This week sees the debate on equal marriage in Scotland gather momentum, with the whole chamber debate on Stage 1 of the bill. It will be the first time we get to see the size of support among parliamentarians for the measure, and conversely, the scale of the opposition.
So let me let you in on the worst kept secret of the debate so far. SNP MSP John Mason and SNP Minister, Roseanna Cunningham, won’t be in the aye lobby.
They are likely to be joined by a range of others, including Labour MSPs Elaine Smith, Michael McMahon and Paul Martin as well as several of the Conservative group and a smattering more from the SNP, including more Ministers unless they can find pressing reasons to be absent from the Chamber. Michael Matheson might be one such and possibly also, Fergus Ewing. Indeed, only the Liberal Democrat and Scottish Green groups are likely to vote en masse in favour of the bill. (I’ve checked the Equal Marriage website and apologies to Michael Matheson, he’s a supporter. Shouldn’t have assumed that he’d oppose this based on previous voting.)
I blogged last year on my ambivalence on the whole venture. But it matters to the LGBT community – though there’s a suggestion it matters rather more to the G force than the L wing of that same community – and it is an issue of equality. Good enough for me, as it should be for the SNP. This is an equal rights issue on which there is agreed party policy. It simply shouldn’t be a free vote.
But alongside this, sits an uncomfortable juncture with human rights. I’m not the right blogger to enter into an extensive analysis of the complex relationship and interplay between various articles in the European Convention on Human Rights: for that we need the Peat Worrier. But suffice to say there is friction on this issue for individuals and public authorities between article 9 on freedom of thought, conscience and religion; article 8 on the right to private and family life and article 12 on the right to marry.
Thus, as other legislatures have done before it, Holyrood is allowing a free vote on equal marriage. Let’s hope then that the math has been done, and we get the right result. There will undoubtedly be a larger number of no voters than we might anticipate, but the majority in favour of the general principles of the bill is likely to be a substantial one. The organisations, The Equality Network and Stonewall Scotland foremost among them, which have campaigned for the law to be changed will, after Wednesday, be in sight of victory.
For some though, the prospect of winning by itself does not seem enough. Thus, this weekend, the Equality Network and a few of its supporters, have decided to call out those who will be opposing the bill. And get this, one is John Mason and – shock, horror – another is Roseanna Cunningham. And while I cannot agree with the reasons John Mason cites for his opposition, there is something to be said for him having bothered to write to bill supporters explaining himself. You don’t have to respect his opposition to respect his courtesy.
Roseanna appears to cite her long held faith, as well she might, given her human right to do so. It hasn’t gone down well. I hold no brief for the Catholic Church and some of what its representatives have said in this debate has been shocking and unforgivable. There is no doubt some of the teaching from the church has had harsh consequences for many LGBT people, particularly those who still believe or practise their faith. It might be wrong-headed, misinformed and difficult for some of us to accept: no matter. Living in a rights based society and democracy, as we now do, means tolerating everyone’s beliefs. Or at least, accepting that they have a right to hold them, just as you have a right to hold yours.
Crucially, when you’re winning, it’s important to win well. Just because some of your opponents – as you perceive it – might have little regard or respect for your rights, should not encourage bill supporters to respond likewise. Some of their behaviour and comments have been shrill, unedifying, unnecessary and potentially alienating.
And focussing ire on those who have made their opposition plain deflects energy from the task at hand: knowing where all the opposition sits and wooing those yet to be persuaded. Few with doubts and questions are likely to want to come forward to seek answers if they risk opprobrium for doing so. And that might be enough to persuade them to abstain. Surprises at Stage one wouldn’t be in my game plan.
Wednesday promises an historic moment in our Parliament’s short history. They don’t come around often enough and that in itself, should be enough to persuade the supporters of the Marriage and Civil Partnership bill to raise their game and raise their sights. Hold your heads high, go for the classy win and earn respect from all quarters in the process.