Thursday, 26 July 2012

Grasping the Nettle

In standing up for marriage equality, the SNP has not only done what is right - it has drawn the lines for a battle that could define its governance - and Scotland's future.

Last week, everything looked very different. Backing down from an announcement after heavy hints to the press that it was decision time, the government looked weak, apologetic. Its focus on ongoing negotiation made it look as if it was trying to come up with an impossible compromise, more interested in avoiding enmity than in making friends. Of course negotiation is important, and it is vital that any piece of legislation is carefully drafted to ensure no-one is inadvertently harmed by it, but much of that work will take place now, after its direction has been decided. It is also important that a government stand up and speak clearly. It matters that all of us, no matter what 'side' we are on, can understand what we are dealing with. And perhaps most importantly, if we are to have faith in the good intentions of our politicians, we must be able to see that they have faith in themselves.

One of the iconic examples of strong government in these islands has been Margaret Thatcher's handling of the miners' strike. Economically, taking on the miners at the point when she did was unnecessary, perhaps even unwise - although the industry would ultimately prove unsustainable, it was then still some distance from that point. But politically, it was inspired. Why? Because union power at the time was such that it represented an alternative power base, a significant challenger to her authority. No leader who wants to do more than tread water can afford to tolerate such opposition. By grasping the nettle, Thatcher gambled her premiership on victory over a powerful opponent. In securing that victory, she won for herself the type of authority that enabled her to restructure a whole economy.

Authority of that kind is exactly what the SNP needs if it is to lead Scotland into independence. Its current opponents' position on independence is neither here nor there (and their insistence they'll turn their supporters against it somewhat laughable). What matters is the victory, the show of strength. A freshly independent country would need to be governed with guts and vision. It would need to be governed by a party with the independence of spirit to stand up to rivals and act in its interests regardless of threats.

In challenging the Scottish government's democratic authority through its position on equal marriage, the Catholic church has given it a gift - an opportunity to prove itself that it might not otherwise have had. In rising to the challenge, the SNP have doubtless recognised their opportunity, but their cause here is one that must attract much wider support, and not just because the majority of MSPs in other parties agree that equal marriage is a just thing. If the SNP should falter, what would become of the next government? Would Labour be willing to go on under the yoke of presumed Catholic authority, of a church - and churches, because it is not the only one that likes to throw its weight around - dictating Scotland's fate regardless of the true will of Scotland's people? Would they be willing to be shackled to the past, borne down by a weight of tradition that makes us at best a quaint curiosity for tourists, not a country speaking for itself, contributing to the world?

Despite their differing positions on independence and the risk of strengthening the SNP's power base, it is in the interests of every Scottish party with a reasonable prospect of finding itself in government to seize the moment and stand with them on this. Scotland's democratically elected parliament cannot afford to suffer the pretensions of its religious rivals. It has gone on too long. From the sectarian mess in Glasgow with its football violence (on both sides) and its intimidatory parades, to the censorship of the arts, the massive hate-based advertising campaigns and, most significantly, the repeated intimidation of politicians who seek to take actions the churches don't like. We've seen it in individual election campaigns where ad hominem attacks question candidates' personal morality and we see it in cases like the equal marriage debate when threats are made to reposition supposedly massive blocks of voters. In this instance, it isn't even about moving those voters to a party which feels differently on the matter, because there isn't one - it's simply about moving them away from a party that has the nerve to say no to them.

All of this would be mitigated somewhat if the churches were actually speaking for a large proportion of Scots, but extensive research shows that they're not, with many of their own members very uncomfortable about the line they have chosen to take on this occasion. Instead, they are speaking for themselves - for entrenched power bases. They are not as strong as they pretend and it is high time a government called their bluff. By moving away from the politics they constrain, Scotland's parliament can better serve all its citizens, including those with strong religious beliefs. Everybody benefits from honesty, clarity and a habit of debate that it based around evidence and quality of argument rather than around presumed moral superiority. In this climate, those who wish to advance particular moral positions must demonstrate their worth.

It is only through embracing this new politics that Scotland can move forward as a nation. That will be in its best interests regardless of its status as a nation, but for supporters of independence it is particularly important. In grasping the nettle, the SNP have shown that they are no longer afraid to step up to the fight. Now is the time for them to show us what they are made of.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Heart of Scotland

The SNP tell us that they're ready to approach Scotland's future with vision. But does today's failure to reach a decision on equal marriage show cracks forming in the party even before the independence referendum takes place?

Scotland is, the SN tell us, ready to become an independent nation. Many would agree. But if that's so, what sort of nation? What ideals will sit at its heart? Will it look to the past - to its romanticised history, its celebrated rural and architectural heritage, its sometimes delightful but sometimes dubious traditions? Or is it ready to look to the future, to speak out boldly in a changing world?

For those campaigning for independence, this ought to be a no brainer. Sympathisers in love with the romantic idea of Scotland past are unlikely to vote for it to stay in the union no matter how modern policy develops; the weight of that inheritance is too great a thing to be more than temporarily afflicted by a single disagreeable decision. Those with a progressive agenda, however, are far more likely to be swing voters, uncertain where their best options lie. The SNP already has a good handle on the traditionalists. It can't afford to alienate those looking to the future.

Further to this, a Scotland that looks back into the past is easy for opponents to ridicule. It would be very hard for such a nation to justify reaching out to claim its space on the world stage. If Scotland is to become independent, it will need to show that it is sharp, modern, realistic and capable of moving with the times.

This ought to make things simple. But the division that exists within the Scottish populace over equal marriage is closely related to the division at the heart of the SNP. I am always amused by people who tell me that they plan to vote against independence because they don't like the SNP. That, I'd say, is a very good reason to vote for it. Not only would their share of the vote be likely to decline thereafter, but there would be far less reason for the two halves of the party to stay together. The northern, rural, agricultural, paternalistic wing would go one way and the southern, urban, liberal wing would go another. They're only staying together now because they have independence as a common goal. In the meantime, as in most instance were opposed parties make a sincere attempt to work together, Scotland benefits from relatively moderate, pragmatic government. But can they stay together that long?

As Scotland's people wait to see what the eventual outcome of the equal marriage discussion will be, the SNP has some serious thinking to do. If it expects us to believe that it is strong enough to carry Scotland through major constitutional change, it will have to show more mettle than it has today. It won't be able to fob people off forever with the line that it just needs more time. And one thing is certain: if it cannot hold its own marriage together, it has no place denying marriage to those who might.