Michael Kelly: Mr Referendum faces a vote he does not want

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Sectarianism is one thing, but same-sex marriage is quite another

I’VE GONE a bit too far”, as the actor said to the bishop. So, over a cup of tea the greatest thespian on the Scottish political stage disarmed objections from the Catholic Church to his proposed anti-sectarian bill. The bishop was rushed through to Bute House on the basis of a strongly worded letter. But after a few soothing words from the First Minister his resistance crumbled like the Tunnock’s teacake he was offered.

A week later, back in his bishop’s palace in Paisley, Monsignor Tartaglia must be wondering what concessions he actually won. First, he was promised that statistics he claimed showed Scotland to be a sectarian society which discriminates against Catholics would be published. That was nothing to do with the bill. They should have been published anyway. But worse, it now transpires that the figures have been destroyed. For years the Church has complaining that these statistics, dating back to 2003, have been locked in the vaults of the Crown Office. In all that time, not once did the First Minster admit that the figures were not there but allowed the Church to continue in its ignorance. The question arises as to whether and when justice secretary, the compassionate Mr MacAskill, knew that the figures no longer existed and if he failed to inform the First Minister who, until last week, continued to promise their publication. There have still been no answers.

Secondly, the First Minister offered a “freedom of speech” concession by inserting a new clause in the bill. If the first promise smacks of bad faith, this one stinks of arrogance. Freedom of speech is not within the gift of the First Minster to stay or allow. Its antecedents go back to the Bill of Rights (1689), of which Rangers fans have been known to chant – in a non-sectarian way, of course, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), of which there has been slightly less celebration on the terracings, and, of course, currently under the European Convention of Human Rights.

It is a measure of the bare-faced cheek of the First Minster that he should offer freedom of speech as a concession. It is a measure of the naivety of the Church that they still accept it as such. The whole bill is a restriction on freedom of speech. I hope the Church understands the implications of the new clause. While the First Minister has at last come out and been specific about one kind of chant that will be banned from football – the political pro-IRA songs of the struggle for independence, his “concession” on freedom of speech to allow for religious expression will, of course, be used to justify chants against the Pope – perfectly legitimate expressions of a religious point of view. And what about challenging the virginity of Our Lady? The First Minster has created a new field for fertile song writers.

However, there is still utter confusion among the SNP on the bill. Humza Yousaf, SNP list MSP for Glasgow, in an e-mail posted on a Rangers’ website, assures fans that “this bill will not criminalise anyone who does not attempt to incite public disorder, football fans can be as unsavoury and offensive as they like to each other – as unpleasant as that may be – without fear of arrest”. Has he told his boss that the bill abolishes breach of the peace?

As I will continue to argue, as long as the SNP government did nothing, it maintained its popularity. Now that it has decided to do things, it shows itself to be as incompetent as any other set of politicians. But it has become so used to basking in the glow of universal approval that it clearly believes it can get away with anything. And in many areas it still is. Witness John Swinney’s astonishingly weak explanation of why he sat back and let the losses of the Edinburgh tram project mount up without intervening. He was fed nonsense, he says, by the company running the project and claims that lets him off the hook.

Team Labour and a new leader might make improvements to the scrutiny to which this government is subjected. But for now it seems that the most effective opposition will come from within the SNP. In an unprecedented move this week, a long-time party stalwart called for Nicola Sturgeon to resign over her support for gay marriage, condemning the move as one which “jeopardised the goal of independence by unnecessarily dividing the party”. This goes to the root of the SNP’s problem. But it also reveals the cynicism of its approach. Here we have one of their former senior strategists admitting that policy differences were suppressed and objecting to the introduction now of controversial items that should only appear on the SNP’s post-independence agenda.

To his voice is added that of Gordon Wilson, the former party leader, who is calling for a referendum of gay marriages. This is not an attractive option for those of us who believe in representative democracy. But it will be a difficult one for Mr Referendum to resist. Alex Salmond is always droning on about sovereignty resting not in the hands of the Crown, nor in any parliament but in the hands of the Scottish people. How can he refuse to allow those people to decide on an issue which many people claim will fundamentally change the institution of marriage and have a profound effect on society?

Given that official statistics show only 1 per cent of the UK population to be gay, this is a minority issue par excellence. It is difficult to understand why the normally astute First Minster has let himself get embroiled in it. He has now opened a debate which will not be about equality but about the very nature of Scottish society.

His proposal to allow same-sex marriage has already been condemned as a “danger” to Scotland and he has been warned of the “extremely destructive consequences” of proceeding with it. This is a position that the Catholic Church wholeheartedly backs. The Paisley prelate may have dropped his criticism of the anti-sectarian legislation. But pressing ahead on same-sex marriage is an issue too far. “This is where I get off”, as the bishop said to the actor.