I WROTE a while ago that the debate about same-sex marriage was “the SNP’s Section 28 moment and just as unmanageable”. In retrospect, that did the previous Labour/Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive a disservice, for in 2000 ministers took a clear line on repealing Clause 2A (as it was known in Scotland) and despite a lot of sabre-rattling from the Catholic Church, Brian Souter and so on, did precisely that.
Alex Salmond’s instinct when trying to square the circle of competing interests, by contrast, is to find a compromise that keeps everyone happy. The trouble is, same-sex marriage is not an issue which fits easily into this strategy. In essence, you’re either for gay marriage or you’re not, it’s difficult – although the SNP manage it on a range of other issues – to be both for and against.
In deciding how to respond to its own consultation on proposals to legislate for same-sex marriage, the Scottish Government has three options. In political terms none of them are ideal, but such are the decisions that constitute what Stanley Baldwin called the endless adventure of ruling men.
The first is to legislate, as planned, for full civil and religious same-sex marriage. Pros: it’s arguably the right thing to do, giving equality under the law and boosting the SNP’s progressive credentials. Cons: The Catholic Church, with whom the SNP has long enjoyed good relations, would be less than happy, while certain SNP MSPs might rebel.
Second, a compromise under which legislation creates civil same-sex marriage but not religious (this is the option being pursued, rather halfheartedly, in England and Wales). Pros: it could be pitched as a reasonable compromise in the circumstances. Cons: neither the Catholic Church, which doesn’t want any form of gay marriage, nor campaigners like the Equal Marriage campaign, will be happy.
Finally, the Scottish Government could kick the whole thing into the long grass. Pros: it removes the problem, at least for the time being, and reflects – arguably – the weight of consultation responses. Cons: it would seriously undermine the SNP’s liberal credentials, equality campaigners would feel betrayed, and certain pro-gay marriage SNP MSPs could go public with their criticism.
The politically brave thing to do would be to go for option one and take the consequences. After all, a majority of MSPs already support the move, the Catholic Church couldn’t really switch its support to another party (all five with Holyrood representation support reform) and if Sir Brian Souter tried to stage another referendum (a la Section 28) he would most likely be ostracized.
But then being politically brave is made almost impossible by the independence referendum due in the autumn of 2014. Already strangely conservative in domestic terms (despite lots of “radical” posturing), the referendum has rendered the First Minister almost inactive. Thus last Tuesday’s wobble over a statement of intent on same-sex marriage.
And it was almost certainly a wobble, for the press had been briefed in advance that a) an announcement would be made and b) it would be in favour of legislation for gay marriage. Tuesday afternoon came and went, and, tellingly, even the most loyal Nationalists on twitter squirmed when it became clear the Scottish Government had opened a large tin of fudge at its Cabinet meeting.
Suddenly there were legal issues (why did those come as a surprise after almost a year?), the Equalities Bill might need to be amended (oh, the irony of Nationalists hiding behind UK legislation), and so on. The First Minister even appointed a Cabinet sub-committee to tell him what he already knew. It didn’t look good for the obvious reason that it wasn’t.
Alex Salmond’s public utterances since have compounded the impression that on this issue he’s struggling to offer coherent leadership. On Wednesday evening he was interviewed at length by Newsnight Scotland’s Gordon Brewer and managed to say precisely nothing. It was a sensitive debate, he argued, and every point of view deserved his respect and attention.
This, for those with long memories, was basically the line he took during the row over Section 28 twelve years ago. Back then Salmond was reluctant to take sides for fear of splitting his party (the Ewing dynasty weren’t too hot on repeal), offending the Catholic Church and also Brian Souter, then emerging as one of the SNP’s most generous financial backers.
More than a decade later, only now as First Minister, the SNP leader finds himself in much the same position, with the added complication of a consultation that – by all accounts – is significantly weighted against same-sex marriage. Public opinion, however, has shifted, becoming significantly more liberal than it was during the Section 28 affair in the first year of devolution.
Salmond said during last year’s election campaign that he was “minded” to support same-sex marriage, but then the First Minister is a pragmatic sort of chap who can easily change his mind when circumstance – and indeed political expediency – requires it. Even if his Government does back reform in a week or so the damage has already been done. As the old adage goes, he who hesitates is lost.