I actually didn’t know I cared quite so much.
I blogged on equal marriage before and my attitude then was one largely of bemused indifference.
But tonight, watching the result of the 2nd reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) bill nearly live on Channel 4 News, when it was announced that the ayes had it – by 400 to 175 – I cheered. Despite its name, for I’d much prefer to think of it as an equal marriage bill.
Yes, history is well on its way to being made. And what interesting history we are carving out here, not least because of what the detail of who voted for and who didn’t tells us. Frankly, there’s nowt so queer as MPs.
There’s wee Sarah Teather, the only non-liberal liberal in the village, who despite having supported the idea of equal marriage, somewhat loudly and proudly, found that when it came to actually voting for it, her conscience forbade it. Her conversion to the Cornerstone club is quite a coup.
A handful of Liberal Democrat MPs also abstained, some with genuine reason to do so.
And then there’s all those Conservative MPs. Including, according to the Westminster rumour mill, a handful defending the sanctity of marriage while having adulterous affairs and some even engaged in clandestine gay relationships. So many of them that more actually voted against government policy than for it, leaving David Cameron with a huge problem. It might have been a free vote but he now has a significant rump of his backbenchers having scented and now tasted blood.
The scale of the Conservative opposition to this bill is quite breath-taking and clearly the modernisation project isn’t working. If this is the fluffy face of the Tories, heaven help us when they decide to get nasty. Except they already have with welfare reform.
The biggest disappointment was allowing this to proceed as a free vote – a conscience vote, as Francis Maude styled it. Yet, this is government policy. And since when did a matter of equality require a conscience behind it? You either are a rights respecting legislature or you are not, and clearly the Conservatives would rather not be.
But what does any of it mean for Scotland?
First, a sizeable number of Scottish MPs either abstained or voted against and as a result, Scotland must run Northern Ireland close for having the largest percentage of non-supporters of any geographical block. Lord Thurso and Charles Kennedy were absent from the vote – for apparently legitimate reasons.
And in a peculiarly male, pale and stale roll call of dishonour, step forward the living embodiment of unreconstructed Scottish man in the Labour ranks, in the form of Brian Donohoe, Frank Roy, Jim Sheridan, Tom Clarke, Michael McCann and Jim McGovern. Each conforming to stereotype and voting against equal marriage. Also abstaining or absent from the vote were Dame Anne Begg, Jim Hood and a certain Gordon Brown. No doubt they all had proper excuses, though it would be interesting to hear the former Prime Minister’s in particular.
Second, the SNP MPs all abstained. Pete Wishart MP tweeted this afternoon that “The SNP won’t be voting on the Westminster same sex marriage bill because none of it affects Scotland and we have our own legislation“. For a long time, the SNP held firm to the principle of not voting on Westminster bills which were exclusively or largely related only to England and Wales. But that principle was breached by the group voting against the hike in tuition fees. At first glance, the decision by the party and the group appears to make sense – this equal marriage bill is largely for England and Wales and Scotland is currently consulting on its own bill.
But thanks to the eagle eyes of Martin McCluskey – admittedly, a Labour and union staffer but that doesn’t make his spot any less accurate – this bill has specific provisions affecting Scots and will apply to Scots serving in the armed forces, for example, as well as providing for cross-border matters. Which means that any couple married in England or Wales who then moves to live in Scotland is entitled to continue to be married under the law: the couple won’t have to go through the ceremony twice, unless of course, they fancy a wee Hielan waddin just for the thrill of it.
So not only has the SNP re-instated a principle, but the group has ignored that the bill does apply to Scots. The reason is why?
The only logical conclusion is that some in the group were discomfited at the prospect of voting for something they did not agree with. Had they exercised their consciences and cast a no vote – particularly if a majority of the six did so – it would have caused trouble for their own government here in Scotland, which has, after lengthy consultation and consideration, come down on the side of supporting equal marriage. The way to avoid an unnecessary stushie was to abstain on the grounds set out.
All of this has important lessons for Scotland. There is clearly a body of socially conservative opinion among parliamentarians, most of it dressed in a suit, on such equality matters, which raises the prospect of a significant rebellion when the Scottish bill comes to Holyrood, especially if it is allowed to proceed on a free rather than a whipped vote. There will be some in Labour’s ranks who will vote no, but significantly, there are as many if not more MSPs in the SNP ranks who might oppose the bill.
If the SNP couldn’t persuade all of its MPs to vote for the Westminster bill – and allowed them to abstain instead – then it has set a precedent to allow some of its MSPs, including some Ministers with previous form on matters of gay equality, to vote against or at least, abstain on its own bill. And depending on the size of that vote, the Scottish Government might well find itself in the same choppy waters as the UK one: having to rely on opposition votes to secure a victory. For political anoraks like me, it’s fascinating stuff.
But it is all rather dispiriting that in the 21st Century, we have significant numbers of elected representatives out of step with societal attitudes, prepared to put their consciences before their duty to all their constituents, and dress up prejudice and intolerance in a range of guises. And political parties which still refuse to treat LGBT rights, justice and equality as matters of policy.
One MP, however, stands above them all; one who has not yet been named and shamed; one whose behaviour in voting against this bill is an act of betrayal and of laying waste to the legacy he was bequeathed. Iain McKenzie, Scottish Labour MP for Inverclyde, claimed he was voting against equal marriage because his constituents did not support it. The man is a disgrace. For he made this tawdry excuse in full knowledge that he is MP for an area which previously voted for a former Catholic priest who was openly gay when elected and in a longterm relationship with his partner, which he confirmed in a civil partnership. And whose partner, I understand, encouraged Iain McKenzie to vote for this bill.
Iain McKenzie said on his election that “If I can serve my constituents half as well as David, I shall be doing well indeed.” Well, here is the news Mr McKenzie. You can’t and you won’t ever. You are the worst kind of politician who pretended to be something you clearly are not in order to secure your sinecure.
You have trampled all over the memory of a fine and principled politician. You aren’t fit to lace David Cairns’s boots.