Marriage of inconvenience

Shelby Barrett-Whitmore, hugs her fathers Toby Barrett and Joe Whitmore (R). Picture: AFP
Shelby Barrett-Whitmore, hugs her fathers Toby Barrett and Joe Whitmore (R). Picture: AFP
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The controversy surrounding same-sex marriage is shaping up to be the biggest battleground of them all for the SNP, writes Eddie Barnes

IT was, declared Alex Salmond on Friday night, a “mighty” response. The first phase of the government’s referendum on independence, on which the future fate of Scotland hangs, had just closed. Fully 21,000 people, he noted, had sent in their views to the SNP government on how and when it should be conducted.

Barack Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage this week. Picture: Getty

Barack Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage this week. Picture: Getty

Mighty? “If that’s a mighty response, then ours is almighty, in more than one way,” one religious campaigner declared, after watching the First Minister on TV that night. The 21,000 responses to the independence referendum may or may not have been “fantastic” as SNP ministers claimed last week. But they were undoubtedly smaller than the 60,000 to 70,000 responses that, it emerged last week, have been submitted on the SNP government’s proposals to legalise same-sex marriage.

In the Scottish Government script, this was the weekend when the first stage of the referendum debate came to an end. In the real world, it appears that something even more controversial has caught hold of the public’s attention.

Gay marriage is gripping the political world. Last Wednesday, US President Barack Obama kicked off the debate. The night before a multi-million dollar fundraiser in Los Angeles, hosted by George Clooney, and attended by the cream of American’s west coast liberal glitterati, Obama made things clear. “Same-sex couples should be able to get married,” the president declared. It may have been symbolic: Obama has no power over the states which decide marriage law in America. Nonetheless, it was the first time a US president had backed the change in the law. Obama had chosen his side – as well as ensuring that a few more Democrat dollars poured into his coffers.

On the same day, amid the pomp and ceremony of the Queen’s Speech in the Houses of Parliament on the banks of the Thames, it became clear that David Cameron had ducked the same issue. The issue of gay marriage in England and Wales, which the Westminster government is consulting on, failed to make an appearance in the list of legislation for the coming 12 months. Obama had picked up the ball; Cameron was kicking it into the long grass.

So where does that leave Scotland? Next month, the decision on how to handle those 70,000 responses is due. And Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon – who has led on the government’s own proposals – are likely to make their views known on what to do about it. Both, like Obama, have already stated their personal backing for this social revolution. Unlike Obama, however, it is they who decide the law. Facing them is a highly motivated campaign – with some familiar faces – which now has the potential not just to derail their reforms but, more drastically, to dent the SNP’s hopes to bring the nation together in a common cause prior to the referendum. Ten years ago, Scotland’s politicians were rocked by the furious row over the repeal of Section 28, and on the way children were taught about homosexuality. Are we set for a repeat? And how will Salmond play it?

“This is one of those rare occasions where I have some sympathy for Alex Salmond,” says Patrick Harvie, the Green and gay MSP. Last week, says Harvie, Salmond played it right. The topic had come up at First Minister’s Questions. Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie – another leading backer of gay marriage – had urged Salmond to show the same unequivocal backing for gay marriage as had Obama. The First Minister, however, who stated last year that he was “supportive” of gay marriage, urged calm. “Regardless of my views, or his views, he must understand that equal marriage is an issue that excites substantial interest among large sections of the Scottish population. If we are to get a resolution of the issue – as I hope we do – that is entirely satisfactory and which is in keeping with Scottish tradition and the tradition of this parliament, whatever else we do and whatever side of the debate we are on, we must treat the matter sensitively and properly.”

Harvie said on Friday that Salmond was observing the correct procedure, and that Rennie’s demands for clarity were misguided. The law change, he believes, is in the bag: “He [Salmond] has been very clear about his personal views. This government has said they are minded to legislate and very clearly the majority of their MSPs are in favour. I would be astonished if they were to back off now. I will bet Willie one of his favourite pints about this.”

According to this view, the issue is all but settled. All four party leaders, including the Tory Ruth Davidson, who is herself gay, are supportive of the change. A few MSPs have expressed reservations, but they remain in the minority. The path is therefore clear for Salmond and Sturgeon to back the measure at the end of next month, with the legislation coming into force by the end of 2013. With reports that Cameron is now equivocating over similar reforms in England, the talk in Scotland now is that – as with the pioneering smoking ban – the SNP has the chance to lead the way. It is Salmond, campaigners note, who declared Scotland could be a “progressive beacon”, lighting the way for those in the south. Tom French, director of the Equality Network, declares: “It is a really good opportunity for Scottish politicians to back up what they have been saying about Scotland; that this is a progressive beacon and that it is capable of showing leadership to the rest of the UK.”

He added: “We are often asked to compare ourselves to other countries around us like Iceland, Belgium and the Netherlands, all of which have either legalised same-sex marriage, or are about to do so. In the context of the independence debate, this is a good indicator of whether Scotland is to be a progressive beacon.

“It is an indicator for liberal people in Scotland to show what kind of country Scotland might be if it does become independent.”

All settled? One of the dangers of a united parliament is when its occupants surmise a united country and act on that assumption. And, unlike the parliament, on the issue of gay marriage, the country is not united at all. The comforting thought for supporters of gay marriage is that, represented by the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the opponents to the plans are a retreating force, lost to history. That is not the case. A well-funded campaign “Scotland For Marriage” has already been getting stuck in, pushing a claimed 300,000 leaflets through people’s doors in the run-up to the local government elections. Once Salmond and Sturgeon make their case next month, the campaign is likely to get going properly.

Drawn from people in the Catholic, Muslim and Evangelical community, the group met last week to set out its own strategy for the coming campaign. It intends to keep going for six months or more. Lawyers, ad agencies and advisers are on board. This, the campaign says, is far bigger than the law change over Section 28. For the campaign, the issue here is the fundamental one about the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Peter Kearney, the spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland, adds: “We have been talking about having a second question in the independence referendum. Given that three times as many people have responded to the consultation on same-sex marriage as have done so on the independence referendum, shouldn’t there be a referendum on same-sex marriage as well? The changes to the law will have huge knock-on effects throughout society. This is no longer a matter than can be left to parliament.”

By way of appeasement, SNP ministers are offering safeguards to these church groups opposed as a way of sweetening the pill. Their plans would not force, for example, religious bodies opposed to gay marriage to carry out such ceremonies.

The Equality Network goes further to state that it does not believe, for example, that a pro-gay rights Church of Scotland minister should be allowed to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony if the Kirk as a body decides it does not approve. The consultation is also considering whether to rule out any religious element to same-sex marriage at all, as in England.

As for churches being forced to perform ceremonies they don’t want to, why would anyone challenge their right to religious freedom? Looking at the international picture, French says: “Over a decade, not a single faith group has been encouraged or forced to conduct a same sex marriage.” The same would apply here, he says. SNP figures like Salmond have sought to argue that it is better they do the reforms with such safeguards than allow it to be left to a private members’ bill – when who knows what might go through.

None of these reassurances have made a difference with opponents. Their point is that the change in the definition of marriage is fundamental. It would only be a matter of time before a faith group was accused of discriminating, they argue. But the law change is more far-reaching than that. Kearney asks, for example, what happens, when, in the wake of a change in the law, Catholic Schools refuse to accept the new definition of marriage, as they will.

The issue arose last week in Wales after the Catholic Education Service there invited schools to ask pupils in Catholic schools to sign a petition opposing gay marriage. It prompted the Welsh government to issue a letter to Catholic school leaders to give a “balanced perspective”. That instruction, from Education Minister Leighton Andrews, has set the alarm bells ringing in Scotland’s Catholic community. If gay marriage is legalised, Kearney asks: “Will they [the government] allow us to teach what Catholic schools are set up to do?” Might the introduction of gay marriage put the position of Catholic schools in the frame again?

Politicians like Rennie suspect that, with all these complications emerging, Salmond may be having second thoughts and is considering finding a way out. He has noted that Salmond’s main party-funder is Stagecoach chief Sir Brian Soutar, who led the opposition to Section 28 more than ten years ago. While he has not said anything publicly about the gay marriage plans, he is known to disapprove of the reforms.

Other socially conservative SNP figures say they are worried about the effect the plans may have on the key plan to win the independence referendum. Some blame Sturgeon for having pushed the issue onwards – with comparisons being drawn between her and Salmond in this controversy, and Wendy Alexander and the reluctant Donald Dewar in the row over the reform of Section 28.

One Nationalist declared: “People are saying ‘how do we get out of it’? People who have come over to the Nationalist cause are now leaving it because of this.” Some SNP figures suggest the plan did not help the SNP in areas like Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire in the council elections last week. “They overlap with the Diocese of Paisley, Motherwell and Glasgow,” said another SNP supporter.

Why, some Nationalists argue, has Salmond allowed himself to walk into what is set to be the mother of all battles with a significant chunk of the population, just at the very moment when every vote needs to be won? “It may only be 2 per cent of people who might change their views about us because of this. But 2 per cent might be all we need in 2014,” says one. Scotland for Marriage campaigners increasingly believe the SNP government will find a way to delay the decision, perhaps by blaming the hiatus at Westminster.

Salmond and Sturgeon have kept the row out of the spotlight for the first half of this year, but the decision is coming soon. In response to a call for an interview, the SNP on Friday issued a statement from MSP Joe Fitzpatrick, one of the party’s leading advocates for change.

He said: “The First Minister made his personal position perfectly clear on same-sex marriage during the election, when he said that he is supportive – which as a matter of fact was over a year before President Obama set out his position. We, of course, have gone further than anything that is happening in the States by launching a consultation on the issue, which is currently being analysed. Given that we are in a consultation process, it’s important that government respects the integrity of that process by not pre-judging it.”

It is hard to see how, when a decision is made, Salmond can find an answer that keeps everyone happy. A battle awaits.