14 August 2011

Bill Walker: political Idiot...

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...


  1. Hi there,

    I despair. For God's sake even the Tories have given up "gay bashing" as a bad job and counter-productive in attempting to detoxify their image. Why are we allowing such people to take us in the opposite direction.

    Is it something about the name "Bill Walker"? I seem to remember another Bill Walker, Scottish Tory, who was also of a similar mind to this one.

    Mr Walker, if you cannot support SNP manifesto statements, either "SHUT UP", as I used to have to do, or resign.


  2. Quoth Bill Walker: "anything that puts homosexual relationships as any way equal to male-female marriages is just not right."

    Nuff said.

    I suppose even the SNP must have a certain percentage of idiots in its ranks. It's just a pity they get through the vetting process and make it as far as being elected.

  3. Oh dear. Unfortunately, I hear similar comments from my parents, who are also religious folks in their twilight years. Mr Walker may try to say his unsavoury views on gay marriage are nothing to do with his religion, but his religion is clearly what has shaped his views on life and his morality. I'm not sure people like this can ever truly be convinced that gay marriage is no more wrong or right than straight marriage.

    At least John Mason was able to give a pretty robust account for the reasoning behind his (badly worded) motion which began this whole stooshie when required to on Newsnight. It doesn't look like Mr Walker is capable of the same. I think it would be wise of him to heed the words of Rab above.

    I dare say this isn't going to be the sole embarrassment to the SNP over the next 5 years... More's the pity.

  4. Bill Walker has touched on something which is very relevant to the debate on same-sex marriage, what is marriage? If a long term civil partnership affords the same rights to the partners as does marriage what is the difference and why is there such a fuss about it? In Scotland marriage has not always been a religious ceremony and, "irregular marriages", where there was no religious or even official presence at a marriage ceremony conducted before witnesses were legal and only abolished in 1939 when civil marriages in the registrar's office were introduced.

    John Mason's motion is based on his belief that marriage is a religious ceremony and calls for religion to get an opt-out when same-sex marriage is an issue and the strange thing is that many who have attacked John Mason such as Alyn Smith (who is openly gay) are actually in agreement with John Mason's call for religion to get an opt-out. In his article in the Scotsman Alyn Smith said, "Nobody has suggested that if equal marriage is brought forward then (religious) organisations will be forced to perform them." In this he is in total agreement with John Mason. The only difference between Alyn Smith and John Mason is that Alyn Smith believes that the boundary which allows religion to discriminate against same-sex marriages should be placed around religious organisations whereas John Mason believes that the boundary should be extended to also cover religious individuals.

    If same-sex marriage is to be legalised then why should some organisations which perform religious marriages ceremonies rather than civil-marriage ceremonies be allowed to opt-out of performing same-sex marriage. That is the can of worms that this new legislation will have to open and I actually find the statements from those such as Alyn Smith hypocritical because John Mason's position is at least honest and based on the logic of his belief while Alyn Smith offers no reason why he believes that religious organisations should be allowed to discriminate against same-sex marriages. Many gay couples are religious and want a church wedding. John Mason wants to have a religious opt-out in the legislation and so apparently does Alyn Smith and the only difference between the two is only where to place that opt-out boundary.

    As a matter of interest Lallandspeatworrier, what is your opinion on allowing religions to refuse same-sex church weddings? Do you believe like John Mason and Alyn Smith that there should be an opt-out allowed?

  5. Actually it's a shame that he's not bringing religion into it, because then one could point out 1 John 4:8 and 16 against his argument...

  6. There are serious issues with this MSP I think you will find that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The SNP were ill advised to select Walker as a candidate. His use of provocative rhetoric is in my view indicative of a desire to posture and fails to impart any intellectual input into the debate. John Mason is now saddled with this noisy bedfellow who is big on narcissism but kind of depleat on the grey matter

  7. It’s a very old fashioned and male idea of marriage as well. The modern concept of marriage – that it is about two people meeting, falling in love and deciding to share their lives together – would have been seen as a ridiculous romantic ideal not so long ago.

    For women, marriage was primarily about economic security, it was the non-negotiable means to have a home of your own and a family. Even for middle and upper class women that was the deal. You can almost sense Mrs Bennett’s desperation, for example, in Pride and Prejudice - I have to get these girls married off or what is to become of them?

    The economic lot of a spinster was not a happy one – and of course the lot of any woman who had the temerity to love someone, especially if she had a child as a consequence, outwith the bonds of matrimony was even worse.

    It is interesting to me that people who believe in the unchanging nature of marriage seem not to have noticed that, in fact, over the past century women (and men) have changed the nature of marriage out of all recognition.

  8. Doug - the Equality Act gives religious institutions a cast iron guarantee that they will not be subject to legislation based on equality.

    Given that John was on the committee that drew up that bill it is beyond the bounds of possibility that he does not know that. So his motion was, I am afraid, specious. He knows perfectly well that religious bodies could not be forced to perform same sex marriages.

    And the argument that people, outwith a religious setting, should be able to refuse to perform services on religious or moral grounds just doesn't stand up. Should a registrar be allowed to refuse to conduct a ceremony for a mixed race couple because he has a moral objection - or a Protestant/Catholic couple because he does not approve of "mixed marriages"? I think not. So where is the difference? Let us remember that the bible can be used as a justification for all manner of beliefs - it can and has been used to justify everything up to and including slavery.

  9. Perhaps I might remind LPW of his earlier post where he closed with:

    'If we are going to get into these issues, understand one another, and hopefully, convince folk of the virtues of the state affording its citizens equal right to institute their relationships on equal terms, we should dispense with discussion-foreclosing responses which loftily dismiss alternative positions as "ridiculous", and leaving that intolerably brief characterisation as the last, trite word on the topic.'

    Sage words and I wish you'd kept to them here. Walker's position clearly isn't spelled out fully -how many positions are in modern politics?- but the gaps are perfectly capable of being filled in in ways that are rationally respectable, whatever view you may finally take of his conclusions.

    Here's some possibilities:

    1) Natural law. Behind our social institutions stands a universal moral order that those institutions should reflect.

    2) Conservatism. Societies embody traditions which form an organic integrity. Tamper with them and you undermine that society.

    3) Institutional facts. Within our moral vocabulary, there are institutions (such as promising (and perhaps marriage)) which cut across the is/ought gap. When talking about these institutions, we refer to them as institutional facts ('A promise is...') without any commitment to their particular metaphysical status.

    4) Essential contestability. Some moral concepts in our society are essentially contestable: their role is to be disagreed on. When I say:'Honour is...' (or in this case, 'Marriage is...') I am making a move within that language game of essential contestability (rather than just being an idiot).

    Whatever incompleteness there is in Walker's views, the views on the pro-gay marriage side have been expressed in equally thin sloganizing. The fundamental problem strikes me as being that very few have much reflective sense of what the institution of marriage is for. In the absence of such a sense, we are reduced to squabbling over the accidents of the hoopla surrounding the ceremony rather than (far more difficult) questions of why (if) we should encourage heterosexuals to become married, and whether these reasons apply also to homosexuals.

  10. Indy,

    And the argument that people, outwith a religious setting, should be able to refuse to perform services on religious or moral grounds just doesn't stand up.

    Actualy it does. If the Equality Act 2010 gives a legal right to religions to discriminate against same-sex marriage then the principle of discrimination is already established.

    John Mason is not trying to create a new form of discrimination as he's just trying to extend the existing discriminatory boundary which already allows religious organisations to discriminate to also encompass religious individuals.

    If you believe that the discrimination enshrined in the Equality Act 2010 which allows religious organisations to opt-out of the equality law is correct then the only difference between you and John Mason is that you believe that religious organisations are permitted to discriminate and John Mason believes that religious organisations and religious individuals should be allowed to discriminate. The difference is only one of a very small degree.

  11. It isn't really of a small degree. Most marriages in Scotland are actually civil ceremonies. By law, civil ceremonies are not religious - To quote the General register of Scotland "As a civil ceremony is non religious in all aspects, all readings and music must be of a secular nature."

    It would be pretty outrageous if a public servant was to argue that they should be allowed to disrupt what is a specifically secular ceremony because of their individual religious beliefs, don't you think?

    It would be a bit like joining the army and then declaring oneself a conscientious objector. By definition a registrar is concerned with civil, not religious, marriage. The people who are getting married have chosen to have a non-religious service. I am intrigued therefore why a registrar would consider it appropriate to object to a particular marriage but not to all of them. After all everyone who chooses to get hitched in a civil ceremony is choosing to reject God. Why pick on the gays in particular?

  12. Am I correct in thinking that there is no practical difference between mariage and civil parthership?

  13. There are differences between 'marriage' and 'civil partnership'. You can't have one of the latter if you are different sexes, for a start.

    But, the former having been held up as the ideal for so long, some people who aren't currently allowed one get rather upset about it.

    Personally, I think the government should butt out of marriage entirely. You can have a civil ceremony with the same rights and privileges. Or you can get married. The Quakers, an entirely honourable sect, have declared they will hold the ceremony for you (although I don't think they have have the right to conduct a fully religious marriage in Scotland.)

    "I suppose even the SNP must have a certain percentage of idiots in its ranks."

    The hubris is strong in this one ...

  14. Anti-gay prejudice in Scotland has been in retreat for a while as indeed it has throughout the rest of the UK. No one cares - scientists show same sex relationships are not at all uncommon in nature and work very well.


    Recognising such unions in law is only recognising the reality of nature and society

  15. 'No one cares'

    That is self evidently not true.

  16. Anti gay prejudice is in retreat partly because the biologically deterministic arguments have been defeated.
    The zebra finch is not my role model.
    Nor the cuckoo. Nor the coot.

    I'm sure I'm not alone in this outlook.

  17. Surreptitious Evil said...

    So, no practical difference then.

  18. To enlarge on a few points folk have raised...

    Interestingly, I came across this in the SNP's Code of Conduct for party members:

    Every member has a responsibility not to discriminate in his or her conduct on the grounds of race, colour, gender, religious belief or non-belief or sexual orientation".


    An interesting point, though I don't think I simply offered a one word dismissal of Walker's logic. Indeed quite the opposite, I tried to follow its workings. Your summary of alternative cases against gay marriage is very neatly done, though I doubt Walker has the native wit to make much of any of them, nor do I think he would have made one of the cases you mention, if only we'd given him more time to account for his position. That said, I recognise what I take to be your point - Walker's argument is only one amongst other arguments, with sunk premises which it is interesting to tease out and distinguish. Obviously, I'm not suggesting that pulling (or knocking) the stuffing out of Walker the straw man exhaustively rebuts all of the alternative cases which might be formulated for or against allowing same-sex couples to marry. Nothing like it. Finally, just a wee observation. Your last point interests me, partly because I'm not terrifically interested in the institution of marriage myself, whomsoever seeks it.

  19. Well I'm 50 and if I'm honest I have a problem with gay relationships. I know it is my problem, not theirs. It is as a result of my upbringing, and awareness cannot remove those deep feelings. I do try my best, but I am honest enough with myself to know I have a problem.
    Bill is from another generation, just a few years youner than my father.
    I'm sure he has voiced his position and it is a legitimate position. That is the way he feels. What is so wrong with that? If he felt as "comfortable" with the idea as young folk, would we, collectivly have moved on?
    My father had no understanding of gay relationships, I have an open mind but wold like them to "keep it behind closed doors" and my son thinks it is between the people involved, and no big deal. That is progress.
    I'd rather have an honest politician who believes in somethng than a dishonest one who smiles to camera!

  20. @LPW 'Your last point interests me, partly because I'm not terrifically interested in the institution of marriage myself, whomsoever seeks it'

    Frank Furedi made a relevant point on this: 'Paradoxically, in some quarters the idea that marriage for heterosexuals is no big deal coincides with the cultural sacralising of same-sex unions.' (http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/10646/).

    Quite a lot of the pro gay marriage comments falls into the 'It's just an occasion to have a celebration so why shouldn't gays have a right to this as well?' sort of line. If it were just a party, I'd have no problem extending it to gays. But (as I've argued here before) it's better seen as society's attempt to provide along term structure for child rearing.

    My worry is that the forthcoming consultation will ignore any deeper questions about the purpose of marriage and family life in favour of a facile 'what's good for straights is good for gays' approach. But a moment's thought would show that approach is not self-evidently true. And in a time when rioting in England has been widely attributed to problems in family structure, we need to think much more carefully before making radical, top down changes to that structure. Particularly if, as you suggest, those advocating the changes really aren't that interested in what they're trying to change after all.

  21. And in a time when rioting in England has been widely attributed to problems in family structure, we need to think much more carefully before making radical, top down changes to that structure. Particularly if, as you suggest, those advocating the changes really aren't that interested in what they're trying to change after all.

    Interesting point. Not until now had I seen homosexual unions cited as a cause of the "problems in family structure" which may have been a factor in the riots. It appears that a more signficant proportion of the rioters are the product of divorced or never-married parents.

    On this evidence, bans on divorce and extramarital childbearing would be far more effective ways of strengthening familial integrity than one on gay marriage. Would you recommend that such measures are ones about which we should "think carefully"?

  22. Was just about to make the same point myself Colin.

    The attitude that marriage is a Good Thing and the Foundation of Society therefore gay people shouldn't be allowed to get married is something I have never been able to get my head round, perhaps because I am a bit simplistic!

  23. @ Colin ' Not until now had I seen homosexual unions cited as a cause of the "problems in family structure" which may have been a factor in the riots.'

    The problem is not homosexual unions per se, but a possible change in the law that would destroy an understanding of marriage as an institution focused on child rearing.

    On your other suggestions for reinforcing marriage, I'd be happy to consider them. (Although they sound a little impractical.) I'm sure there are many things that could be done to reinforce marriage as a child rearing institution. But to note that many things may be done in the future is not to provide an argument against doing one thing now: not rewriting the law on marriage to allow gay marriage.


    Behind the veil of facetiousness, are you simply suggesting that marriage just isn't a good thing? (In which why are you so exercised about its extension to gays?)

    My claim is not that marriage is simply the Foundation of Society but that it is the Foundation of Child Rearing (and thus has a different function from whatever relationships between gay people that society may recognize). To confuse institutions with different purposes is a recipe for bad social policy and bad law.

  24. I am married but have no children. I am wondering if Asterix would favour adding some sort of compulsory child rearing clause to the marriage vows?

    Some gay couples rear children (either their own or adopted). Should an exception be made to allow those couples to marry while excluding all childless gay couples?

    Should my marriage be annulled?

  25. @ Holbender

    I think a previous answer I gave to Aidan answers most of these points:
    @ Aidan 'so you support same sex marriage when that couple intends to raise children?'

    Personally, no, on the general grounds that Catholics have for not supporting the raising of children by gay couples.

    But putting that aside, I think you would have a strong case here if that was what was being proposed: certainly, I'd expect to see encouragement of stability within any child rearing situation and marriage or a civil partnership would a good way of doing this.

    We need to draw a distinction between 1) why a society supports an institution and 2) why individuals enter into that institution. (Thus a society establishes libraries to (roughly) encourage reading, even if I happen to use them as a convenient meeting place for friends.) The main vehicle (and I would claim the best vehicle) for rearing children is the heterosexual couple. (And in fact it is, absent science fiction possibilities, going to remain the predominant form of childrearing in the future.) Society has an interest in encouraging that couple to behave in certain ways: particularly staying together for life, both to raise and educate the children and as an act of justice towards the partner who has made economic sacrifices (usually the woman).

    So society does have an interest in promoting traditional heterosexual marriage. Does it have a similar interest in promoting lifelong, faithful homosexual marriage? Perhaps -as I've noted above, there is some argument to be made here. (But note that I've yet to hear this being offered as a prime motivation for changing the law.) But it is certainly a less pressing interest than encouraging heterosexual fidelity a) simply in terms of the numbers involved and b) in terms of the comparative ease with which heterosexuals find themselves pregnant. (A whim or a couple glasses of whisky have proved enough in my past.)


    On your own specific situation, you don't mention whether you have intentionally not had children or whether this is an unfortunate accident. If the latter, you have my sympathy. If the former, well, as I say above, how individuals chose to use or abuse an institution is a separate matter from the reasons society has for setting it up. Certainly, I'd have no objection in the consultation to discussing the introduction into Scots Law of nullity based on the intention not to have children (which would already be grounds for nullity in Catholic canon law). But it's not a central issue: as I've said, a few glasses of whisky and you may change your mind.

  26. Asterix I have no strong feelings about marriage myself. However evidence suggests that a conservative appoach to marriage is no guarantee that children will be either happy or healthy. Other factors are clearly more important - economic wellbeing, a stable and peaceful society, a well funded public eductation and health service etc. To make another facetious the Taliban are pretty keen on marriage and against gay relationships but I don't think anyone would argue that they have cracked the whole child rearing thing, would you?

    More seriously if we look at it in a European context the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands stand out in terms of having almost eradicated child poverty and are also measured highly in terms of child wellbeing. Yet there are many children born to unmarried parents and they are also very liberal in terms of same sex relationships. That suggests that, where government has an influence, it would be best to focus on policies which specifically benefit children, rather than concentrating on promoting one particular form of family structure.

  27. Anon - re 'No one cares'. I should have said I was quoting Salmond's rsponse to someone who told him he was gay.

    I agree with Eck - it has ceased to matter at all any more. I know people who are bigoted in all sorts of ways yet have no problem with gay unions in their family circles.

  28. @Indy Very sympathetic to your idea that we could learn a lot from Scandinavian examples on child rearing. But that is precisely my point. There is a huge and important debate to be had on the nature of the family, on how children are reared, and the place of marriage in that mix. But instead of doing that, I suspect that any consultation on rewriting marriage law will focus entirely on a mistaken equation of respect for homosexuals and their conscientious choices (which I would support) with remaking marriage into something that will benefit neither gay nor straight.

    @Edwin I agree. Sexual behaviour is (in general) a private matter. But in the case of gay marriage, we are not talking about private behaviour, but about social institutions, their purposes, and what best serves the common good. The issues of what one thinks about homosexuals and what one think about gay marriage shouldn't be confused.

  29. As a gay person and a practicing catholic I live with my church's view on gay relationships. I entirely support same sex civil marriage but would find it completely ridiculous to go through a catholic marriage ceremony which the church had been forced into by law but not by faith. John Mason knows this is a position which most people would support. He is attempting to link the church position to a religious individual to strengthen his arguement but there is no comparison. Anyone taking a job as a civil registrar will have to abide by the law, full stop. They should not have a problem with this as faith is not part of a civil ceremony. To make a distinction between civil partnership and civil marriage is nonsense.

  30. @ Anonymous

    1) 'Anyone taking a job as a civil registrar will have to abide by the law, full stop. They should not have a problem with this as faith is not part of a civil ceremony.'

    As I've suggested before, I find this sort of apparent delight in forcing conscience odd. In World War Two, people like Robin Jenkins were allowed to follow their consciences and take non military service even though most people (rightly I believe) would have regarded their behaviour as contrary to their duty as citizens and human beings. Why in such a time of genuine national emergency did society fifty years ago manage to find the moral courage to accept and encourage conscience whilst, in a far more trivial circumstance, we seem to delight in compulsion today?

    2) 'To make a distinction between civil partnership and civil marriage is nonsense'

    I'm not sure if this is a general observation or one about the stance of a registrar in agreeing to perform one and not the other. If the former, there is clearly a distinction to be made in that one is the union of a gay couple and one is the union of a man and a woman. So the question is: should such a distinction exist? I have provided reasons for thinking it should. You have simply repeated an assertion that it should not.

    If the latter, I'd simply make the point that conscientious objection can look strange and even wicked to another person. But it is the mark of a genuinely liberal society to encourage autonomous, reflective citizens, and the price of that may sometimes be incomprehension at others' actions. Nobody here need suffer or even be inconvenienced by the act of conscientious objection (say, in the case of a registrar). To delight in compulsion in this sort of case displays an oddly authoritarian mind set.

  31. Asterix - most people in WW2 were conscripted. They didn't volunteer to join the army! But do you not agree it would be silly to join the army by choice and then say sorry I have a conscientious objection to military service? Because that would be a better parallell with registrars refusing to carry out civil ceremonies on religious grounds.

    Civil ceremonies are by definition non-religious. If you have volunteered to do a job in which any expression of religion is legally banned how on earth can you then make a religious objection to doing it? That just does not make sense.

  32. @ Indy

    1) You are assuming that, in the eyes of a celebrant, a civil ceremony is 'non-religious'. Now it's non-religious in the sense that it does not have church formalities; but it may well be that, in the eyes of a celebrant, it has moral and religious standing. For example, a marriage contracted by two non-baptized people in front of a registrar would be (other things being equal) a legitimate marriage in the eyes of the Catholic Church according to natural law. (It would not be a sacramental marriage, but that is a different matter.) I've no doubt detailed views on this would differ amongst Protestants, but equally I have no doubt that many would recognize a civil marriage as a marriage proper.

    2) Now I've no doubt that you wouldn't accept such a view of a civil wedding as having religious status, but that is the essence of conscientious objection: that the person objecting has a different view of the matter from the majority (assuming that your view does indeed represent the majority here).

    3) You suggest that a better analogy than I gave would be the person who volunteers to serve and then refuses to. Firstly, existing registrars did not volunteer to celebrate gay weddings. Secondly, whilst you are right to draw a distinction between the case of military service I mentioned and the case of a registrar who (in the future) took on a job and then refused to carry out one of the duties of the job, there is an analogy in that, in both cases there is a duty that is not performed: in one case, a duty of service to your country; in the other case, a duty of employment. (The difference lies, not in the existence of duties, but in how those duties arose: in the one case by mere citizenship, in the other case by consent.) Now my point is this: given the assumption (which you might question) that a state has an interest in creating reflective, rationally autonomous individuals, why in the case of one duty (military service) do we allow that duty to be removed by conscientious objection (despite the seriousness of war) whilst in the case of the other duty (the performance of gay weddings) we do (or rather in the future may) not (despite the essentially trivial effects of the refusal)?

    Perhaps more importantly, why should we want to draw up contracts of employment so as to exclude those of orthodox religious belief? We have a choice here: we can allow a Scotland of genuine diversity, where people disagree and are able to live according to their own lights provided they do so peacefully and respectfully of others; or we can impose one particular view and exclude those who disagree with it from the public space.

    Remember that the fear here is that we are not simply talking about the compulsion of civil registrars but about wider compulsion in as yet unforeseen ways. Both John Mason and Bill Walker were seeking to establish the principle of conscientious objection. I still don't understand why their support for such a principle has led to their being ridiculed when earlier ages have embraced conscientious objection in far more serious situations than gay marriage.

  33. I have to say Asterix that anybody as self-obsessed as the imaginary registrar you describe would be much better off in a different job! One which gave them free reign for their judgementalisn. It actually makes me quite angry to think that anybody would consider that their religious beliefs were more important than someone else's big day. That's fine within the context of a church but not in the context of someone who is a public servant.

    Because public service does not allow for judgementalism. No siree. Ask the housing officer who has to accommodate a convicted pedophile or the social worker who has to support a junkie mother to take care of her child, or the nurse who has to treat some drunk cretin who has just stabbed someone in a fight. Don't you think any one of these people would have a much better case for saying I have a moral objection to being of service to this person?

    But if they did that they would be sacked. If they have no option but to deal with every member of the public, even if said members of the public are scum, why would we want to create a special class of conscientious objector on the basis that the people they object to are gay?

  34. @ Indy

    'why would we want to create a special class of conscientious objector on the basis that the people they object to are gay?'

    1) No one is objecting to gay people. Some object to gay marriage.

    2) We would want to create such a special class because we want a Scotland where people are encouraged to think seriously and autonomously about moral issues rather than following the latest fashions, and where, in particular, the moral integrity and insights of groups such as Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, socially conservative atheists etc. are allowed to flourish in the public space.

  35. You have not really addressed my point. Let's take the example of a housing officer who is tasked with providing safe and appropriate accommodation for a pedophile who has just been released from prison. Let's say this housing officer has a serious moral objection to pedophiles - a safe assumption I would suggest. Let's further imagine that the housing officer has a child of the same age and sex as the child that the pedophile was convicted of abusing.

    Do any of those circumstances mean that the housing officer can say no, sorry, I do not want to help this person find a house and access the benefits and support they are entitled to. I don't think he or she should ever have been released from prison. And when I became a housing officer I did not think that I would be forced to find accommodation for pedophiles.

    No it does not. Because that is not how public service works. Maybe you think it should but, factually, that is not how public service works and everybody who works in public service knows that

    So, once again, what is so special about objecting to same sex marriage that warrants a completely different set of rules being applied to public servants who have a moral objection to it?

  36. @Indy

    I think you're going round in circles again, but I'll try and put this to rest once more.

    1) The background to this discussion is the claim that Bill Walker, John Mason etc have acted in some way unfairly (I believe your words were 'dishonestly') by advocating conscientious objection in the case of gay marriage. My main point is that, whatever one thinks of the substance of their case -ie whether or not there should be conscientious objection allowed in this area- the raising of the issue is a perfectly reasonable step in a continuing public argument. (Given your own clear desire to force the conscience of public servants, you can hardly object that Mason's motion addresses a chimerical issue.)

    2) I turn then to the substance of the suggestion that conscientious objection should be allowed. Now the background to this is the general fear that (eg) religious groups and individuals might be compelled to act in ways that violate their moral beliefs. In advance of the consultation and its conclusions, what ways this compulsion might be realized are, of necessity, speculative. Mason as I understand him was simply trying to establish the principle: that not compelling consciences in this area is a worthwhile aim. (I have previously argued for this principle in earlier comments.)

    3) In the absence of the results of the consultation, we seem -almost accidentally- to have settled on the case of civil registrars and whether or not they should be allowed to opt out of gay marriage celebrations. Very well. Now we know that there are some cases where conscientious objection is allowed in public service (eg abortion and doctors); and some cases where it is not (eg the housing officer example you gave). So the question is not whether conscientious objection in the case of registrars is possible -it clearly is- but whether it should be allowed. My argument that it should be allowed is the same as that for the general principle of conscientious objection (esp. the social benefit of rational autonomy) plus the absence of any serious social harm in this particular case of registrars. You need to either to attack the principle of conscientious objection in general or in this particular case (eg on the ground that allowing it would make the operation of civil marriage unworkable -an implausible factual claim). Simply pointing out that there are other cases -such as the housing officer example- where conscientious objection isn't allowed (and shouldn't be allowed) is not enough. Given the principle of conscientious action -that consciences should not be forced unless necessary- the burden is on you to explain why this principle should be overridden in this particular case.

    In the end, I suspect this boils down to a clash of values between us in this area. I put more value on the promotion of social diversity and freedom of conscience; you put rather more on the state's ability to control behaviour (ie I think it's the general principle of not forcing consciences unless necessary that you should be attacking).

  37. Can anyone think of any culture in any part of the world at any time pre-1990 which allowed two people of the same sex to get "married" and be legally recognised as such?

    Were they all 'homophobic' or is there a very good reason for not promoting hedonistic, barren lifestyles for the good of the tribe?