There were two big arguments going on in non-party-political politics the past two years: lifting the ban on same-sex marriage (England and Wales, 29th March: Scotland, sometime this autumn after the Commonwealth Games and this other thing: Northern Ireland as soon as they lose the court case).
Making it legal for same-sex couples to marry, matters hugely to people in same-sex relationships, obviously, but to everyone else aside from a small number of seriously homophobic fanatics, it’s no big deal: two-thirds of the population of Scotland agreed that gay marriage should be made legal in a 2012 poll.
This other thing that is happening in Scottish politics: the referendum. In the US, where they have referendums whenever they can get enough voters to sign off on one, they went through a phase of holding referenda in which voters were invited to agree that “marriage is between a man and a woman”, which was then held to mean that marriage between a man and a man, or a man and a woman, was unlawful. In the UK we referend much more rarely, and only – so cynics say – when the government thinks they can get the public to vote the way they want.
(It seems likely that both the UK government and the Scottish government think they can get the public to vote the way they want, which is part of what makes the 18th September referendum so interesting.)
Twice in one week I was sitting in the sauna at an Edinburgh Leisure swimming pool listening to two strangers argue about the independence referendum. This never happens: in the sauna everyone is normally very Edinburgh and restrained and occasionally talks about the telly or the rugby: never football, because that would be too serious.
There are hugely strong feelings on both sides of the argument, for and against Scottish independence, for and against the SNP plan to substitute devomax for independence, and strong feelings in the middle of the road with the Scots standing in the traffic island of Undecided trying to figure out whether to dodge the Rolls Royce of the No campaign or the expensive tram of the Yes campaign, while the Greens are on the pavement complaining about the lack of dedicated cycleways on the campaign road. (UKIP are in the pub, obviously, trying to find a taxi that wants their fare.)
The population of Scotland in 2011 was 5,295,000: according to the Electoral Commission, over 4.1M are now on the electoral register. (And if you live in Scotland and are not sure if you’re registered, you have til 2nd September to get yourself on the register and vote on 18th September.)
To be confident of the results on 19th September, I hope that at least 70% of the electorate vote – and that there is a decisive choice: that the majority decision for Yes or No is by several percentage points, not down to a few hundred. If strangers are arguing about this in saunas, there’s going to be a high turnout on the day.
I’m still undecided between independence and devolution, for what it’s worth: but unless the SNP drop their plan for devomax (having the Bank of England serve as Scotland’s central bank/lender of last resort is devomax in all but name) I shall have to vote No, because I think devomax is hugely hazardous and not an experiment I am willing to try.
I’ve had quite a few strong arguments with Yes voters who are annoyed that I’ve come down on what they perceive as the wrong side of the fence.
I think it important that we all remember two things: One of them is that, whichever way people intend to vote on 18th September, whatever they’re campaigning for, the vast majority of those who’ll vote have as their goal the best possible future for Scotland and for the Scottish people. We just disagree, as we always do, what that best possible future involves and how to get there.
And the other thing is: on 19th September, whatever the result of the referendum is, we’ve only lost the referendum if the people who were politically engaged before 18th September lose interest in politics once it’s over.
The difference between arguments about the referendum and the arguments I have had with opponents of same-sex marriage is huge: it is the yawning chasm between tolerance and intolerance.
It’s become a meme among conservatives to claim that if they are no longer getting the kind of public approval they’re used to for their homophobic or misogynistic views, this means that “liberals are intolerant” – that if we were properly tolerant, we would be tolerant of their desire to discriminate against us.
Yes, no, or undecided voters all want the best for Scotland: we just disagree on what that is. The decision we collectively make on 18th September will indubitably affect Scotland and Scottish politics for decades, if not for centuries.
Anti-gay marriage campaigners claim that they just want to “defend marriage” – by redefining marriage as a sacred privilege to which only mixed-sex couples can be admitted. Fairly obviously to anyone except a bigot, the decision of two men or two women to marry affects only each other and their families: the bigots who are upset by the sight of a same-sex marriage need only look the other way. This is not an argument where all sides want the best thing: one side wants to deprive a minority group of the civil and human right of marriage. That’s inarguably not a good or right thing to want.
Which is why, in the independence referendum, we are able to have strong arguments with people whom we’d still happily have a coffee or a beer with: whereas in the anti-gay marriage argument, the people on the wrong side are driven to complaining that public disapproval of their bigoted views equates to persecution and censorship.
On Question Time, Thursday before same-sex marriage became legal in England and Wales, Caroline Farrow of Catholic Voices got to make a strong defence from the audience of the idea that marriage is strictly for interfertile mixed-sex couples only – and presumably as a corollary that any couple who have children by any other means, or can’t have children at all, wouldn’t be allowed to marry. (She was asked what she felt about adoption, and skilfully dodged answering whether she felt adoptive parents should be able to marry.)
In defence of this argument, and as an attack on “liberal intolerance”, conservative columnist Kathryn Jean Lopez argues in the National Review that just in case it’s essential to society that same-sex couples should be banned from marriage, it’s only “prudent” to allow parents who believe that same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry “do better at living it” and “show their children how”.
The anti-gay marriage campaigners claim they are only saying that they think same-sex marriage is hugely hazardous and not an experiment they are willing to try. But across the world, same-sex couples have been marrying legally for thirteen years (and registering legal partnerships for twenty-two years) and bringing up their children together for far longer, without any evident damage done – indeed, longitudinal studies on same-sex parenting tend to show that if anything, lesbian couples make the best parents. (Whereas, the only arguments that people in favour of the SNP’s plan for Scotland to join Andorra and Monaco as the third country in the world without a central bank, tend to involve things like comparing Ireland 1922-1928 with Scotland in 2016: a different world nearly a century on, a different and much larger country.)
Marriage is a personal decision. If each person who feels same-sex marriage is wrong refuses to marry someone of the same gender as themselves, that is entirely their own affair. If they refuse to go to gay weddings, that’s no skin off anyone else’s nose: they would probably never be invited, anyway.
How do you “live” the belief that same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry? (Why is it “prudent” to allow parents to teach their LGBT children that they deserve legal inferiority to their straight children?)
Our love, our lives, our nurtured gardens and families, we say, these are not weapons. These are not acts of violence. To us, they are not.
Nonetheless, there are those who insist breathlessly, endlessly, that they are. That our families are destroying their way of life. That our existing in public shocks and harms them. That attending school, sitting in a restaurant, having to hear at all that we exist is an affront that threatens to annihilate them. And they gather their stormclouds over and over, they teach their children, they shout from the pedestals and rooftops and radio waves that we are, by virtue of drawing breath, destroying them. That we are at war, and that our heartbeats are a sword at their throats.
People are, in fact, allowed to believe anything they like. Caroline Farrow can believe as hard as she pleases that it’s wrong for anyone to get married unless they can and will have children with their spouse – and that unless those children are genetically the children of both spouses, this doesn’t count as marriage. But she cannot enforce this belief on anyone else: there is no legal requirement in the UK, nor ever has been, that mandates interfertility as a prerequisite for marriage: nor has civil marriage in the UK ever been legally dependent on whether the couple could or wanted to have children: and legally, an adopted child, a stepchild, a child conceived via AID or another form of fertility treatment, is as much a child of the marriage as a child conceived and raised as Caroline Farrow approves.
More importantly, we need to be clear; Caroline Farrow’s right to believe as she pleases and to say what she chooses, is not infringed upon when her outrageous redefinition of marriage is not greeted with the respect she feels it deserves. Respect’s earned, not demanded, and nothing Caroline Farrow said on Question Time earned her any respect from any thinking person.
And that is the crux of it: we can – and we must – respect all sides of the argument in the independence referendum, as all sides are being argued by Scots who want only the best for Scotland. We need have no respect for someone who is arguing without any concern for the best: who only wants to ensure that another group gets the worst.