By David Torrance
Something remarkable happened in Scottish politics last night: the five main party leaders managed to get through a two-hour event without anyone shouting "Tory!", demanding the Liberal Democrats apologise for assorted political crimes, or even mentioning a second independence referendum. Instead, speaker after speaker talked about "consensus" and praised each other's remarks. This was devolved Scottish politics as it had been imagined by the Scottish Parliament's founding mothers and fathers in the 1990s, but as it has almost never been in reality over the past 17 years.
The event in question was an election hustings co-hosted by LGBTI rights groups including Stonewall Scotland and the Equality Network, which said something else about how much Scottish politics has changed in the past couple of decades.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson observed that when she was born it was still illegal to be in a consenting gay relationship (the law in Scotland was only changed in 1980); Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale paid tribute to Labour's record on equality issues between 1997-2010, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said her "proudest moment" from the last Scottish Parliament had been the passage of the Equal Marriage Act, and Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie praised the "confidence" of the LGBTI community in promoting (and having achieved) its aims.
Under this veneer of consensus, however, there were some interesting things going on. The First Minister had come armed with five pledges, including a reform of gender recognition law for trans people and those with non-binary identities. But while Ms Sturgeon pledged blanket equalities training for school teaching staff, this fell short of an explicit commitment to inclusive sex and relationship education (SRE) being demanded by some campaigners, including the Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) campaign.
The First Minister praised TIE's "really impressive work" during the hustings and pledged to work with them, but they pointed out in a press release that the SNP spring conference had voted to back inclusive SRE at its spring conference, in a motion put forward by SNP Youth and SNP Students. So there's a real sense among campaigners that the Scottish Government is reticent on this specific issue and "dragging its feet" (as one put it) when it comes to action on education in particular.
The hustings chair, BBC Scotland journalist Lousie White, challenged the First Minister on this point, observing that while the English Education Secretary Nicky Morgan had been quite "visible" on this front, the Scottish Government had not. Sturgeon said that wasn't "a fair criticism" and that "genuinely inclusive" education was about much more than combatting bullying. "Any professional working with children and young people," she added, "should have appropriate training in how to deal with these issues." White tried again, citing a survey that found most Scottish teachers were still not confident addressing LGBTI issues.
It took the Scottish Green Party co-leader Patrick Harvie to identify the elephant in the room. The "unspoken issue in this", he said, was that if everyone was genuinely talking about "all teachers" then they were also "talking about all schools", i.e. Scotland's Roman Catholic state schools. Unless that point (teachers at Catholic schools have to be vetted by a priest before they're given a job) could be addressed openly, he added, then there would at best be "patchy results" when it came to training.
Revealingly, the First Minister was rather bland in response, simply repeating that "it should become something that teachers are expected to do", while ducking Harvie's point about Catholic schools. But it seems likely he was on to something in this respect, for the SNP's relationship with the Catholic Church in Scotland is a complicated one. Historically, Catholic voters in Scotland supported Labour and shunned the Nationalists, now a majority support the SNP and independence.
Nicola Sturgeon is an 'instinctively cautious' politician
Now few, certainly not those gathered at the Royal College of Surgeons last night, doubt Nicola Sturgeon’s personal commitment to equality issues, but nevertheless there's still likely to be tension between her undeniable sincerity and her party's need to sustain a broad electoral coalition. Her predecessor Alex Salmond also dragged his feet on the equal marriage issue, which is why the then Conservative-led UK Coalition government got it on the statute book first. Indeed, Salmond had a particularly close (political) relationship with two Scottish cardinals and many observers felt that inevitably influenced his government's stance on certain equality issues.
Of course Sturgeon is not Salmond, but whatever the strength of her personal views on these issues she's also an instinctively cautious politician and does not go out of her way to upset sections of the electorate, particularly those that have been hard won from Scottish Labour over the past two decades. Passing equal marriage was one thing (public opinion had shifted significantly, although the Catholic Church in Scotland appeared not to have noticed), but education is an altogether more sensitive area: last night Willie Rennie referred to those "dark days" when the first Scottish Executive's decision to repeal Section 2a on the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools sparked considerable controversy.
"We have to have courage" remarked the First Minister at one point, reflecting that when equal marriage was passed, some more conservative Nationalists warned that it would lose them the independence referendum and also the next Holyrood election, which of course judging by current opinion polling looks absurd. Some at the event, meanwhile, clearly did not like seeing Nicola Sturgeon challenged on her party's record in government – "irrelevant!" shouted one lady in the audience.
But a party's record in government, particularly one now coming up for its first decade, is highly relevant, even if it's by and large a good one (as is also true of Labour, the Lib Dems and even the Tories in recent years). About halfway through the hustings a protestor tried to disrupt proceedings by yelling from the stairwell, prompting Ruth Davidson to reflect once again on how much things have progressed. "He's a person out in the cold shouting into the wind," she said, "and it used to be the other way round."
David Torrance is Alex Salmond's biographer and the author of The Battle for Britain, an insider's account of the fight for Scottish independence. You can purchase the book here. Follow him on Twitter.
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