THE old maxim “Marry in haste, repent at leisure” applies to legislation too.
I welcome wholeheartedly the progress made on equal marriage in England and Wales this week. But let’s not break out the champagne yet. The bill still has major hurdles to pass.
It may yet be gutted altogether. The House of Lords has yet to debate it and there remains the realistic likelihood of a legal challenge even once it is finally approved. The UK bill is still far from the finish line, with a number of bear traps to negotiate yet, and the campaign far from over.
Here in Scotland, we’re still on course. The discussion is different, and I believe the result will be more durable. And the fact that we are finding our own path in Scotland means it is absolutely right that SNP MPs took no part in last week’s Westminster vote. We think it is fundamentally wrong for a Scottish MP to intervene on, say, health or policing in England and Wales when their constituents back in Scotland will not be affected by their vote so they will not be held to account for it.
Besides, it was a vote on the general principles of a bill that simply does not cover Scotland – the bill makes very clear the territorial extent is England And Wales. There are some very technical provisions on cross-border recognition, consular marriage ceremonies and military marriages overseas which have marginal impacts on Scots law, but all of these will be dealt with in general family law and in the passage of the Scots legislation.
We’re lucky in Scotland: we’ve got a government committed to bringing our marriage legislation up to date. It has consulted thoroughly on the principle and now on the bill itself. We’re doing this differently. The Scottish Government is determined to get it done right rather than fast. It’s an approach that will move the public consensus here and will ensure widespread support.
After the debate at Westminster, I fear there will be a degree of resentment from some quarters in England and Wales. However misplaced, if it undermines a durable result then in a democracy it must be taken account of. In California, we saw the reversal of gains made on equal marriage because the hearts and minds of the public had simply not been won.
Two friends of mine who married soon after California legalised equal marriage were simply heartbroken to see Proposition 8 throw the legal basis, and therefore validity, of their relationship into question. That this is still tied up in the US Supreme Court should cool all our heads lest we make the same mistakes.
There were a couple of lessons for Scotland in last week’s debate and vote. Firstly, the vote proves once and for all that no party has a monopoly on equality. There is a dialogue within each and every party, and we need to keep that dialogue going on all fronts.
Secondly, people have strong views on this and tolerance needs to work both ways or it is not tolerance at all. Some of the reaction to those MPs voting against – much as I disagree with their position – went way beyond anything that was acceptable. This is a high-octane subject generating a lot of emotion, but we should maintain civility and exercise respect and restraint.
The Scottish legislation is on course to make a far better job of the change and to do so in full consultation with the people of Scotland. We have a government and a parliament that will listen and respond to the people they serve, and MSPs who will vote on legislation that actually affects their constituents.
I’m confident equal marriage will become a reality in Scotland in late 2014 with the support of the population of Scotland as a whole. I have faith that we’re a respectful, egalitarian bunch. I hope England and Wales get there too.
• Alyn Smith is an SNP member of the European Parliament