An interesting take on Scottish, UK and international politics that hopefully stimulates a little debate on topics where there is too little debate.

03

Sep

Proud: The SNP Government Back Equal Marriage

                        

[UPDATE] See comments below re ‘celebrants’. I stand happily corrected!

I felt nothing but pride yesterday when the Scottish Government opened their consultation on marriage equality, with Nicola Sturgeon stating that they are leaning towards a more equal Scotland. Whilst a commitment to a consultation on the issue was in this years election manifesto, it was in no way certain that the government would back moves towards same-sex marriage. Though there have been opposing voices within the party, the SNP has shown that they are a party that can have internal debate on an issue and come out stronger. The debate has only just begun but I am sure, in spite of some of my previous comments, the party can come out stronger than before. 

The consultation will look at 3 issues:

  • The introduction of same sex marriages
  • The introduction of religious ceremonies for civil partnerships
  • Ensuring religious organisations and celebrants do not have to register civil partnerships against their will.

  • The third will be the most contentious given John Mason’s recent Parliamentary motion. The fact that religious organisations shouldn’t be forced to perform same-sex marriages is a given. The fear of some is that equality and human rights legislation may be used by some to challenge this. I personally see why someone would go to court to be married in a church that didn’t want to marry them but I can understand that it is a possibility. I would be interested to find out what the situation is in countries like Spain that already have same-sex marriage and a strong religious community. 
    What worries me more is the second part: ‘celebrants do not have to register civil partnerships against their will’. Does this mean that registrars could refuse to conduct same-sex marriages on religious grounds? If so could we see situations were there are areas where all registrars refuse to conduct civil weddings for gay couples (such as in the Western Isles) and couples have to get married in an area that is not their home. Currently, Western Isles Council refuse to carry out ceremonies for civil partnerships but allow the partnership to be registered. Would any registrars even do this if the couples were registering marriages? There is currently a case before the European Court of Human Rights concerning a registrar from England who refused to conduct civil partnerships and was sacked as a result. It will be interesting to find out the results of this case, I am sure it will help inform the debate in Scotland. 
    As I said the last time I discussed this issue, the debate has only begun. I have now, eventually, added a comments facility on this page so please do leave me some thoughts so we can get the debate going!

    07

    Aug

    "A nest of fearties is what they do not want." #snp #equalmarriage

    Last month New York State became the latest US state to grant full marriage equality to it’s gay citizens. The marriage bill’s passage was won by the courageous support of four Republican senators who defied the party to support the measure. With the sharks in their own party already circling they face a difficult political future but one safe in the knowledge that they have made history by doing what is right. 

    The result surprised many as the Republican Party - which is opposed to gay marriage - is in the majority in the New York State legislature. The issue raises strong emotions on either side and while 7 states (plus Washington DC) allow gay marriage, 24 states actually have constitutional amendments banning it. There is no denying the issue is divisive but, the US, the politicians have enough courage in their conviction to debate it in public. 

    By contrast, in Scotland, our politicians rarely talk about it far less take action on this or many other gay rights issues. As I have said before, it is the pink elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge for fear that, horror of horrors, they will disagree with each other on the issue. The Civil Partnership Act itself was a product of this fear - the word marriage was specifically left out for fear of offending those opposed. Not just that but the Parliament sidestepped the issue by passing a Sewel motion for the UK Parliament to decide on what was to be contained in it (though this was opposed by the SNP). 

    This, however, makes Alex Salmond’s statement regarding gay marriage in the run up to the 2010 Westminster election more bewildering:

    Currently no party in Scotland is able to legislate for same-sex marriage in Scotland without the permission of Westminster, due to the impact on laws covering immigration, pensions, inheritance tax and other areas where London still holds the power. The SNP government contacted the outgoing UK Labour administration on this matter in 2008 after receiving a public petition. We were informed that there was no intention by them to legislate in this way.”

    How come the Scottish Parliament could legislate on civil partnerships (and needed a Sewel motion to allow the UK Parliament to legislate) but it cannot alter the law to ensure full marriage equality? Even if it cannot, when has that ever stopped Alex Salmond trying? Even if the issue is not devolved the Scottish Government have pushed for further devolution of specific powers in order to deliver policy promises: power over airguns and road speed limits are just two examples of powers contained in the Scotland Bill going through the UK Parliament just now. If arguments can be won on these issues then why not argue for the powers to make Scotland more equal?

    The reason is simple - gay rights has the potential to be as divisive to the SNP as Europe was to the Tories in the 1990s. Despite the SNP’s newly won majority, which could be used to pass a gay marriage law, there are a few members who are known to be strongly opposed to this. SNP group discipline could be seriously challenged for the first time in Alex Salmond’s leadership, especially in regards to the ‘media message’. To use an example, in 2006, when Parliament was discussing adoption rights for gay couples Roseanna Cunningham MSP broke ranks and called this “against nature’s design.”. This has been further evidenced by John Mason MSP’s motion in Parliament just this week:

     

    The Equal Marriage DebateThat the Parliament notes the current discussion about same-sex marriages and the Scottish Government’s forthcoming public consultation concerning equal marriage; further notes that, while some in society approve of same-sex sexual relationships, others do not agree with them; desires that Scotland should be a pluralistic society where all minorities can live together in peace and mutual tolerance; believes that free speech is a fundamental right and that even when there is disagreement with another person’s views, that person has the right to express these views, and considers that no person or organisation should be forced to be involved in or to approve of same-sex marriages.

    Supported by: Bill Walker, Dennis Robertson, Gil Paterson, Richard Lyle, Mike MacKenzie

    Significantly, this is supported by 5 MSPs and has already drew condemnation from Alyn Smith (an openly gap MEP) in the Scotland on Sunday, stating:

    "What is in the small, mean angry heads of bigots is a matter for them. I never asked for their approval but I demand equality"

    To paraphrase Edwin Morgan: a public spat is what they do not want. However, this sort of indiscipline was always going to happen in our new Parliament with such a large SNP group made up of many MSPs that Party HQ did not expect (or may actually have wanted) elected. But while we may not have chose this as the way to start the debate, it has begun. Given the level of support in Parliament for gay marriage the change is likely to come - whether the SNP will be able to debate this unscathed is less clear. 

    22

    Apr

    The Pink Elephant In the Room: Gay Rights, the #leadersdebate and @SNPofficia

    Pink Elephant

    So finally, in the second debate we got a question on gay rights. But did it really get to the heart of the issue? Was it even answered?

    Firstly, I take issue with the question itself, it bundled up gay rights with the Pope’s visit, the child sex abuse scandal, contraception in Africa and the Catholic church’s view on science. Why not ask a substantial question on gay rights? The question gave the leaders the opportunity to make completely uncontroversial statements about child abuse. The moderator, however, prompted them to answer the gay rights part of the question, only David Cameron dodged it this time. It seems David Cameron can only talk about gay rights when he’s talking to Gay Times magazine.

    Nick Clegg talks with conviction about the issue and has the policies to back this up – full marriage equality stands out here. Labour have over the last 13 years have delivered on the issue as I’ve said before. The Conservatives, however, talk the talk but I’m not convinced their policies back this up. I don’t think tagging civil partners on to any old style Tory social engineering policy counts. One other example is their “Homophobic bullying” policy, which is actually a recycled “more discipline in schools” Tory policy given a PC slant. That’s not change. Homophobic bullying and policies affecting young gay people are the most important in this area, they must be tackled properly, we need new thinking because the old hasn’t worked. Politicians need to stop worrying about offending the Daily Mail crowd and more time worrying about the children of this country for whom this issue is the only one that matters.  Despite Nick Clegg’s new found fame, he is still talking about these issues, whether it is popular with all voters or not.

    In this election, however, I have one big disappointment: the lack of any specific policies to tackle this issue from the SNP. The SNP is a radical party for which equality is at the heart of their policies but sometimes putting Scotland and independence first every time clouds out all other important policies.

    I asked the SNP’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson,  directly “Does the SNP have a gay rights policy and if not why not?”, he said “We believe in a policy of equality and non-discrimination”.

    He couldn’t name a single policy. Why?

    29

    Mar

    Equality: Let us not forget how far we have come - or how far we still have to go.

    Labour MP, Chris Bryant, has become the first person to hold a civil partnership ceremony in the Palace of Westminster. This reminds us that for all the things Labour promised in 1997, gay rights is one area where they have really delivered. But how far have we came in those 13 years? Is it really “job done”?


    Some of the key achievements have been:


    • an equalisation of the age of consent;


    • a repeal of Section 28/Clause 2A;


    • civil partnerships;


    • gay adoption;


    • gays allowed to serve in the military;


    • a ban on discrimination in the work place and in the provision of goods and services;


    • the creation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and


    • the Human Rights Act and the more recent Equality Bill going through parliament.


    On paper it’s easy to see why so many people say “gays have equality, they need to stop banging on about it”. But this simply isn’t true. The “civil partnership” of Chris Bryant MP is a case in point. The fact that it happened in the Palace of Westminster symbolises the great leaps in equality in the last few years. However, the fact that it took place in the members dining room and not in the Palace chapel where weddings normally take place show how far we have to come. Given that Mr Bryant is a former “Church of England curate and chaplain” it is likely he would have liked it to take place in a church but the Civil Partnership Act specifically excludes them taking place in any religious building – regardless of whether the religion would like to or not.


    It is obvious that this was added to the Act to placate religions that are less tolerant of gays and lesbians but its effect is to actually discriminate against gays and lesbians who are religious. Whether Civil Partnerships are called marriages or not should not be the issue – it should be whether or not both forms of partnership both have equality of rights. At first glance it is ludicrous to create a whole new law and form of ceremony at a high cost to the taxpayer when only a few lines of the Marriage Act need be changed. However, this has been done specifically to allow for minor revisions in the law to placate those who were opposed to the whole project.


    For example, the Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act is almost an identical document to the Marriage (Scotland) Act except for a few changes. One such change is, as said, that Civil Partnerships may not take place in places of religion another is that witnesses must be over 16 (as opposed to the Marriage Act wording “must profess to be over 16”). Yes, this is a legal technicality that may prove to be inconsequential but, if so, why do it? It suggests that if witnesses prove not to be over 16 the partnership may be void. Maybe this is a nice revision that the marriage law would benefit from but why not change the marriage law aswell?


    If gays and lesbians were truly to have equality there wouldn’t be these silly differences in law, and Chris Bryant MP could have got married in a church. Nonetheless, when Members of the House of Lords proposed such an amendment (and added it to the Equality Bill by a majority of 74) both the Labour and Conservative “Equality” spokespeople in the Lords opposed the move. Why?