MSP opens SNP Pandora’s box

John Mason’s motion on same-sex marriage might mark only the beginning of the SNP’s troubles on the issue.  The newly elected Glasgow MSP is keen to ensure that “no person or organisation should be forced to be involved in or to approve of same-sex marriage”.  It has had the effect of igniting the debate before it has actually begun and has managed to create an internal stushie among SNP members and elected representatives.  Pete Wishart MP, who is having a busy summer, felt compelled to point out that “it is important that a lot of us in the SNP disagree fundamentally with that view”.  The motion has also managed to awaken Opposition MSPs from their torpor, with the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Greens both laying amendment, attracting considerable support from SNP MSPs and others.

If John Mason wanted to create a stramash, he can consider it a job well done.  It all rather begs the question, why and more pertinently, why now?

The Scottish Government is yet to consult on the matter and the content of that consultation is presently unknown.  That exercise would provide a more timely and appropriate opportunity to engage in the debate and put forward concerns and disagreement.  John Mason might have felt it necessary at this juncture to lay down a marker to the prospect of a whipped vote on a bill, but there is nothing to suggest that a free vote would not be allowed.  Indeed, precedent suggests this is precisely the sort of issue upon which a free vote might be held.  In his excellent post on the issue, Lallands Peat Worrier welcomes “the disagreement and discourse which this has already prompted in the SNP group – which I fancy will, in due course, be felt in other parts of Holyrood too.”

On this latter point, LPW is spot on.  The SNP will not be the only group to have dissenters to the bill but oppositional disagreement is always easier to manage and much less newsworthy.  It is the potential for dissent, and its size and locale, within the SNP group which is likely to piqué the interest of the media.  John Mason could well have opened the SNP parliamentary group’s Pandora’s box.

For clues on where the problems might lie for the Scottish Government, one only has to revisit the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007, a law enacted under the last Labour/Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive and which ushered in the right of same-sex couples to adopt children.  During Stage 3 of the bill, amendments were laid which would have prevented such a move.  By one Roseanna Cunningham MSP.  Now Minister for Community Safety and one half of the Justice team who might reasonably be expected to manage any legislation on same-sex marriage.

Moreover, her amendments were supported by two other SNP MSPs:  Michael Matheson, now Public Health minister, and Brian Adam, now Chief Whip.

The amendments were defeated and Roseanna, Michael and Brian all went on to abstain at the final Stage 3 vote to pass the whole bill.  But the amendments prompted a remarkable intervention by the then shadow Education Minister, Fiona Hyslop MSP:

The Scottish National Party rejects the amendments in Roseanna Cunningham’s name and will vote against them, because they do not reflect the SNP’s view. …I want a Scotland in which children’s rights are paramount. I do not want to hear about the old arguments and the old ways of Scotland. I want a new, modern and progressive Scotland. Sometimes, it is easy to be popular and more difficult to be right. Let us be right.

The whole debate and voting patterns can be viewed in the Official Report of the Scottish Parliament.

Given their opposition to same-sex adoption, presumably on faith grounds, it is likely that these three Ministers would have some difficulty supporting a Scottish Government-led bill to legislate for same-sex marriage.  And even if the Government was to try to ease the bill’s pathway by shifting it from justice, the obvious place for it would be under Nicola Sturgeon’s portfolio which includes equalities issues.  Yet, that would simply be passing the parcel from one potential dissenting Minister into the arms of another, in the form of Michael Matheson.  No solution at all then.

There are other potential sources for rebellion within the SNP parliamentary group.  There are some who, like the three Ministers and John Mason MSP, might feel unable to support the bill on faith grounds.  But there are others whose motivation is less clear-cut.  Bill Walker epitomizes this type of MSP – white, male, of a certain age and a certain background – and there are several warming the back benches for the SNP.  Whether or not they support or oppose the bill’s measures remains to be seen, but there is a risk that some who might have stayed below the parapet, will be emboldened by the existence of a number of other opponents both within and without their own parliamentary group.

Should they oppose it, the lack of a clearcut rationale for dissent would be particularly problematic for the Scottish Government.  Most of us might not share the faith dissenters’ beliefs, but they would at least have a basis, however misguided and unacceptable supporters of same-sex marriage consider them to be.  Whisper it, but we could be in for a 21st Century re-run of the Section 2A debate.

All that is currently missing is an intervention from Souter himself.  Which really would be the SNP Government’s worst nightmare.




12 thoughts on “MSP opens SNP Pandora’s box

  1. Pingback: The SNP – The Trouble With Christians « An Sionnach Fionn

  2. Mason ought to join the 21st century and leave his religious babble at the door.

    He’s an honourable man but his views belong in the rubbish bin of history.

    While I am against forcing non government bodies to marry same sex couples, govenment officers must comply to changed legislation otherwise nothing will work and all will grind to a halt in many spheres according to personal tastes.

  3. Should this sort of issue not be a free vote so those of hetrosexual faith will act according to their consciences and those of a more liberal persuasion do likewise?

    As far as such an issue impacting on how I might vote myself, I think I’d have a bit of trouble voting for someone of either persuasion who sought to foist their conscience on others. As issues go it’s a pretty personal one and I don’t think anyone has the right to judge or impose judgement on anyone else’s personal lives.

  4. To misquote Avon from the Wire – “this isn’t about your business school thing, this is that other thing”. There aren’t various, equally potentially legitimate points of view on this topic that can be debated, nuances explored, arguments put.

    Either people believe that the government should not discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation, or they believe that that’s ok.

    Having a debate may be a good thing in terms of dealing with the problems that the larger parties all have to some degree or another with this, but I utterly fail to see how there can be room for all opinions. I can’t think of another group whom we would exclude from marriage where that would be the case, people opposing mixed religion marriages would be rightly condemned, not applauded for starting a debate.

    (sorry for the rant, I have a longer polemic on this in the works)

  5. Pingback: The SNP – Distinctly Off-Message For Once « An Sionnach Fionn

  6. The SNP is backed by the religious right including Brian Souter and Archbishop Keith, and largely funded by Souter and the Archbisop’s proxy, Tom Farmer.

    I have blogged elsewhere ( ) on the potentially malevolent influence of News International on (if we ever have it) an “independent” Scotland.

    But the potential for the intolerant religious right to influence a small newly “independent” country is just as real. The more so if they have consistently funded and vocally supported that party and its policies.

    And the religious right backed by the right-wing media holding a samll country to ransom..?

    Looks all too possible to me…..

  7. Ordinarily, I am a great fan of the Burd, who speaks out eloquently on matters that thinking people across Scotland would be well advised to get clued up on. And, while I find her musical taste eclectic, that she regularly reaches into such areas of humanity speaks volumes for her own.

    But, while highlighting a thorny issue, this blog strikes me as her riding a particularly blinkered hobby horse that ill suits her. And, before she classes me with her reactionary older white male faction target, let me say that, after fifteen years living in and around San Francisco, I am no stranger to gay rights. Marriage is a necessary convention of society. But its religious overtones dictate a more prejudicial definition to some than others.

    Where—in my view—the Burd errs from normal astute commentary is in presuming, firstly, that same-sex marriage is self-evidently good and morally acceptable (because it is to her); secondly, that only those actively religious have moral ground on which to base opposition and; thirdly, that the John Masons of the world are interchangeable with the Brian Souters.

    Mainstream politicians and associated commentators need, almost by definition, to be politically correct if they are to stay mainstream, and therefore influential. But, outside of the generally city-based hothouses where they exchange views that are—to them—self-evident, the other three-quarters of Scotland are suffering from what might be called social hysteresis, a lagging behind in their views. As an example, drunk driving was a cause of the politicians several decades before it was truly embraced by the public and the cause won.

    Whatever his motivation, John has raised a tricky point of political dynamite. Whether I share his position or not (for the record: I don’t) does not detract from two facts: 1) he is a man of integrity who would not do this lightly; 2) this issue needs proper debate and public conclusion. There was never going to be a ‘right’ time to raise it. If experienced politicians like Pete Wishart and Fiona Hyslop whom I normally respect, take refuge in accepted PC shorthand boilerplate to condemn even the need for a debate, as the Burd seems to be doing, then Scotland’s ability to take big issues head-on is in worse shape than I thought.

    • A number of points in response David:

      1. I deliberately tried to keep my own views out of this post, except for a single line at the end, and focus on the political ramifications of this issue for the SNP and the Scottish Government – the whole point of hte post actually which you neatly sidestep.
      2. I am not condemning the need for a debate but questioning if this is the right time for it when the consultation paper has not even been issued by the Government – it would be at that point that I would blog more fully on the pros and cons of what is being proposed
      3. I agree that John Mason is a man of integrity whose beliefs shape him and his politics – I respect his right to hold these views
      4. But…. I actually believe that there is no place for conscience where there is party policy. You don’t agree with the party policy you take it to your party to try and get it changed and if you fail you are stuck with abiding by it. There is clear SNP party policy on this issue – see Alex Dingwall’s comment on this.
      5. Further, politicians are not elected to act on their personal beliefs but to represent the interests of the people they serve, whether or not that fits neatly with someone’s beliefs or faith. IMHO.
      6. I don’t see John as interchangeable with the likes of Brian Souter, though I’m sure their opposition to this issue might come from a similar faith based background. I simply made the point that if this becomes a hothouse issue – as seems more likely because of John’s very public intervention – the chances of the likes of Brian Souter entering the fray are increased. And again, looking at the political ramifications for the SNP, that could cause considerable problems for the Scottish Government
      7. I always believe that debate is good and that there is room for all opinions on an issue but when it comes to voting on an issue I’d use my rule of thumb as 4 and 5. Not there to represent their own views but those of the majority and their party. But the more debate on this issue that is cool, calm and reasoned and does not denigrate into personal insults – from both sides – can only ever be a good thing. Disagreement is nothing to be scared of but that isn’t something I’ve sensed of the SNP of late.
      8. You are right that there isn’t a “right” time to raise this issue but my post suggests there might be a better time, when the debate is live.

  8. Hi Kate,

    genuinely curious why you state “Indeed, precedent suggests this is precisely the sort of issue upon which a free vote might be held. ”

    One of the reasons why I moved the conference policy on LGBT issues over 20 years ago was to end the nonsense that Gordon Wilson and Donnie Stewart hid behind in 1980 when they voted against Robin Cook’s amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill which decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting adults over 21. Its always been an irony that this happened under a Thatcher Gov’t and not a Labout Gov’t despite the same legislation having been in place in England since 1967.

    Donnie and Gordon always defended this vote to me as a ‘conscience vote’. By creating a clear policy I had hoped that Perth Conference would end the view that the equality of some citizens was a matter of conscience for individual MPs or latterly MSPs.

    It perhaps was naive on my part as Salmond has allowed Fergus Ewing, Roseanna Cunningham, Michael Matheson and Brian Adam to ignore policy which clearly stated no discrimination in fostering or adoption; goods or services.

    Now we have John seeking to have a conscience issue/latitude to discrimate on equality in marriage.

    Why is it that LGBT rights are fair game for claims across all parties of the need for a conscience vote. Indeed why would legislation extending the right of marriage to all citizens require a free vote?

    There was an interesting exchange in the committee stage of the Equality Bill in the UK Parliament regarding the Ladelle case, an Islington registrar who refused to carry out civil partnerships, and who John Mason MP described as a ‘victim’ at the committee stage. Diane Abbot said -“You cannot use your religion to allow your bigotry to affect how you carry out your duty to the public. If we do not draw the line, bigotry will encroach ever more on the delivery of public services. Parliament has to take a stand against that.”

    So from an ex-party colleague Kate my plea is simple, a free vote on gay marriage is not the answer. It is a capitulation to the Right, to bigotry and inequality and a defeat for all those truely committed to a more equal society.

    • Alex

      I perhaps should have qualified that statement more – the precedent has been by other Parliaments on this issue, but also within the Parliament, on similar issues. And it didn’t refer directly to the SNP but that other parties, including Labour, would sign up to a free vote as they have a number of members who would have difficulty voting for same sex marriage as well.

      Also I apologise if I gave the impression that I supported the idea of a free vote on this, or indeed any other issue. I too recall the creation of LGBT rights policies and as equality spokesperson in the late 90s worked hard with Pete Wishart to get our strong equality stance across to LGBT groups and others.

      My view is that all elected politicians are bound by the agreed policies of their parties and that actually there is no room for conscience or faith application in votes at all – no politician is elected to represent their own interests or beliefs but those of their party and what is in the best interests of those they are elected to serve. Thus, all SNP MSPs should be voting for same-sex marriage in line with party policy. But I do respect people’s rights to hold different views and to express these but not to enact them where it is against the interests of society, communities and individuals.

      At this stage, I’m more interested in the possible political ramifications of this issue for the Scottish Government, particularly when the two Ministers most likely to be the parliamentary shepherds of this legislation are also most likely to object to it on faith grounds! This one will run and run methinks…

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