Wednesday, 24 August 2011

SNP MSP digs a bigger hole

Obviously John Mason, the SNP MSP for Glasgow Shettleston, doesn’t know how to stop digging.

Having his “equal marriage” motion having been derided as homophobic prejudice by both the media and his parliamentary colleagues, Mason would have been well advised to let the matter drop rather than go on the defensive. Unfortunately, such wisdom doesn’t appear to feature in his repertoire of personal capabilities and in spite of his apparent intention to diffuse the situation (made explosive following the intervention of Bill Walker) his recent interview with Christians Together asked far more questions about Mason’s motives and attitudes than it answered.

Admittedly, Mason was far more measured and considered than his colleague Walker had been days previously. He spoke of the need for a “sensible” debate without irony, apparently ignorant that his own actions to date have undermined “sensible” conversation, instead providing the likes of Bill Walker with the platform for expressing unconcealed intolerance. He defended his motion as being “designed to protect the freedom of thought, practice and expression by individuals” - again he fails to see that what he has achieved in practice is to stir up those who would deny the freedom of practice and expression to particular sections of the community.

Mason claimed that he was “perfectly relaxed” about “gay marriage”, a somewhat surprising admission given the evidently unrelaxed tone of his motion. True, he didn’t seem as highly strung and as intensely hostile as the ridiculous Bill Walker, but during the interview he allowed the facade to slip – firstly, when discussing the difference between a civil partnership and marriage he stated that “the idea of marriage as between a man and a woman...[that fight] has already been lost”; secondly, he argued that the battle on civil partnerships had also “been lost”.

The implications are obvious: the concept of same-sex relationships is not something he is either comfortable or relaxed about, but a reality he has become resigned to as a consequence of battles “being lost”. That is a very telling and significant admission.

He’s also “happy... if the churches argue against gay relationships as such.” I’m not sure why, as in doing so churches would only see themselves becoming more marginalised and increasingly socially irrelevant. I also think he’s remarkably out of touch with his church – the Church of Scotland’s recent decision on the appointment of gay clergy is hardly suggestive of hostility towards “gay relationships as such”, whatever his own attitudes.

Mason seemed keen to suggest his overriding motivation has been to enhance democracy and facilitate discussion. There has been “no debate at all”, he complained. “Somebody needs to say something from a different angle and [my aim is] to deal with churches being vulnerable to being taken to court... some people don’t even want this issue discussed.” In response to this seemingly reasonable suggestion I would argue that no-one is suggesting enforcing acceptance on those churches who do not wish to conduct same-sex marriages – merely allowing those that wish the legal freedom to do so. I would also ask Mason why he is at such pains to suggest that sections of the Christian community will find themselves “in court”, because this assertion is both lacking in evidence and amounts to frankly irresponsible scare tactics. Neither is it a reasonable or fitting way to frame the debate on equal marriage. Finally, if there is anyone suppressing debate then it isn’t either Mason’s party (who have pledged a consultation on same-sex marriage), the vast majority of MSPs (other than the Tories) or LGBT rights campaigners, who all look forward to an honest and open discussion in the context of facilitating equality.

Mason might deceive himself that his prejudiced motion has stimulated important discussion. The only real discussion it has generated is on the degree to which Mason and Walker are unfit for public service – something I’m more than happy to leave to the electors of Shettleston and Dunfermline. But his self-congratulation and spurious defence of his position leaves a vital question unanswered: what kind of debate is necessary? A quality, forward-looking conversation rooted in the desire for a fairer, more equal and more liberal society, or the polarised, reactionary, intolerant and vitriolic “debate” favoured by Bill Walker? Personally, if I had put forward a motion on the basis of facilitating protection for minorities and promoting tolerance (as Mason claims) I would be horrified by Walker’s subsequent outbursts and the appallingly low-level quality of “debate” that has followed.

Asked about whether Alex Salmond should intervene, Mason was quick to reply that he is only supporting “protection for ‘all minorities’” which is something that both Alex Salmond and SNP want. But no, he insists, the First Minister should not intervene on what is, after all, a “conscience matter”. Mason might well consider it to be a conscience matter, but the stark reality is that his behaviour has undermined the SNP’s credibility on equality to the point that Salmond’s continued non-intervention is proving embarrassing. The more Mason keeps on digging, the more necessary such an intervention will be.

In attempting to appear reasonable, Mason has actually demonstrated his own narrow perspectives and prejudices. Salmond must surely act, quickly and decisively, if the forthcoming debate is not to be centred on the outdated attitudes of some of this own MSPs with disproportionately loud voices.

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