MSP Marco Biagi reflects on the passing of the equal marriage bill in the Scottish Parliament, rejects the idea that the debate was religious against non-religious or left vs right, and celebrates the hope that Scotland will become a beacon of progressive hope.
There are days when sitting in the Scottish Parliament feels just a little more special than others. Passing a Scottish Government equal marriage bill by an overwhelming cross-party majority of 98 votes to 15 is one of them.
As an MSP elected in 2011 I came into office after many of the great steps on our collective journey to legal equality – Section 28/2a, the armed forces, age of consent, non-discrimination in trading, civil partnerships, adoption – but I grew up through them. As someone for whom politics was often less of an interest and more of a lifestyle I watched all of the debates, and as a young gay man I felt them too, not least in the words and attitudes of those who sought to deny me what I considered my fundamental rights.
The free vote across the parties meant there were divisions within parties, just as there were individuals opposed in every party at Westminster. The scale of the victory however shows the great support there is across the board in Holyrood today for equal rights for those of us who are L, G, B or T.
Even the Scottish Parliament’s third party – the Conservatives – surprised many with almost half of their members backing the bill.
It made the recent comments of leader, Ruth Davidson, to PinkNews, seem all the more bizarre. In arguing that next year’s independence referendum was pushing everything else – including equal marriage – aside she ignored that the Scottish Government – elected May 2011 – will have gone from election to equal marriage act in six months less than the UK Government – elected May 2010 – did. She also must have noticed the sheer breadth of legislation this session – from child rights and protection, reform of colleges, charges on out-of-town supermarkets, fundamental changes to our legal system, etc – since the Scottish Conservatives have spent considerable energy opposing all of them.
And that is not all Conservative have been opposing. Is it not brazen to criticise Scotland on same-sex marriage when barely 40% of her own party colleagues in Westminster chose to vote with their own government on the issue? Website publicwhip.org.uk, which lists how MPs vote and how loyal they are, had to list the Prime Minister as a rebel against his own party, since the majority of his party voted the other way.
It all reminds me of a London Pride nine years ago when Conservative MP Alan Duncan stood up and began by saying what everyone alrady knew – that he was gay – only to be instantly heckled that ‘he was still a ****ing Tory’. I was not the heckler, but I had sympathy with the sentiment then and I still do today.
The definition of conservatism – with a small c – is the opposition to steps like equal marriage, often for no reason other than their embodiment of change. The political left has its shibboleths too, and has members who can instinctively oppose the unfamiliar. That is why equal marriage is not a debate of traditional left versus traditional right.
Nor is equal marriage a debate or religious versus non-religious. When Quakers, the United Reformed Church, the Unitarians and at least one Jewish denomination have all reflected at length and concluded that same-sex marriages are part of their religious faith, that characterisation is shown up for the lazy shorthand that it is.
Instead equal marriage has been a debate between progress and reaction, between imposition and respect.
Those who have opposed equal marriage may have done so because they wished to protect their faith – both the Scottish and UK bills have gone to great lengths to afford every faith the choice – but in doing so effectively argued to proscribe the faith of others. Different faith traditions can disagree over the wisdom of marrying divorcees or the ordination of women, but in these areas none realistically seek to impose their religious understandings on the others. The days when the adherents of the largest religion in the country dictated what was permissible for those of other religions and none are long gone.
So the vote is not just a victory for LGBT people. It is also a victory for anyone of a minority faith. And it is also a victory to anyone who wishes to live in a country that is more open, accepting and free. That is a vision that should appeal to anyone who lives here or wishes to live here, and is part of what I can only call a project of making Scotland a beacon for all the progressives across these islands.