Analysis: Non-event sends out the wrong message

Same-sex marriage was always going to be an extremely tricky issue for the SNP. In fact, the moral minefield surrounding the issue makes it difficult for most political parties.

One just has to look south of the Border, where David Cameron is facing back-bench pressure from those Tories who object to his plans to recognise gay weddings.

For Alex Salmond, the pressures are slightly different. It is clear the same-sex marriage bill has enough MSP support (from all parties) to get through Holyrood.

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There are, however, vocal objectors – in particular the Catholic Church. The SNP has assiduously wooed the Catholic vote in the west of Scotland. It is a tactic that paid off handsomely in the 2011 election.

There is also the fact that one of the SNP’s most generous donors, Sir Brian Souter, was a prominent figure in the Keep the Clause campaign of a decade ago, which fought to retain the Section 2A legislation that forbade the promotion of homosexuality in the classroom. But so far Sir Brian has studiously maintained his silence over this issue.

For those reasons, it is a smart move for the government to declare that MSPs will have a free vote on gay marriage if and when a bill reaches parliament.

Yesterday’s announcement that the government will not meet the Church’s demands for a referendum will provide some succour to the many SNP MSPs who believe a modern Scotland should recognise same-sex marriage. But at the same time theywill be dismayed by yesterday’s non-event.

Ministers have had seven months to consider the issues. As far as those who believe in same-sex marriage are concerned, yesterday’s prevarication sends out the wrong message at a time when the SNP could be setting the agenda across the UK.

The momentum in favour of same-sex marriage is almost unstoppable, and any attempt to slow down would damage the government’s reputation.