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.