A Modern Scotland of Love, Empathy and Equality

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, December 3rd 2011

Some things seem to be faultlines and triggers to certain parts of Scottish society; the relationship between Labour and SNP, ‘the Old Firm’, and homosexuality and gay rights.

The composition of such a list tells a lot about a society – how it comes to terms with difference, treats minorities, and deals with its own traditions and history.

On first examination the SNP Government seem to have walked into a cultural war. The Kirk, Catholic Church and Muslim organisations are up in arms about same-sex marriage. Where is Brian Souter or a Scottish Rev. Ian Paisley when you need them? ‘Save Scotland from Sodomy’ anyone?

At the same time Scottish public opinion has transformed from the bad old world of ten years ago, and the Section 28/Clause 2a battle.

We are faced with two contrasting visions of Scotland. The first is liberal, cosmopolitan, mostly urban Scotland which believes in equality and sees this as part of the journey of Scotland becoming a modern, mainstream European nation.

The second is ‘Sunday Post’, mostly faith based, conservative Scotland which believes marriage should be between men and women and bringing children up, and in parts has a problem about homosexuality (but is mostly smart enough to not say this out loud).

These two Scotlands barely understand each other or seem to be able to find a common discourse. The latter are dogmatic, intolerant and think no one understands them. But the former have to understand that equality entails a mix of courage, debate and taking people with you.

We have come a long way. Once homosexuality was not a subject for polite conversation in public, between friends, or in politics or media.

The Wolfenden Committee on Prostitution and Homosexual Offences reported in 1957 recommending decriminalisation of male homosexual acts ‘in private’. Most of the Scottish evidence was against, while one of the commissioners, James Adair, former Procurator-Fiscal of Glasgow, added a length missive to the main report disagreeing with its recommendations. A ‘Daily Record’ poll found 84% of Scots against decriminalisation versus 51% across the UK.

Politics avoided the subject. An exception was Jean Mann, Labour MP for Coatbridge and Airdrie until 1959, who in her autobiography, ‘Woman in Parliament’ published in 1962, spent most of a chapter on the Wolfenden debate. She saw reform as a call to ‘open the streets to homosexuals, and permit them to solicit and procure in complete freedom from fear of punishment’.

Mann was writing just after the trial of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, and she compared the idea of discussing homosexuality in a Labour local meeting to ‘reading out loud from ‘Lady C’’, and that the only invitations she ever received to talk on the subject were from ‘university clubs in England’.

All of the mainstream Scottish parties have had their conservatives. Gordon Wilson and the late Donald Stewart gave voice to the SNP tradition of putting up the net curtains and being repressed about most things bodily and personal. The heroes and those who have fearlessly stood for equality is a small list: Robin Cook, David Steel and Wendy Alexander.

The silence has been deafening across Scottish society. Where are the lesbians and gays in Scotland’s history? There is a complete avoidance of the subject in Tom Devine, T.C. Smout, Chris Harvie and Ewan Cameron. Only Catriona Macdonald’s ‘Whaur Extremes Meet’ mentions Wolfenden.

There is only one book on the subject of lesbian and gay Scotland: Bob Cant’s ‘Footsteps and Witnesses’, first published in 1993 and recently republished by Word Power Books.

There are few Scottish lesbians and gays in public life. The exceptions prove the rule: the late Edwin Morgan, the comedian Craig Hill, and the two most recent Labour leaders of Glasgow, Stephen Purcell and Gordon Matheson.

The language of public life does much to define us just as the other faultlines and their tensions and fissures reveal much about us. The cause of equality and justice in Scotland has been apologetic and defensive for too long. It has been too willing to believe that ‘Sunday Post’ land speaks for a deep, dark voice coming out to condemn and punish us.

The power of that condemnatory Scotland is one most of us over a certain age know only too well because we grew up with it all around us. People in authority, passers-by and middle aged strangers going around in life feeling it was their right to judge, condemn and tell others off, usually for no reason. This was the land where the power of ‘the Scottish tut’ carried all before it, and it is slowly and thankfully dying.

Many of us still don’t quite believe that the modern, pluralist, diverse Scotland we live in really exists. Some think it is as fragile as a Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen MDF creation, a house of cards which will blow down the moment the latest homophobe whips up a crusade against gays or the latest minority who have stepped out of line.

Those of us who have seen Scotland change have to have the power of our convictions, to talk and practice the language of equality, and to challenge the silences and omissions from our public life and histories. Why do our historians think it is still acceptable to omit the life histories of hundreds of thousands of lesbians and gays from their accounts? Would we not be the richer for knowing about the persecutions, struggles and triumphs of past generations?

In relatively recent times, the struggle of gay Scotland between the Sexual Offences Act 1967 for England and Wales and Scots decriminalisation in 1980 has yet to be written. Wouldn’t that make a fascinating history, or BBC Radio Scotland documentary? And we are still waiting a detailed account of the Section 28 moment.

The vocabulary of the moral conservatives, talking of marriage as ‘tainted’ and their ‘revulsion’ is not only over the top, it is starkly revealing. We, the majority, need to take it on, but in so doing we have to find a more confident language.

Why cant we in 21st century Scotland articulate a language of love, commitment and empathy? Putting the celebration of Scottish families and relationships with and without children of different types, shapes and arrangements, as long as they are about love and empathy, centrestage. Some say this may damage the cause of independence, but something more fundamental is on offer: the coming of age of modern, diverse, tolerant Scotland.