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.

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