Most of you won't know Bill Walker from Adam. Until recently, that is. The 69 year old was elected as the SNP MSP for Dunfermline in the 2011 Holyrood election, having sat on Fife Council since 2007. Walker signed John Mason's parliamentary motion on the "Equal Marriage Debate" last week, (incidentally, I notice that Patrick Harvie's amendment has now attracted 37 signatures in the meanwhile) but otherwise had not, to my knowledge, spoken to the press in detail about why he felt moved to do so. In something of a scoop for the local media, the Dunfermline Press published an article on Friday morning entitled, "MSP upset by threats in gay marriage row", which includes some highly inflammatory sentiments from the Fife MSP. Walker has now also been cornered by journalists from the Scotsman and the Herald, seeming desperate at every turn to introduce himself to the Scottish people as a cantankerous and shallow-pated hephalump with all of the mental and political dexterity of quivering invertebrate.
"I'm very upset about it. I feel I've been intimidated and almost threatened. I have been called a bigot and all sorts of names, saying I live in the dark ages. The irony is I got married a few weeks ago. Needless to say it was to a woman! There are things called civil partnerships, which I accept, but I'm really concerned about the use of the term 'gay marriage' because to me it's a contradiction in terms and anything that puts homosexual relationships as any way equal to male-female marriages is just not right."
In another revealing section...
Mr Walker said his membership of the Church of Scotland did not affect his decision about the motion.
"That has nothing to do with it because I regard it as a fundamental moral issue concerned with the definition of what marriage is. I don't think people, whether they are registrars or ministers, should be forced into agreeing to do something they don't morally agree with."
So Walker's position is that marriage is, by definition, to be consecrated between men and women only. This whole approach has its curiosities, which are easily missed by over-familiarity. One of the queer features of the marriage debate, whether here or over the water, is how vehemently definitions are deployed by those hostile to gay marriage. In our times, generally speaking, when we are talking about moral positions, this is classically denoted by the use of an extensive evaluative vocabulary - ought, should, I believe. We take for granted a gulf between is and should. Interestingly, often debates about marriage are couched not in these sorts of evaluative terms at all - but deploy the vocabulary of facts - marriage is X, Y and not Z - as if the concept was an object of knowledge, of which one could gain a true or false apprehension, rather than an evaluative matter exercising normative judgement. With that in mind, Walker's intervention is interesting on two counts.
Given the fairly shambolic and injudicious nature of their elucidation, Walker's attitudes are clearly minimally thought through. However, I believe they have an interest, in part because I suspect a number of Scots share them, to the extent that they are hostile to the idea of gay marriage, but want to exclude divine commands from the political debate. Walker's view is that marriage is by definition, between a man and woman, but God didn't tell him so. A number of religious folk have internalised the relegation of faith to the private sphere, after all. These people may be comprehensively or casually pious, but somehow, they will want to keep religion out of their arguments. While the animating drivers of their opposition may be religiously inspired, we can expect most to scrabble around for alternative, secular-sounding justifications for positions taken. We saw something similar in various religious organisations' responses to Margo MacDonald's abortive End of Life Assistance Bill in the last session of Holyrood. These groups' spokespersons and witnesses all started talking like modernist sociologists, making confident predictions about what Margo's Bill, if passed, would do to the social fabric of Scotland. They did not dwell on passages of the Law in Scripture, but were exceedingly keen to focus on pushing law-like generalisations about how we would all become inured to the predations of death, and take up the casual obliteration of our unloved grannies.
But back to Walker. On this own evidence, the SNP MSP is not invoking any sort of divine authority, any scriptural or theological basis for the proposition that marriage is betwixt women and men only. He doesn't invite us to scrutinise the mind or word of God for the proposition that to talk about gay marriage is to fall into logical incompatibility. So what the devil is he talking about? A quick squint about the world makes clear that Walker certainly isn't making a plausible universal social or historical observation about the definitions of marriage. For example, a number of countries have now enshrined same-sex marriage in their laws, including Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden. Similarly, we are all familiar with contemporary and historical instances of polygamy, which bely the simple definition Walker espouses. While I wouldn't want to put words in his mouth, nor ascribe to him more generous sentiments than actually swell his breast, I'd be surprised if Walker believes that Canadian wives and wives, bound in wedlock by their jurisdiction, aren't really married. As a matter of fact, they are according to Canadian law. Factually then, the proposition that marriage is always betwixt groom and bride is simply false. So how are we to understand his position? Helpfully, the man himself affords an insight into his reasoning here. The Scotsman quote him thus...
"Marriage is an emotional and physical relationship between a man and a woman. Consult, for example, Chambers 20th Century Dictionary. It's as simple as that - nothing to do with "equality". Homosexuals and lesbians may have relationships but it is not marriage. "Same-sex marriage" is a contradiction in terms."
I also took the liberty of looking up the Oxford English's definition of "marriage", which is indeed still dominated by references to husbands and wives...
a. The condition of being a husband or wife; the relation between persons married to each other; matrimony. The term is now sometimes used with reference to long-term relationships between partners of the same sex.
I look forward to the tag Obs - obsolete - being added to this particular definition. Walker's attitude towards his cherished dictionary is ridiculously superstitious. He seems to be holding that the book timelessly enumerates objective knowledge about the "true" character of marriage. Like one of Plato's Forms, we are being invited to believe that the authors of his last-century wordbook had exclusive access to solid, ageless and rationally decreed ideas. We sight-loving Yahoos may traffick in our false conceptions as much as we like, but the wise and knowledgeable philosopher kings of Chambers have spoken. Marriage, man, woman, fact. This is an astonishingly elementary stupidity. Indeed, so stupid, that I wonder if Walker, faced with the question - do you really think the authors of the Chambers Dictionary should exercise supreme definitional authority over contemporary Scottish social policy - could bring himself to answer yes. Perhaps I overestimate the man. Such cavilling definitional games would only persuade the very simple, or the intellectually dishonest, trying desperately not to own up to the true sources of their views about gay marriage. I leave it to your consideration, whether Walker is thick, mendacious - or thick and mendacious. However, one thing we can be sure of. Walker is only the first of a number, who will attempt to use the legerdemain of marriage definitions to try to foil the upcoming move towards equal marriage. In all cases, the critical questions are elementary. Why follow that definition? On whose authority? Often, when we peel back the dictionary bindings, we'll find the text of the Pentateuch, and soon smoke out Jehovah. As to Walker's puir me routine, and the whiff of burning martyr which follows him unwisely from article to article -
"People who have been contacting me from various, I would have to call them gay rights organisations, have sent me emails that have been highly abusive. I regard it as bullying. It's like they are trying to stop free speech."
- in line with his pettifogging account of his opposition to gay marriage, Walker propounds a ludicrous and shallow definition of free speech, seemingly imagining that it amounts to a freedom from being contradicted, especially vehement, radical, indicting and unsentimental criticisms of his views. In a clear breach of Godwin's law, and a clear indication he is a political idiot, Walker's immediate response to his brusque dismissal of a perfectly commonplace epistle on equal marriage, which included an utterly innocuous image of the word "homophobia", struck through with a cross - was to tell the Herald that it resembled “pre-war Nazi-type stuff”. Our politics has developed an unfortunate tendency towards demanding of people like Walker that they disavow sentiments they have expressed, retract, recant. I shan't be doing that. If he believes it, by all means firmly avow it, but he should expect to be questioned and criticised. As the Fool says to frosty-powed Lear, Mr Walker, Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise...