’s gay marriage plans in Catholic churches across the city. Salmond is also aware of the extraordinary turnaround in support for the SNP within Scotland’s Catholic population, which goes some way to explaining the party’s extraordinary landslide victory in the Holyrood elections last year. An added complication is the independence referendum, with the SNP the prime mover in the Yes campaign. Anything that undermines support for the SNP could be seen to be damaging the prospects for a Yes.
This, however, is a matter of principle. Polls show most Scots are comfortable with the idea of gay marriage. That view is supported by MSPs and has the full backing of this newspaper. There can be no excuses or backtracking. Over to you, First Minister.
A privilege too far
It would be hard-hearted indeed to begrudge the Royal Family their few days in the spotlight last week as Britain – or at least some of it – joined in the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s ascendancy to the throne. The modernisation of the Windsors has come a long way in 60 years, and there is a new generation of younger royals with genuine popular appeal waiting in the wings. But, as we report today, there is a move by the SNP government to take the public dealings of the royal family behind the shield of a total exemption from Freedom of Information laws with which almost all publicly financed bodies have to comply. This means that important information about the royal family’s finances and decisions will not be subject to the transparency that should be in place in a modern democracy, especially when huge sums of taxpayers’ money are involved. At present, the royal family already enjoy a “qualified” exemption, which means that a public interest test can be applied to any information that they would wish to remain private. Scotland’s new information commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, is right when she argues that that public interest test should remain in place as strenghthening the information barrier only sends out the impression that the Windsors remain a cut above everyone else. Accountability should be the watchword here, not deference.