Anyone who saw the Western spoof "Blazing Saddles" by Mel Brooks, is unlikely to forget the scene when the newly appointed black Sheriff of Rock Ridge, in an attempt to avert a riot by the racist residents of the town, puts his six shooter to his own head and declares, "Anybody moves and the N***** gets it".
When the SNP announced it intended to forge ahead with legislation on same-sex marriage, my wife and I were watching the news on TV and I started to laugh as that image came to mind, with Alex Salmond in the role of Sheriif Bart. While the First Minister has not been without his critics, on the way he has approached the independence campaign, the media - at least the more up-market parts of it - have generally been complimentary. In fact, for some months he escaped any criticism at all, as the history of the SNP was re-written and he was lauded and applauded as the "best" politician in the UK not just Scotland. As the campaign has begun to unfold and the SNP has adopted the strategy of trying to persuade the Scottish people that Independence means "little or no change", serious questions are now being asked about not just the meaning of "Independence" but the leadership qualities of the First Minister.
Will the attempt to ditch the SNP's long-standing anti NATO stance, with the implications for its anti-nuclear commitment, be the final straw for many party members? There has not been such open hostility to the party leadership's initiative since the days of the '79 Group. Many party members, who remained totally silent while the leadership signed away large tranches of Scottish sovereignty to the EU, who saw nothing wrong with allowing London to control monetary policy and interest rates in an independent Scotland, despite its recent abysmal history in that field of economics, have suddenly found their voices and said "enough is enough". It seems that some principles are more important than others and for some party members, being true to their anti-nuclear principles is obviously more important than being true to their commitment to independence.
Be that as it may, should the First Minister and his defence spokeman, Angus Robertson, not have seen it coming or, are they so used to a supine membership that they just assumed it would do whatever the leadership had decided was good for the party? Had the membership not been told that some focus group somewhere, had expressed some reservations about an independent Scotland coming out of NATO, thereby leaving us wide open to attack from - well London perhaps, as the rUK debated whether or not to bomb our airports just in case some terrorist group somewhere decided to do it first. Did the focus group actually name a potential enemy, just waiting for our membership of NATO to end, so that they could strike? We have to assume that the First Minster and his defence spokesman at least, have identified the potential enemy and will announce who they are to the world and its dug, at SNP Annual Conference in Perth this month.
A number of party members have let it be known that their membership is at stake if the leadership gets its way and membership of NATO becomes party policy for the first time in almost four decades. Despite assurances to the contrary, they see membership of NATO as the first step in accepting Trident or its successor on the Clyde. If that was not enough for the leadership to contend with, legislation on same sex marriage was quickly added to the mix of potential "deal-breakers" for party members. The Chairman of Gordon Wilson's old constituency Dundee East, has already very publicly, tendered her resignation after 47 years of unbroken party membership and more will follow. Again, someone who could accept the signing away of Scottish sovereignty, could not accept same sex marriage. She still intends to vote "Yes" in the independence referendum but her SNP membership is ended. Several letter writers to a number of national newspapers, have made it clear they may not be far behind.
Alex Salmond and the SNP have taken both plaudits and abuse in almost equal measure because it is not just the Catholic Church which is opposed to same sex marriage, although that church has been the most vocal critic. For whatever reason and despite their well-known opposition, the Islamic community, the Chruch of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland have not been prepared to put their collective heads above the parapet to the same extent as the Catholic Church. Perhaps even more than the issue of NATO, same sex marriage could prove to be the stick that broke the Independence camel's back. Tom French of Equality Network said, "It is increasingly clear that the Church has an anti-gay agenda that it wants to impose on the rest of society." The Catholic Church's opposition to homosexuality is not new, it has been made very openly for generations, as has the opposition of the other churches. What the Church fears is that the views of Mr French will be imposed on the Church, despite assurances to the contrary. We are reminded by Mr French et al, that we live in a democracy, but it would seem that it does not apply to the Catholic Church, which under the principles of democratic government, has every right to state its views and even campaign to have them implemented.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government has stated, "We intend to proceed with plans to allow same sex marriage and religious ceremonies for civil partnerships because we believe it is the right thing to do". The spokesman continued, "We are equally committed to protecting religious freedom and freedom of expression and ensuring that religious celebrants opposed to same sex marriage do not have to solemnise same sex ceremonies". Are those words totally meaningless or is the assurance given in the sure and certain knowledge that once the law is passed, the Churches will be obliged to adhere to it? If that is the case, Salmond has unleashed something for which he will be very sorry. If no Catholic priest is to be compelled to conduct a religious ceremony for two homosexual or lesbian people who want to, in their eyes, have their union blessed and sanctified by their church, what is the point of the legislation? Civil Partnerships enjoy exactly the same rights as partners in a civil marriage, under the 2004 Act of the Westminster Parliament, therefore what is to be gained, in a practical sense, through same sex marriage?
Equality legislation in the USA caused Catholic charities which placed children for adoption, to close their doors in a number of states. In 2010, under the civial marriage laws in the District of Columbia, a Catholic charity in Washington closed down rather than place children with same sex parents. Catholic Care, which serviced Leeds and Middlesbrough, lost its legal battle in April 2011 and othe charities in a similar situation have either closed their doors or broken away from their diocese, rather than flaunt the law. What will the Church(es) do if a same sex couple choose to push the issue - and there is almost bound to be one? The Church, if it adheres to its principles and doctrine, can only refuse. And then what? Will the end result be the withdrawal from the Church, of the right to conduct a marriage ceremony? The Labour Party used to claim that the SNP would close all Catholic schools and I can imagine what the less scrupulous will do with same sex marriage, despite the support currently being given by Labour and other political parties in Scotland.
What possessed Salmond and his advisers to pick two such divisive issues to debate within two years of the far more important referendum on independence? NATO is seen as a vote winner among the waverers for independence, although no more than a handful of the electorate could point to a potential enemy for an independent Scotland or explain who is being deterred by our current membership of NATO. For the sake of allaying some indeterminant fear, among an unidentified body of possible "Yes" voters, the leadership has decided to alienate a sizeable number of the party's membership. If enacting same sex marriage is "the right thing to do" what practical benefits are being bestowed on gays? If the Church is not going to be obliged to marry them, what is the purpose of the legislation?
If the SNP actually beileves the change in legislation is the "right thing to do", do they intend to take that attitude with all legislation? I have tried to get them to change the law on Third Party Duty of Care, where the current legislation allows innocent parents and other third parties to be the victims of miscarriages of justice and suffer severe dislocation in their lives but are denied the right to see their persecutors brought to justice because they are granted a general immunity from prosecution. I was referred to a House of Lords decision of 2005, which stated that "falsely accused, innocent parents are a price worth paying". It would appear therefore "it is the right thing to do" in only some cases. I have no strong views on same sex marriage and feel that when homosexuality became legal, there is no logical case can be made against same sex marriage. A religious objection is somewhat different and logic does not come into it.
The SNP annual conference should be worth attending this year, if for no other reason than the members might be given an explanation why the leadership decided to cut the feet from the party's independence campaign, before it even got started.