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Vote-hungry SNP can't afford to lose gay marriage debate

The First Minister is in a dither about it, the Cabinet is split over it and church figures call for a referendum as gay rights activists take to the streets.

No, not Tuesday's aborted Cabinet decision on same-sex marriage, but the Labour-Liberal Democrat Cabinet in 2000 during the row over the abolition of Section 2A on the teaching of homosexuality in schools. It is remarkable that the first real split faced by the SNP First Minister, Alex Salmond, is over homosexual equality, just as it was for the late Donald Dewar.

I recall that episode very well, not least because I was close, perhaps too close, to the ministers, led by the former Communities Minister, Wendy Alexander, who were leading the campaign to abolish Section 2A. The ferocity of the response took them by surprise. They thought Scotland was a tolerant nation and that abolishing the clause would be a foregone conclusion. Then came Brian Souter, Cardinal Winning and Keep the Clause. Donald Dewar, a conservative liberal, if that isn't a contradiction in terms, found it an almost impossible conundrum.

And so, it appears, does Mr Salmond. Roll on 12 years and the SNP First Minister is caught between liberals in the Cabinet led by the Health Secretary, Nicola Sturgeon, who believe that homosexuals should have equal rights, and Catholic ministers such as Roseanna Cunningham, who think gay marriage might be an equality too far. Mr Salmond clearly hasn't made up his mind and since nothing happens without his say so, the Government seems paralysed.

But like all attempts to fudge difficult moral issues, same-sex marriage has become ever more volatile during the months of prevarication and delay. The first attempt to defuse it, by holding a consultation, backfired since the 80,000-odd responses are understood to be largely hostile to gay marriage. And that is three times the number who responded to the consultation on the independence referendum.

The result is perhaps not surprising since the churches have a powerful network of congregations that can be mobilised to respond to consultations en masse. The majority of Scots, according to opinion polls, support gay marriage or equal marriage as activists call it, but it doesn't look good when governments ignore their own public consultations.

Unable to come to a decision this week, the Cabinet has resorted to that other delaying device – setting up a committee. Some equality advocates are saying that Mr Salmond has already made his decision in favour of same-sex marriage and that the sub- committee, under Ms Sturgeon, is just for show – designed to generate angry headlines from the gay rights groups so the Cardinal doesn't think Mr Salmond is in their pocket. I'm not so sure.

The problem is that the antis are insisting any bill introducing gay marriage in Scotland should guarantee that no churchman will be taken to court under the Equality Act or the European Convention on Human Rights for refusing to conduct a gay marriage in his place of worship. It is very difficult to give absolute guarantees on human rights issues. Can any politician guarantee that the church could never be taken to court over refusing to allow women to become priests? It hasn't been, though it is clearly contrary to the spirit of the Equality Act 2010.

Pro-marriage campaigners claim that in Canada, which legalised same-sex marriage in 2005, church members are being prosecuted for refusing to conduct these unions. That's true: in Saskatchewan, a state-appointed marriage commissioner was taken to court for refusing gay marriage. But that's because marriage commissioners are Government employees. In Canada, religious ministers are not at risk of being compelled to perform same-sex ceremonies.

So in theory it should simply be a matter of placing on the face of the bill to legalise same-sex marriage in Scotland (remember it is illegal at present) a provision exempting members of religious orders from any obligation to conduct them. This is what the 2010 Equality Act does, in effect, by making clear that ministers, priests, monks and nuns are exempt from equality in employment rights. But church leaders such as Cardinal Keith O'Brien are unlikely to be satisfied with any drafting formula, however ingenious. For them, it is not really about law but the threat, as they see it, that gay marriage presents to the heterosexual status quo. He believes Christian civilisation would collapse if same-sex marriage was legalised. This is an extreme view, but one that seems to be shared by many people, as the consultation confirmed.

I doubt if another committee is going to get Mr Salmond off the hook. I'm sure he is minded to support equal marriage, as he confirmed yesterday. But he doesn't want to lose all those Catholic votes he has so assiduously courted over the years. The referendum on independence needs every vote it can get. I suspect the FM would willingly postpone the decision until after the 2014 referendum if the thought he would get away with it. (Maybe he could even have a new second question instead of devo max?) But any more jiggery pokery over equal marriage would open a real fissure in his party. MEPs such as Alyn Smith and MSPs including Jim Eadie have made clear that they're going to hold the leadership to account. This is more serious than the U-turn on Nato membership.

And in the end, the First Minister has to provide leadership, because no-one else can. It is unfortunate the FM didn't earlier emulate the PM, David Cameron, who famously said: "I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative." You have to nail your colours to the mast or others will do it for you.

Returning to 2000 and Keep the Clause – it went ahead with its referendum and the Scottish Executive remained in disarray. Then something extraordinary happened. Tony Blair came north to the Labour conference that year and gave a speech insisting no-one was going to force feed children homosexual propaganda and that no teacher would be required to promote homosexuality in the classroom. And miraculously, as if by divine intervention, the issue went away.

Maybe Mr Salmond should get on the blower to Mr Blair, now he's back in the politics business, and invite him north to do a bit of conflict resolution. It's only a suggestion.

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