By Kenneth Roy
The Roman Catholic archbishop of Glasgow and former Scottish Review diarist, Mario Conti, has urged all Catholics to oppose the proposal to allow gay marriage, upon which the Scottish Government is consulting. He is having 100,000 ‘campaign postcards’ printed and there are rumblings of a breakdown in relations between church and state.
Before Mr Salmond is inundated with postcards – incidentally, how wonderful to see the revival of the humble postcard, which many of us had wrongly supposed was as obsolete as the fax machine – we should pause to consider why the archbishop is so angry with the first minister. He says the SNP government does not have a mandate to ‘reconstruct society on ideological grounds’.
But hang about. That is exactly what the SNP government has. It is what all governments have. They are all in the business of reconstructing society on ideological grounds, to a greater or lesser extent. Unlike Archibishop Conti, they enjoy a mandate conferred upon them by the people.
I have witnessed this curious phenomenon in an extreme form twice in my lifetime. On the first occasion, I observed it confined for much of the time to a pram. The Labour government, 1945-50, set about the reconstruction of society with an ideological fervour. It created a national health service and a universal system of welfare benefits, nationalised the main industries, and so vastly expanded the powers of the state. All this was branded ‘totalitarian’ by its opponents; in the famous Paisley by-election to which I alluded last week, the great John MacCormick was much exercised by the rigid controls imposed from the centre.
Sixty years on, we no longer see this government as totalitarian. On the contrary, it is widely praised for its humanitarian qualities. But that is beside the point: its mandate for ideological reconstruction had been produced by an overwhelming victory in a free election.
The Conservative government from 1979 led by Margaret Thatcher was also aggressively ideological in temper and intention. The iron lady, a nickname in which she revelled, and who was not for turning, made herself a champion of the little person, smashing the unions and giving the council houses of Britain bright new doors which became a symbol of the new individualism. For all this and more, Mrs Thatcher had a mandate, or succession of mandates, even if the Scots grumbled that these mandates ran much less strongly, or not at all, north of the border. Elsewhere she was immensely popular.
There was a third government of my lifetime, an under-rated one, whose devotion to such unfashionable causes as the arts and social reform put it almost in the class of Attlee and Thatcher. This was the Wilson administration, 1964-70, which has failed to be recognised for its achievements largely because it was so inept at handling the economy.
No one, then, should be in the least surprised that Alex Salmond, on the back of his recent landslide, wishes to leave a permanent impression on Scottish society – by improving it.
Yesterday, when I was rooting around in the Glasgow Herald of 30 June 1960, looking for something else, I stumbled on an editorial about the law on homosexuality. Three years earlier, Wolfenden had recommended decriminalising homosexual acts between consenting adults over the age of 21, but the Glasgow Herald remained resolutely opposed. It said (this editorial) that the division between ‘socially abhorrent behaviour as a sin and as a crime is exceptionally hard to draw’ and went on to propose that medical and psychiatric research should be devoted to finding a ‘cure’ for homosexuality.
I remember the 60s quite well; they swung even for me. It is startling to be reminded that, at the dawn of this sexually liberating decade, there were still men in long whiskers in Buchanan Street consigning such thoughts to print and that these thoughts were considered mainstream by the university-educated readership in places as exciting as Bearsden. In 1967, during the second of Harold Wilson’s attempts at ideological reconstruction, the Labour government made parliamentary time for Leo Abse’s bill, as a result of which homosexual acts were finally decriminalised. But even then only in England and Wales; it was not until 1980 that gay men in Scotland ceased to risk prosecution and imprisonment. We have Robin Cook to thank for this belated reform.
These are pedantic examples of how governments operate with their mandates. No one, then, should be in the least surprised that Alex Salmond, on the back of his recent landslide, wishes to leave a permanent impression on Scottish society – by improving it. He too is in the business of reconstructing society on ideological grounds. As my old friend Rose Galt would put it, that does not make him a bad person.
I mentioned at the start that Archbishop Conti had once contributed a diary to the Scottish Review. It was dated 6 May 1999, the day we elected the first Scottish Parliament of modern times. At 4.50 that day, he was in contemplative mood:
I reflect on the extraordinary nature of the democratic system whereby the vote of one young person is of the same value, in effect, as that of a bishop who has seen many administrations both locally and nationally and has had, by reason of his very office, to reflect on what are the foundations of a just society, and to judge individuals and their parties thereby.
This is not the most ringing endorsement of the democratic system ever published by the Scottish Review, and it may help to explain the present unease being experienced by Archbishop Conti. It is indeed a pesky form of rule that a young person of unformed mind carries as much weight as that of a wise man of the cloth. But it’s the one we happen to be stuck with. And until someone invents another, the archbishop will have to find a more convincing reason to oppose gay marriage.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review