Members of the Scottish Parliament and its Executive must have been wishing that they had moved a bit further up the hill and rented Edinburgh Castle as their temporary home rather than the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly Hall. For the past two weeks, they have been under siege. The result of the bus tycoon Brian Souter’s privately funded referendum showed 28 per cent of Scots voters were against the repeal of Clause 28. More than a million – an important headline-grabbing landmark number – stirred themselves to fill in Souter’s ballot paper and send it back to his organisation. With names and addresses taken from an old and defective electoral roll, it was a better result than many had predicted. And it has encouraged Souter and his spin-doctors to carry on the campaign. If and when the Scottish Parliament repeals the clause, thankfully a racing certainty, Souter’s camp is preparing plans that may involve the targeting of pro-repeal MPs and MSPs. Extra-parliamentary campaigns fuelled by cash for posters and perhaps more referenda are promised. It looks very much as though this issue and Souter are not going to go away.
The proposed repeal of Clause 28 attracted not only Mammon in Scotland; God also got involved. Cardinal Winning threw his support behind Souter and, when it was clear that the Scottish Parliament had no intention of acting on the result, His Eminence took an almighty huff. In the Catholic Observer, he branded the parliament an “utter failure” and said that he felt “shamed” by its performance.
Now, as if this holy alliance were not enough of a political problem, the Keep the Clause argument has been loudly repeated by Scotland’s biggest-selling newspaper, the Daily Record. The use of this megaphone doubtless helped to produce the alleged million-strong support. And if the Record continues to support whatever Souter plans for the future, then that future looks bleak.
Although Scottish Conservatives remain a rare bloom, fundamental Scottish conservatism has deep roots. As always with groups who follow a moral agenda based on traditional values, it is very difficult to get at what those traditions might be. What sort of an Arcadian sunlit past are they harking back to? Is it the cosy, unchanging never-never land of small-town Scotland so beloved of J M Barrie, or the one caught in newsprint each week by the Sunday Post cartoon series The Broons? Or is it the morality of Oor Wullie, PC Murdoch, Fat Bob and, appropriately, their friend Soapy Souter? There is a sweet and cloying sentimentality in Scotland sucked on by a creeping conservatism that has more to do with a small nation’s lack of confidence than a wish to preserve the good things of the past. With his lad-o’-pairts-made-good life story, his disdain of expensive suits, the company accounts carried around in a plastic bag and his refusal to live far from his birthplace, Souter seems close to all that comforting, confected nonsense.
The truth is that he is a tough businessman with, as Tom Morton points out in this week’s column, an uncompromising faith: someone who is determined to use his money to achieve political ends. Like a number of American millionaires who pump cash into lobby groups opposed to gun control, gay rights, abortion and the like, Souter will not do the straightforward thing and seek election himself. Instead, he will drag items on to the political agenda and force anxious politicians to take positions on them before they face the electorate. In this way, a morality born out of a particular, personal conviction will be presented for general consideration by the electorate.
It is a terrible position for Scotland and its parliament to be in. Nothing like this level of daftness has gone on in England over Clause 28. No prelate has declared Westminster an utter failure or found himself ashamed of Jack Straw. Like it or not, this unpleasant mess says something unpleasant about Scotland. Instead of using a new institution to build a better and fairer society, long fought for by many of us, we find it tarnished and hijacked by the advocates of a retrograde morality which we are forced to accept is still part of us. It is, frankly, a shaming spectacle.
With the total support of all the MSPs, the Scottish Executive needs to take a principled stand and refuse to engage in any way with what Souter and Winning are doing. No U-turns, no compromises. The Scottish Parliament was elected by the Scottish people, and Souter and Winning were not. Millionaires must not be allowed to buy their way into the democratic process. And if the Executive bends to this pressure, then our democracy is damaged, and others with large chequebooks and large opinions will take note. When Donald Dewar returns fully recovered and revitalised, he needs our full support in taking this problem by the scruff of the neck and shaking it hard. If Souter and Winning are allowed their day in the headlines and then ignored, they will eventually find other things to occupy them. If they aren’t, they won’t.